The Los Angeles Lakers have a roster spot to fill. After waiving Troy Daniels over the weekend, the team will have until April 15, the last day of the regular season, to sign someone as the final piece of the puzzle before entering the NBA playoffs in search of LeBron James’ fourth championship.
The Lakers have already been active on the buyout market, waiving an injured DeMarcus Cousins to sign Markieff Morris. Now they need a guard. Allen Crabbe and Tyler Johnson could both fit the bill. Anthony Tolliver, a veteran forward with shooting ability, is another possible option. But there are only two names that really matter here.
It’s Dion Waiters vs. J.R. Smith for the Lakers’ final rose. Get the cameras rolling and broadcast this everywhere, because nothing has ever been more perfect.
Both Waiters and Smith are getting a workout from the Lakers this week. Both are cult heroes cut from a similar cloth — unrepentant gunners with equally spectacular highs and lows through the years.
Their careers have intertwined once before, when the Cavaliers traded Waiters to acquire Smith as a part of a three-team deal during the first year of James’ second stint with the team. Smith would go on to become a key rotation piece for a Cleveland team that went to four straight NBA Finals and won one. He also became renown for one of the most absent minded plays in recent league history. Waiters, meanwhile, battled ankle problems in Miami before being hit with multiple team suspensions from the Heat this year, most notably for taking a weed gummy on a flight home.
This is really happening. Let’s break down the tail of the tape for Smith vs. Waiters.
The case for J.R. Smith
Older, wiser, and safer? It’s hard to believe, but this is really where the case for J.R. Smith over Dion Waiters begins.
Smith hasn’t played in an NBA game since Nov. 19, 2018 when he was banished from the Cavaliers. At 35 years old, he would be the oldest player on the Lakers roster if they were to sign him. While no one can be totally sure what kind of condition Smith is in, the player he was for Cleveland could be of some help to the Lakers right now.
The best version of Smith can do two things: hit spot-up threes and score in transition. A great athlete during his youth, Smith still scored in the 86th percentile in transition during his last year as a full-time NBA player in 2017-18 with the Cavs. He also had some big shooting efforts in the playoffs for the Cavs, making 50 percent of his threes across 18 games in the 2017 playoffs. He is a 37-percent career three-point shooter in the both the regular season and playoffs.
Of course, Smith also had an unforgettable brain fart in Game 1 of the 2018 Finals when he chose not to shoot the ball in the final seconds of a tie game:
That play turned into an instant meme that is still in use today, but perhaps it overshadows the fact that Smith really was quite useful for the Cavs during LeBron’s second stint with the team.
Perhaps most importantly, James and Smith have had a strong relationship in the past. As the story goes, the Cavs were wary of acquiring Smith in the trade that sent out Waiters back in 2015. James stepped in to approve taking the risk. He would be responsible for Smith and his behavior. His words were: “Get him here and I’ll take care of it.”
James gave Smith a shout-out on his Instagram last month, too.
LeBron gave a shoutout to J.R. Smith last night on IG pic.twitter.com/Eti1FE5xl1— LeBron Wire (@LeBron_Wire) February 20, 2020
LeBron’s relationship with Smith apparently hasn’t suffered too much after his Finals gaffe. Their friendship might be the biggest point in Smith’s favor.
The case for Dion Waiters
Waiters is younger than Smith and theoretically offers more upside as a scorer. But would the Lakers (and James) really sign off on adding him to what’s been a successful mix so late in the season?
This has been a trying season for Waiters, to put it mildly. After a chronic ankle injury sabotaged most of his last two seasons, Waiters essentially did the job himself this year. He was suspended by the Miami Heat three separates times, with reasons ranging from “Violation of team rules” to “Failure to adhere to team policies” to “Continued insubordination.” Waiters’ biggest crime was taking a weed gummy on a flight home in Nov., which ultimately cost him about $2 million. Sheesh.
Waiters was sent to the Memphis Grizzlies at the trade deadline as part of the package that brought Andre Iguodala to the Heat. The Grizzlies immediately bought him out. If Waiters is in a good place physically and mentally right now, his skill set could be a nice addition to the Lakers.
Waiters is a bucket-getter, through and through. Now 28 years old, Waiters has long been known as a fearless gunner. He’s been a good three-point shooter throughout his career (34.8 percent from deep) and has the ability to get up shots from deep with volume. He also offers some ability to create his offense when he puts the ball on the floor. Though he only played three games for the Heat this year, he did provide the Heat scoring punch against the Clippers and Celtics.
Waiters also offers more upside than Smith defensively, because he’s stronger at the point of attack and knows how to fit into a team defensive scheme. Waiters has lots of connections to the Lakers’ front office, too: GM Rob Pelinka used to represent him as his agent early in his career, and now he’s repped by Rich Paul, James’ agent and close friend at Klutch Sports.
Despite the ties, it remains a question of if the Lakers and James would take a chance on Waiters. There were several viral moments of Waiters calling for the ball and James not giving it to him during their brief time in Cleveland as teammates. Waiters likely hasn’t done himself any favors with how he’s put himself in the news so far this season.
At his best, Waiters is instant offense off the bench and another capable shooter to play next to James. He just hasn’t been at his best for a while. Will the Lakers make a leap of faith that he can get back to it?
The Waiters vs. Smith verdict
The reality is that neither Waiters or Smith is a perfect fit on the court. The Lakers would prefer a playmaker over a scorer to help the offense run when James is on the bench. Unfortunately for them, their top option went off the table when Darren Collison decided to stay retired.
Both Waiters and Smith come with risk. It’s been a while since either was a dependable contributor in the NBA. The Lakers’ margin for error in trying to win a championship since isn’t wide enough for them to chose the most comfortable option over the highest upside option. For that reason, Waiters makes the most sense for Los Angeles.
Waiters is likely to be a better defender than Smith at this point in their careers. While their offense is theoretically similar, it’s important to remember the age difference. Smith’s best years are behind him while Waiters should be in his prime. If the Lakers want to take a gamble on putting together the best possible roster for the playoffs, Waiters simply gives them a higher ceiling.
If the Lakers are having trouble with this decision, may we suggest a one-on-one game up to 21? Just make sure you put it on YouTube for everyone to stream. We’d love to watch it.