Making sense of the Dion Waiters trade, for everyone involved

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What a weird night. Dion Waiters began Monday evening listed in the starting lineup in his hometown of Philadelphia, and ended it as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder. J.R. Smith is now on the Cavaliers. The Knicks actually won a trade, which is the most improbable part of all. It’s still hard to believe last night’s three-team deal actually happened, but it actually makes a lot of sense for everyone involved—although it’s not without its risks.

For the Knicks, there’s no real downside. Phil Jackson wanted J.R. Smith gone for cultural reasons, and he was able to find a taker without taking back any guaranteed money. Losing Iman Shumpert isn’t ideal, but it was basically clear at this point that he wasn’t interested in re-signing with the Knicks this summer, and the Knicks weren’t really set on bringing him back. He’s the best player involved in this trade, but if the decision had already been made that he wasn’t a part of their future, giving him up is a small price to pay to unload Smith. The Knicks took back a bunch of minor contracts and a 2019 second-round pick (it’s still weird anytime the Knicks get a pick in a trade) and added $7 million to their cap space this upcoming summer, which will be approaching $30 million once Amar’e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani come off the books. This season was a lost cause anyway, and they should end up with a top-five lottery pick to help rebuild alongside all their cap room and a hopefully rejuvenated Carmelo Anthony. The Zen Master did well here.

For the Cavs, this deal hinges on Smith. Shumpert is a terrific get, instantly becoming the best perimeter defender on the team (since LeBron James has taken several steps back on that end over the last couple years). But if James and David Blatt couldn’t stand Waiters, they basically brought in an older, more set-in-his-ways version of the same player in Smith. For all his faults, Waiters is at least only 23 and, theoretically, can be molded into a more team-oriented player. The 29-year-old Smith is what he is as a player and a personality. Maybe he’ll be motivated being on a good team after a season-plus on a Knicks team that was a disaster on every level, on and off the court. Maybe James will be able to get through to him and make him more of a team player.

This is all possible. But as a player, Smith is similar to Waiters, and if he’s not getting the minutes and touches he wants (which he shouldn’t on a team with LeBron, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love), he might be disgruntled, which wouldn’t be great for the locker room. If the Cavs are planning to buy him out (unlikely) or flip him at the deadline (maybe, if they can find a taker), this trade is a huge win for them. If they’re keeping him, it becomes more high-risk/high-reward. This team still needs a real rim protector, and this trade doesn’t immediately put them on the level of the Chicago/Toronto/Atlanta/Washington tier of contenders in the Eastern Conference. But things couldn’t get much worse than they were already, and it’s worth the gamble to see if getting Waiters out helps.

The most intriguing part of the deal is Waiters’ fit in Oklahoma City. In Sam Presti’s mind, Waiters is a replacement for James Harden—the Thunder have lacked that instant scorer off the bench since trading the former Sixth Man of the Year, who has turned into a superstar and MVP candidate in Houston. They needed depth, and they got it without giving that much up. Reggie Jackson was initially reported as being involved in the deal, and giving him up would have been a disaster. The most Presti gave up was a protected first-round pick going to Cleveland, which he wasn’t going to use anyway. So from an asset standpoint, this is fine.

The success of this trade hinges on Waiters’ willingness to buy into the Thunder culture. They have a clearly defined hierarchy of talent, with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook at the top, and then Serge Ibaka, and then everyone else. If Waiters knows his place, it could be a great fit. He was demanding the ball on a team with James, Irving and Love, but he’s been on the Cavaliers longer than two of those players have; this Thunder core, on the other hand, has been to the Finals together, with this coach, and if Waiters doesn’t buy in, he won’t play. And if he doesn’t play, or it doesn’t fit, that could be a disaster for a famously close-knit locker room. With Durant hitting free agency in two years, and Westbrook and Ibaka in three, bringing in a personality like Waiters is a risk. But a common criticism of Presti since the Harden trade is that he doesn’t swing for the fences to bring in talent, and he certainly did that here. Whether the gamble will pay off remains to be seen.

Either way, it will be impossible to evaluate this trade overnight. The Knicks’ perspective is pretty cut-and-dried—they’ve given up on this season and the trade was a salary dump for them. The Cavs and Thunder brought in risky talents with the chance to either save their seasons or derail them. We will see which it is.