I’m all in on this Cleveland Cavaliers team. One big reason: Dion Waiters.
Aside from Andrew Bynum’s health, Dion’s physique appears to be the story of training camp. A guy whose weight drew the ire of Byron Scott during last year’s Summer League, the Syracuse product has apparently slimmed down for his sophomore campaign. Waiters did yoga over the summer — in addition to these workout videos posted to YouTube.
So far this preseason — of course an extremely small sample size of two games against likely lottery teams in Milwaukee and Orlando — Dion leads the Cavs at 16.5 points per game in 24.5 minutes. (That’s a per-36-minute scoring average of 24.2, about a 6-point improvement over the 2012-13 season.) He’s shooting 50% from the field, 67% from 3-point territory and 88% from the foul line. He’s attempted as many free throws, 8, as Kyrie Irving. (Last season, he shot 41.2% from the field, 31.1% from deep and 74.6% from the FT line.)
Of course this is all with the preseason caveat. Dion’s not only had the benefit of weak opponents, but also of playing teams wary of showing too much scheme in meaningless games.
That said, you can’t help but marvel at the year-over-year progress. Dion — and the rest of the Cavs — appear to have completely bought into MB’s defensive intensity. Two more reasons to be optimistic:
* Dion’s got a year under his belt playing with Kyrie Irving. As Waiters told the media, per Bob Finnan: “[The coaching staff] put us in a position where we can feed off one another. They want me to play strict the ‘2.’ We never really established that much of a connection [last year]. This year, he knows where I like the ball, and I know where he likes the ball. We can work off one another and make each other better.”
* Also, the addition of Jarrett Jack as a backup PG and secondary playmaker allows Waiters to focus on one thing on offense: scoring. Barring an injury to Irving or Jack, Dion should never have to dribble the ball up.
To be a playoff team, Cleveland needs Dion to be a 16-20 points guy. Earl Clark and Alonzo Gee are defensive-minded players, Anderson Varejao’s points usually come off pick and rolls and offensive rebounds, Tristan Thompson’s still developing as an interior scorer, and Andrew Bynum (health) and Anthony Bennett (development, conditioning) remain big question marks. Aside from Irving and Jack, Waiters is the only player on this roster who can consistently create his own shot.
Dion had games last season of 25 in Chicago, 26 in Miami, 20 vs. San Antonio and 28 at the Clippers. This year, he just needs to fill the bucket on a more consistent basis. If he does, chances are this is a playoff team.
Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.