LeBron's return to Cleveland brought the NBA spotlight right with him. When the Cavs traded for Kevin Love, that intensity ratcheted up ten fold. The holdovers on the roster didn't choose this. They were thrown into it. Some of them have dealt with this before, to some degree. James Jones won championships in Miami, and Andy Varejao went through the riggers in LeBron’s last tenure. Even Shawn Marion has been in the playoffs nearly every year of his career and won a championship in 2011 with the Mavericks.
The great unknown was whether or not the young guns could handle the intensity. Kyrie Irving was the first overall pick and third musketeer in the Big Three, and has adjusted, for the most part, as well as you would imagine. Tristan Thompson is buddies with LeBron and reportedly had the superstar go to war for him to get a contract extension. Thompson is not one to need his name in the headlines anyway.
That leaves Dion Waiters.
When he was selected fourth overall in 2012, it was a surprise to many, but not Dion himself. He has always seen himself as a starter and that didn’t change when he reached the NBA.
So when he was sent to the bench early in the season and Marion took his spot in the starting lineup, many wondered how Waiters would accept the role. Can the man who has publicly shunned coming off the bench now accept that job just because it is better for this team?
The waters have always been choppy for Waiters, and controversy seems to follow him everywhere he goes. He butted heads with Jim Boeheim in college at Syracuse, and there was a rumored rift between him and Irving last season. Then there was his refusal to appear for the National Anthem, which apparently never actually happened, this year.
He may seem like a magnet for drama to you, but Waiters isn’t stressing over it.
“Some things you just got to laugh off. Unfortunately for me a couple stories came out that just haven’t been true," says Waiters. "There’s nothing you really can do because people are going to think what they want at the end of the day. Some people will believe what they hear or believe what they read but we know the truth over here. So that’s why it doesn’t really bother me.”
What does seem to bother him, and always has, is not getting the ball in his hands. Some would call that a ball hog mentality. I call it a years of programming.
Since these guys were a young age, they are trained to think winners start and the scrubs play the bench. Even at Syracuse, where Waiters played with the second unit, he was never happy. Few are able to accept that role and excel.
It is harder than fans might think to succeed there. I have had more than a few people tell me that Waiters should shut up, win the Sixth-Man of the Year award for the next four years and be happy. I actually tend to agree. But as Waiters explained, it is a stark difference from what he is used to doing.
“I went from having the ball in my hands a lot last year to really not having it," he says. "So when I do get it I just have to be efficient when I do get those opportunities. I’m an aggressive player; I’m always in attack mode but sometimes it's kind of hard when you’re really not in a rhythm.”
The role on the court is not the only thing that has changed for Dion. He is also adjusting to life in the public eye. When your team is winning just 30 games a year no one cares what you do or say. You get your points and win or lose and life moves on. Things are easy that way. Now, however, every little thing Dion does is judged. Every move he makes is magnified because his actions and demeanor could be the difference between going all the way and extending the championship drought. He is feeling that weight.
“The things that come with it is a lot. I mean everything is new, as far as just the whole LeBron, Kev (Love) thing," he says. "Everything about it. It’s a lot. And for guys who have never had to deal with it like me, Ky (Irving), Tristan (Thompson), we were always on the losing side, to be honest. Just this summer it made a huge difference. The big step that we took as far as everything that’s coming towards us so fast — media and everything like that. We know we’re under scrutiny and the spotlight is different. We just have to take advantage of it.”
So far he has not. Waiters is already involved in trade speculation and some feel the team would be better off without him in the locker room. He is averaging 10.8 points per game, which is fourth best on the team, but people still want him gone. At some point, he will have to channel the lessons he learned in the spotlight at Syracuse.
“Knowing when to do things and when not to," he says. "You always have the scope on you so you have to be careful about the things you say and do because people can blow it out of proportion. We’ve been through it already in the first couple weeks.”
Yes, they have been through it because Dion has put them through it. No matter what the truth is behind the National Anthem story, it could have been avoided if he had just come onto the court for it and the player introductions.
Instead he stayed in the locker room. He had to know that people would take that as him sulking because of coach David Blatt's decision to move him to the bench. He had to have known people would ask questions. Even if he was fighting off a bad bean burrito he could have timed it up a little better.
That is all part of the maturity process for Waiters. As long as he doesn’t understand or care why people feel the way they do about him, then they will continue to try and tear him down.
Waiters has deleted Twitter off of his phone because it was his only conduit to the controversies and he would have a hard time not reacting to them.
“That’s how I would find out everything. I'd go on Twitter and id have like 500,000 mentions and be like, ‘Oh here we go!’”
He says at some point he will get back on Twitter, but for now there is too much going on. Good, that’s the way it should be. And by the time he returns, hopefully he realizes that people will criticize what he has to say a lot less if he truly accepts his role and helps this team win.
If he is averaging 12 points per game off the bench and the Cavs look championship bound, people will lay off him. He isn’t a bad guy; he just needs to stop giving people reasons to think he’s a bad guy.
Because if he continues down this path and embraces this bad guy persona any further, he just might get his wish for more touches on the floor. Only those touches wont come in Cleveland competing for a championship; they will be in Sacramento in front of empty arenas. No one will be paying any attention.
Then again, maybe that’s the way Dion wants it.