Inspiration Strikes: The JR Smith/Dion Waiters Power Rankings

Dion Waiters has had an extremely difficult life, and a tragic last couple weeks away from basketball. He's played through it, brilliantly, and given a glimpse of the strength and struggle under his bluster. Also: JR Smith Bobblehead Night.
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JR Smith and Dion Waiters are two of the NBA’s most interesting character actors. After last Sunday’s Academy Awards, the committee decided to roll out a special Oscars edition of the JR Smith/Dion Waiters Power Rankings. Each participant will be paired with the movie, character, or actor that most suits him. Read the first installment here, and the second one here.

1. Dion Waiters

Jonny Auping: You might think these power rankings lack a certain amount of sincerity. You might think that we find humor in the delightful but extremely flawed ways in which Waiters and Smith apply their talents to NBA basketball. You might even think this whole concept is just a ruse to poke fun at the clichéd power rankings that, by current estimates, make up approximately 36 percent of sports journalism.

And while I am half of the brain trust behind these rankings, who am I to say that your assumptions are wrong? What would certainly be incorrect is the accusation that Alex and I hold any sort of disdain or malice towards either of these men. We’re fascinated with them, because they are more physically gifted than a number of NBA players who are more conservative and successful, and because they seem to possess a sort of unconscious stubbornness. Their game is their game, and it doesn’t entirely fit in the specifically compartmentalized blueprint to NBA basketball. That’s why—why we do this, and why we care about them.

It’s not that they are whiny divas unwilling to scale back their role for the greater good of their teams, so much as it’s that they don’t comprehend or respect moderation on a basketball court. Their games would be so big and so dominant against literally any other level of competition. So we’re often treated to them trying to fit an enormous impact into a role that only asks of them a small contribution. And yes, sometimes the result is unintentional comedy.

But sometimes it’s not, and last Tuesday the result was heroic. Not sarcastically, internet meme-y heroics. Actual genuine heroics.

Fourteen days earlier, in Philadelphia, Waiters’ half-brother was shot in the head and killed at the age of 21. Waiters missed four games while dealing with the tragedy. He said, “I probably won’t be happy for a while. Long time, probably.” This is a thing that is not part of the Dion Waiters Experience, generally—how impossibly difficult his life has been, and how much he has overcome to become this imperfect player that he is.

Millions of dollars don’t heal wounds like the ones he’s accumulated, and neither does being friends with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Waiters naturally struggled his first few games back while dealing with emotional exhaustion and physical rust. But Tuesday, still carrying the tragedy with him, he treated the Houston Rockets like he has always treated opponents: as five dudes trying to stop him from getting buckets. This time, they couldn’t stop him.

He scored 17 points on 7-11 shooting and was the difference maker in the Thunder’s 111-107 win. He also broke up an alley-oop to Dwight Howard in a crucial defensive possession.

None of this is to say that we can’t laugh when Waiters tries to achieve the same results to the opposite effect, because none of it makes it less funny; he is, in his determination and overdetermination, one of the funniest and most compelling players in the league, which is why we’re even doing this. Tuesday was just a reminder that Dion chases his moments because sometimes he’s good enough to catch them. No one deserved a moment more than he did.

Alex Siquig: The other day I was drunk at my neighborhood bar, probably harmlessly embarrassing myself for the most part, but also going on at some length about two of my friends from high school, who died within months of each other. Both died in car accidents, both frozen forever at age 19.

Death and dying is something I used to think about a lot, and somewhat obsessively so for someone who hasn’t exactly been surrounded by it. Grandfathers, cats, a friend of a friend, a cousin. Death has only fucked with me from a distance. A close enough distance to demand respect and a healthy distaste for God’s Will, but that’s all. Knowing that I can still tear up at a bar 13 years later and talk about my two dead friends for whom I made bad mix CDs tells you that I haven’t suffered through anything like the death of Dion Waiters’ younger brother Demetrius Pinckney. Furthermore, I didn’t have to deal with that while being part of an ongoing conversation about what I mean to the Oklahoma City Thunder, or to the NBA, or to the sanctity of a game I love but am sort of ill-suited for in many outlandishly obvious ways, or whatever it is we’re talking about here.

Dion Waiters has existed in hoops discourse as a sort of perpetual-motion-machine of a joke. He’s got his boosters, and there are easily dozens of people who haven’t given up on him as a significant player, but Dion is generally either the set-up or the punchline. I’ve joked about him, and his goofy unearned confidence and his gloomy bluster and his lack of coordination.

That was a fine space for him to exist in my brain, but also I have a brother. I couldn’t imagine going outside for a year if something happened to him. Or even being able to stand up. I definitely couldn’t imagine giving the Rockets the business, with them being such an on-the-nose facsimile of benign evil or in any other context. So it was good and great to see Dion Waiters have his day to not be the joke. If this kid’s game is ultimately a lucrative distraction at least, then this particular episode was one such distraction that amounted to a brief and sort of stupidly inspiring burst of human will, if that’s not to add too much metaphorical bullshit to the proceedings.

But maybe it is. A man died, and his distraught brother played well in a basketball game a few days later. But it was still nice, and it was still good and we wish Dion Waiters the best, obviously, even when we are making jokes about him dribbling off his foot or passing the ball to a fan in the front row. There’s no lesson in the darkness, really. There’s only darkness and enduring and outlasting it. I didn’t mean for this to get so maudlin, but I guess that’s unavoidable when you are drunk and sad and you realize that everyone you care about is going to die eventually. In the meantime all you can do is kick the shit out of the Rockets, literally and metaphorically. I think that’s a quote from Aeschylus. We’ll obviously check that before this goes up on the site.

2. JR Smith

JA: The top spot couldn’t go to anyone other than Dion Waiters this time around, but Wednesday night is JR Smith bobblehead night at the Quicken Loans Arena, and if you don’t think we’ve searched tirelessly to try to find alternative ways to acquire such a bobblehead then you’re clearly new to these rankings. Also, here’s a video of a JR’s bobblehead driving a car and talking to Iman Shumpert’s bobblehead:

Also this young man “dressed up” for JR Smith bobblehead night:

I have no idea what it means that this kid can look the way he did, hold a JR Smith bobblehead in his hand, meet JR Smith, and be so unapologetically happy, but it surely means something.

AS: JR Smith has strangely become the responsible adult in the Cavs locker room, stressing things such as ball movement and defense and so on and so forth. Is JR a poem spinning against its drive or is he just tired of Depressingville, Population: Cavs. All these questions and more will be addressed next time, when we once again care about JR Smith’s shenanigans. It’s time to drink a bottle of wine, friends.

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