On a cold December night in Detroit in 2003, the
Pistons lead the Heat by 11 points with a minute to go in the third quarter.
Heat center Loren Woods firmly rejects a shot in the paint by Corliss “Big
Nasty” Williamson, leading to a quick transition dunk by Lamar Odom off a
Rafer Alston assist. Trailing the play are legendary Heat forward Samaki
Walker and a player we knew at the time as “rookie Dwayne Wade.” For Wade,
the play marked his 1035th offensive possession in an NBA game.
His struggling squad goes on to lose the game, dropping to 5-12 for the
Nine years later, Dion Waiters has also played in 1035
offensive possessions for the struggling team that drafted him. Ever since Jim
Boeheim blessed Cleveland fans with a Wade-Waiters comparison I’ve been
interested to watch the numbers unfold—if only to laugh—and then cry myself
to sleep. Lamar Odom’s dunk in Detroit was literally the same point in Wade’s
career, possession-wise, and I’m a fan of unnecessary precision.
Dwyane Wade reached his 1035th possession in
his 16th NBA game, playing 35 minutes per game. Despite the rough
start and unflattering roster, Miami finished the season at 42-40 and made
the playoffs, even winning a series. They did this by having the 9th
best defense in the NBA, so it would probably be a mistake to think the Cavs
will follow a similar trajectory this season. Waiters reached possession
1035 in his 17th NBA game—in double overtime against Portland on
December 1st, twisting his ankle on Tyler Zeller’s foot under the
basket. Nick Batum beat the Cavs with a most unsavory triple that night, dropping them
to 4-13 on the year. Dion was averaging 32 minutes per game, and we haven’t
seen him since. I assembled a table with each player’s stats through 1035
Dwyane Wade & Dion Waiters through 1035 Team Offensive
If you like reading too much into the numbers, please
note that Wade and Waiters posted nearly identical Player Efficiency Ratings
through this point in their rookie seasons, at 12.7 and 12.5, respectively.
I wouldn’t say either player struggled in their first 16ish games played, but
they didn’t come firing out of the gate in the same way Irving did last
season, or Chris Paul did in 2005. Both Wade and Waiters entered the league
with a heavy burden on offense, using roughly 25% of their team’s possessions.
The result was pretty inefficient shooting from the field. Wade, however,
had a much worse Offensive Rating, producing only 88 points per 100
possessions compared to Waiters’ 100 points per 100 possessions. He
committed nearly twice as many turnovers and shot slightly worse from the
field than Waiters; he salvaged his PER by grabbing more offensive rebounds and
blocking shots. Wade also found his teammates for more assists than Waiters, which says to
me that he was a more high-risk/high-reward passer. In
fact, Waiters’ ability to not throw the ball away has been a bright spot in
his young career.
Despite the similarities in productivity, Wade and
Waiters took much different approaches in their shot selection. When Boeheim
compared the two players, I took it to mean that Waiters would be a
relentless attacker of the rim. I was really excited about this because I
love that aspect of Dwyane Wade’s game—it’s both really fun to watch and
makes for a less streaky type of guard than your typical jump shooter. He’s
an All-NBA guard because he takes half of his shots at the rim and makes most
of them, also making it easier to draw contact and get to the free throw
line. Here are a couple tables reflecting the shot selection of Wade and
Waiters through 1035 possessions:
Dwyane Wade – Shot Selection –
Dion Waiters – Shot Selection
– 256 FGA’s
In these tables, “Rate” is the percentage of the player’s
attempts that come from each zone. I included field goal percentage because
it’s an intuitive number and effective field goal percentage because it
accurately reflects production from three point attempts. Note that Wade had
36 fewer field goal attempts than Waiters, due to a slightly lower usage
rate, more turnovers, and more of his possessions ending at the free throw
Basically, Wade was terrible at anything that wasn’t a
dunk or layup, but those were half of his shots so it worked out ok for him.
Based on scouting reports and his ugly shooting form, I fully expected
Waiters to have similar looking numbers. Instead, his shot selection has
been much more Ray Allen than Dwyane Wade, going to the rim at a very
standard rate and making his money from long range. His success at the rim
has been unsustainably bad, making only 37% of these attempts. I think the
1035 possession mark is a reasonable sample size, though, since it gave Dion’s
three point shooting some time to cool off from his ridiculously hot start.
With any luck his jump shooting numbers will stay where they are and he’ll
begin converting layups at a respectable rate, perhaps leading him to go to
the rim more often.
Finally, because it’s unfair to stick Dion in a vacuum
alone with an NBA finals MVP, I went through 11 NBA drafts from ‘01 to ’11 and
selected an assortment of top-6 guards and forwards. I calculated
each player's stats through 1035 offensive possessions to answer questions like, “Hey,
what if Martell Webster had a PER of 27 in his first 1035 possessions?”
He didn’t, but I think the results help inform what standards we should hold
Dion to because not every rookie will have a year like Chris Paul or Kyrie
Irving. I ordered the results by the player’s PER through his first 1035 offensive
possessions. The last two columns on the right show how many minutes the
player played in his rookie season after his 1035th possession, and what his PER
was in those minutes only (i.e. possession # 1036-onward). Hence the two PERs
are calculated from two distinct sets of data for each player. The
average change in PER from the player's first 1035 possessions to the rest of his rookie year is +1.7, so
we should expect Dion to improve between now and April (unless the arc of his rookie year resembles that of Dajuan Wagner, whose production regressed amidst nagging injuries).
I think the resulting order of the table is palpable, but certainly
not a crystal ball. I’m glad that Dion shares Kevin Durant’s company in the bottom
third of the table, though, because the last six names are demeaning to
the long and illustrious career Dion is destined to have in Cleveland.