OKLAHOMA CITY -- Standing one big step to the right, almost all the way to the elbow, Dion Waiters was taking one free throw after another.
After wrapping his post-practice media availability, Billy Donovan walked by Waiters, joking with him about his new, unconventional free throw shooting adjustment. Donovan took a jab step in and a big leap back, mimicking Waiters' patented step-back jumper, as if to joke, "Why don't you just shoot 'em this way?" Because really though, why not, right?
Waiters has been shooting his free throws off to the right because, he says, after watching tape over the summer noticed a trend he missed most on the left of the rim. So, like an amateur golf hack, instead of correcting the slice, he's just decided to play it.
“My shooting coach, we had to get this thing figured out," Waiters said. "We watched old film and all my shots would always go to the left. So I said, ‘Damn, since all my shots are going to the left, I might as well take a step over to the right.’"
Waiters started the preseason hitting 7-of-8 from the line, but after a 1-of-4 performance Tuesday against the Mavericks, his adjustment looked a bit like a Band-Aid on a larger-scale problem. Which in some ways kind of symbolizes the 23-year-old's career to date. A clearly talented guard with unique skill, but one who has been stuck in a rut of one step forward and two back.
The fourth overall pick in 2012 by the Cavaliers, Waiters never found footing in Cleveland, whether because of constant uncertainty and turnover, or because of reportedly clashing with teammates (namely Kyrie Irving). He was traded in January to Oklahoma City in essentially a roster dump, and seemed to find new life playing alongside Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. Instead, he played only 15 games with Durant and never was able to settle into the role he was acquired to play.
Then the Thunder fired Scott Brooks and hired Donovan, giving Waiters his fifth coach in four years.
"Sometimes it's tough," Waiters said. "But Billy's a guy you can go to, talk to about anything. That makes it easy, the transition. But my job is to come in here, do what I have to do. Especially for the team. Whatever it takes. That's what it's about this year with me, going out there, playing my game and having fun doing it."
Waiters is set to be a restricted free agent next summer, unless he and the Thunder come to an agreement on an extension before the Nov. 2 deadline, something that to the surprise of many, is reportedly being negotiated. It would be such a shame to rob everyone the enjoyment of Contract Year Dion, but alas.
On the surface, it's head-scratching why the Thunder would want to extend Waiters, who, despite his potential, seems like a perfect candidate for the restricted free-agent market to determine his value. He was inconsistent in 47 games with OKC last season, averaging 12.7 points on 39.2 percent shooting, par for the course for the inefficient Waiters. However, he started the final 18 games and was pretty good in those, averaging 15.3 points on 41 percent shooting (37 percent from 3), capped by 33 points in the season finale. In three preseason games (small sample size disclaimer here), he's shown strong flashes of improvement, attacking the rim -- and finishing -- more consistently, while also displaying more playmaking skills, dishing out eight assists.
Waiters carries a negative reputation because of what happened in Cleveland, along with the jokes and memes about him constantly calling for the ball or yelling "and one!" seemingly every time he takes a shot. But his teammates in Oklahoma City swear by him, particularly Durant and Westbrook, and see the impact he could have on a potential title contender.
"He feels like he belongs here," Durant said. "He's not going anywhere. Coach trusts him and us as his teammates trust him. And that's all you can ask for as a player."
Waiters shed weight in the offseason to try to get quicker, and certainly has appeared improved and more disciplined early in the preseason. It's likely he'll remain in a role coming off the bench, something he's said to be embracing, but with such a flaky track record, extending him certainly seems like a gamble.
However, because of the exploding economics of the NBA, the Thunder could offer Waiters a healthy contract extension, re-sign Durant to a massive max deal, and still be under the luxury-tax threshold next summer. Projections have the tax threshold to rise to around $110 million, and if that plays out, the Thunder would have roughly $12 million-ish to work with for Waiters. They could hold off on that to use in the 2016 free-agent market, but two things there: 1) they would be well over the cap, leaving them only their mid-level exception and 2) there aren't many other 23-year-olds in the class of Waiters' talent level that you could sign with only having a mid-level exception to use. Remember: a four-year, $40 million contract next summer isn't the same thing as it was two years ago.
The financial future clouds more in 2017 when the Thunder would have to re-sign Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, but there are enough unknowns out there already -- like the fact there could be a new collective bargaining agreement in place -- that it might be worth just leaving to worry about later.
Some might see it as a significant risk to leave yourself overextended financially and committed to mediocre players should Durant leave next summer. But the Thunder aren't thinking that way. They're thinking they need to keep building, and keep stocking the roster with talented young players, supplying Durant with a stabilized long-term core.
Plus there's this: The Thunder like any player that wants to remain with the organization and will do whatever they can to keep them. Even if that means gritting their teeth and overlooking some clear blemishes, something Waiters has plenty of.
Thunder general manager Sam Presti recently acknowledged Waiters needs to make some "slight adjustments" in his game, but like so many, knows there's a good player waiting to be unlocked. The Thunder may be betting that some stability and good coaching could be exactly the things that finally does it.