OKC Thunder: Keeping Dion Waiters Shouldn’t Be A Priority

Mar 16, 2015; Dallas, TX, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Dion Waiters (23) during the game against the Dallas Mavericks at American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 16, 2015; Dallas, TX, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Dion Waiters (23) during the game against the Dallas Mavericks at American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports /

Almost every year, big decisions are made concerning the Oklahoma City Thunder franchise right around the start of the season. Such is the case when year after year your roster contains talented players at the end of their rookie deals.

This year, that player is Dion Waiters. The former No. 4 overall pick of the 2012 NBA Draft was acquired by the Thunder back on Jan. 5 as part of a three-way trade with the Cleveland Cavaliers and New York Knicks.

A close look at the numbers reveals that Waiters played some of the worst basketball of his career in OKC last season, although there is an optimism that has surrounded his change of scenery. He felt unwanted in Cleveland because, quite frankly, he was. In Oklahoma City, Waiters has been allowed to be himself and not worry. In theory, a good thing, but when being yourself means stepback 20-footers, not always good.

By all accounts, Waiters is happy being in OKC. He told The Oklahoma last week that he just wants to do what’s best for the team, even if that means coming off the bench.

Waiters is on a loaded Thunder team. He may not influence more than 1-2 wins or losses through an 82-game regular season. Coming off the bench, he fits the bill of a guy who could come in, get hot, and swing a playoff game. Even Austin Rivers accomplished that multiple times last year. And if a player in that role doesn’t have it going, it usually won’t cost you a win.

So what’s the cost of keeping that guy, Waiters, around? To the amazement of many, the Thunder are reportedly interested in this.

The Thunder have until Nov. 2 to reach an agreement on an extension with Waiters, or else he becomes a restricted free agent next summer. The Thunder would have to then match an offer sheet to keep Waiters around. They matched one last summer to keep Enes Kanter at a pretty high price.

Unless you’re living under a rock, you’ve heard that the salary cap in the NBA is going to skyrocket over the next two years. It makes Kanter’s $70 million deal not look so bad. It means that next summer, lots of teams should be interested in throwing a good amount of money at Waiters, more than the Thunder would be interested in matching. That’s probably why they’re working to make a deal now.

It would take Waiters taking a dramatically low amount of cash, which would be a surprise decision for any 23-year old, for this to make sense for the Thunder.

Kevin Durant will be a free agent next summer, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka the next. It might make sense for Durant to take a short deal next summer so he can opt out the same summer as Westbrook and Ibaka. With those huge contract negotiations coming up, you don’t want money tied to a player like Waiters.

Of course, you are always able to re-sign your players and go over the cap and into the luxury tax, so Waiters won’t hamstring the Thunder from keeping those three directly. But he will essentially lock the Thunder into the core of players they have now. There really won’t be any flexibility left, no chance to add another piece that could help in influencing Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka to stay in OKC. Waiters’ new deal would almost certainly guarantee the Thunder being in the luxury tax in two years. Waiters is not worth that.

Then you look at the rest of the roster. On the perimeter, the Thunder are already committed to so many players that Waiters becomes expendable.

Kyle Singler signed a 5-year deal over the summer, starting shooting guard Andre Roberson is entering his third year in the league, Anthony Morrow is under contract through next season, DJ Augustin is in the last year of his deal, Josh Huestis will be a rookie this year and so will Cameron Payne. That’s six players, maybe seven if Alex Abrines ever comes over, and along with Westbrook and Durant makes 8-9 to occupy three positions on the floor. Sure, Waiters is more talented than a lot of them, but not enough to warrant committing any kind of cash for him.

In a perfect world, Waiters would have more time this season to prove his future worth to the franchise. Especially given the chance to play with a healthy, full roster. That is not a reality. The decision on an extension has to be made basically right when the season starts. That makes giving Waiters an extension a gamble, flat out. That kind of gamble, no matter how small, is something this franchise doesn’t need to risk right now.

The solution, let Waiters play this season for a contract next summer. Maybe “Contract year Dion Waiters” becomes a real thing and he lights the league on fire. If that happens, it shouldn’t be hard to live with the decision that you didn’t lock up the player with a career 12.8 player efficiency rating.

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