NBA AM: Is Waiters The Thunder’s Missing Piece?

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Just One Of The Guys:  Dion Waiters, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s new addition, doesn’t seem like someone who has been with the team for just 14 days, especially after the team’s 127-99 blowout win against the Orlando Magic Sunday night. His back-and-forth banter with star guard Russell Westbrook sounded more like teammates who had known each other for years. Waiters bashed on Westbrook’s well-chronicled love for the Dallas Cowboys, while Westbrook returned jabs about Waiters’ love for the Philadelphia Eagles; just two teammates ribbing each other over football.

The quick assimilation of Waiters into the Thunder’s program and culture was the plan from the day they obtained him as part of a three-team deal that sent out two future protected draft picks (a 2015 first-rounder and a 2019 second-rounder) along with Lance Thomas.

Waiters has logged five games for the Thunder since the trade and is averaging 14.3 points on 42.1 percent shooting from the field and 33 percent from three-point range. His 77.8 percent from the field last night helped pad his averages, but what’s starting to surface for Waiters is that he has an unlimited green light from his teammates. He’s feeling the love that Thunder star and leader Kevin Durant promised the team would provide when news of the trade broke.

From player to player, the story was the same last night: that they just wanted him to be himself. In turn, Waiters is trying to show his new team that he can be more than just a spot-up shooter, which he was often regulated to being with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Thunder veteran Kendrick Perkins marveled at Waiters’ defense, and admitted that seeing him get after it defensively has him in his ear a little more with challenges to get even better.

Durant commented about Waiters’ willingness to be a passer and facilitator. Waiters is actually looking to pass a little more than maybe some of his teammates want. They don’t want him to feel like he has to be passive to fit in; they want his role to be that of a scorer who puts up points in bunches.

For Waiters, he couldn’t say enough nice things about his teammates and situation. Waiters commented a few times that this was a fresh start he wanted to make the most of. He knows full well the reputation he brought with him from Cleveland, and is trying to change that both on the court and in how he interacts with his teammates.

Watching him go toe-to-toe with Westbrook over whether the Cowboys can and should pay both receiver Dez Bryant and running back DeMarco Murray, and seeing the always petulant Westbrook relent to Waiters speaks volumes. It’s not like he’s the new guy. He’s part of the group and that’s exactly how the Thunder wanted it.

Whether Waiters can be the key to a fast turnaround of the 20-20 Thunder remains to be seen, but for now, it seems that Waiters has found his place. Next, they have to turn that into winning and so far it looks like Waiters can help in that department too.

Is Jacque Vaughn On The Clock:  It was embarrassing last night in Orlando. The Thunder made almost every shot they took, and it never seemed to stop. On the other side of the ball, the Magic were equally as lost. They looked like a group that never played together on many sequences, with little rhythm and even less drive.

After two pretty special wins earlier in the week where the team sort of took matters into their own hands to up the pace and tempo, last night that dream came to a crashing halt.

There was a lot of debate about where the “up-tempo” games came from, whether head coach Jacque Vaughn realized he had race horses and should let them run or was it rookie guard Eflrid Payton who gathered his team on the road and explained that playing up-tempo was the answer. Either way, the team played hard as they put up points in flurries and beat two pretty decent teams.

Whether it was the players themselves that installed the frantic pace or Vaughn drawing it up, what’s clear is the Magic have quickly lost their way again.

To be fair, this team was never going to be as good as the expectations around them. This wasn’t a team that legitimately could compete for the eighth seed in the East. They are too young, shoot the ball too poorly and are not very creative offensively. They have some emerging talents that are posting pretty special games on an ever-increasing basis, but having flash games here and there isn’t how you get to the postseason.

The Magic are involved in the trade market. They have fielded incoming calls and have discussed roster moves that could shake things up. It’s unclear if the Magic move on anything. The teams talking to them don’t get the sense the Magic are willing buyers or sellers, which is how it’s been under general manager Rob Hennigan’s regime.

It’s clear if the Magic want to try and make a mid-season run at the eighth chair in the East, something needs to change.

Fans have long been disenchanted with Vaughn, and it seems maybe some of his players are too, but that comes with not meeting expectations. A lot of the young guys in the locker room are tired of losing and are simply searching for a way to win; naturally that produces finger pointing.

For Vaughn, he has not emerged as that future star young coach. He’s a lot like his roster. He has shown some flashes of potential, but hasn’t put together the whole package and it is pretty clear the clock is ticking on his job too.

The problem with making a change at head coach in Orlando now is that there really isn’t anyone on the bench that would make things better. The Magic staff was assembled more to support Vaughn than to ever really challenge him or his job.

James Borrego is the lead assistant; he has some experience as an assistant coach with both the Spurs and the Pelicans, but no NBA head coaching experience. Wes Unseld Jr and Brett Gunning have similar resumes. They have been around the NBA, but never as a lead coach.

Fans may want a head to roll over the season. After a blowout like last night it’s natural to want someone to explain it, or better yet, for someone to pay for it, but throwing in the towel on Vaughn isn’t exactly going to make it better.

There is a chance that someone like Borrego could get guys to play a little differently or a little harder, but that’s not going to matter enough to upset the apple cart, at least not yet.

The Magic are not completely out of the playoff picture in the East, even at 15-29 they’re just four games out from the eight seed today.

It is more likely the Magic look at roster changes than a coaching change, at least in the short-term.

There is no question the Magic have not lived up to even their own expectations on a lot of fronts and that may cost Vaughn his job in the offseason.

With the NBA season well past the half-way point, it’s clear the Magic are not where they wanted to be and that change is likely. The question becomes is it a drastic or cosmetic change?

At their current pace, the Magic are poised to win 27 games. Considering they notched 23 wins last season, that’s simply not enough improvement to keep things the way they are. That’s just the reality of life in the NBA.

Would He Really Do It?:  Lakers guard Kobe Bryant isn’t having a lot of fun this year. He is shooting a dreadful percentage from the field (a career low .372). His team has won just 12 games and frankly there isn’t a beautiful future on the horizon for the 36-year-old with one more year left on his deal after this season. Admittedly, he’s owed $25 million for next year, so it’s not an insignificant sum to walk away from.

Bryant surprised many last week when he entertained the notion of retiring rather than finishing out his career, saying he’s thought about it a few times.

Would he actually do it? If Bryant voluntarily retires, says he’s and wants nothing more from the Lakers, his $25 million comes off the books the day he files his paper work with the league and the player’s association. He could do exactly that with no penalty. However, if he does, he’d have to sit out for at least one full year before he could return, but he could give the Lakers the second biggest gift of their relationship next to the championships.

If he genuinely wants to call it a career, he could also negotiate a buyout, thereby reducing what the Lakers owe him and reducing his cap hit.

The retirement rules state that any monies paid to a retiring player are counted against the salary cap, so if Bryant agreed to a $10 million buyout, his cap hit becomes that, not his contracted $25 million.

That’s probably a more reasonable scenario than just gifting back the $25 million that is fully guaranteed to him.

The conspiracy theorists will point to the idea that Bryant could retire, agree to a reduced buyout and then become part of the Lakers’ ownership group, which depending on the timing is possible. It couldn’t be a quid pro quo, where the ownership is immediately given in exchange for the buyout, as that ownership share would be counted as compensation, which is illegal under the Collective Bargaining Agreement. One action has to be completed and fully closed before the other action could occur.

There is also the paper trail that adding an owner would require, the Lakers can’t “give” Bryant ownership; he’d have to buy in with cash, but he could clearly use the Lakers’ cash to do it.

Bryant, over the course of his career, has earned $279 million in salary, not to mention what he’s earned in endorsements, which for the last few years has been in the neighborhood of $30 million a year. So, it’s not like he’s is hurting for cash.

The reality is that it’s fun to talk about ways to free up cap space and it’s clear that Bryant isn’t that guy anymore. No fan likes to see their hero grounded down to mediocrity.

But would he really leave $25 million on the table and walk away?

The real answer there might be tied to how well the Lakers do in free agency. If the Lakers can field a team that can compete, Bryant likely stays. If it starts to look this season all over again, he might call it career.

This is far from a decided situation, and when you are dealing with Bryant, almost anything is possible either way.

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