The Oklahoma City Thunder tried its best to quell comparisons between Dion Waiters and James Harden before Waiters ever took the floor.
How? They retired Harden’s No. 13 without really retiring it.
Waiters had been traded to the Thunder from Cleveland in one of the recent moves by Western Conference teams looking to bolster their postseason hopes. Waiters, who wore No. 3 for the Cavaliers, couldn’t get that number because it’s worn by Perry Jones.
“So I said, ‘OK, I’m going to take 13 because I wanted (No.) 1, (but) they didn’t have 1,’” Waiters said. “Then 13, (but) they didn’t want me to wear 13. I didn’t want to wear 23. My favorite number is 3. They just gave me 23.”
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Waiters, a shooting guard, took the new number.
“Guess they wanted me to have my own identity,” Waiters said. “We going to make 23 look good, though.”
Oddly enough, former King Kevin Martin was traded from Houston to Oklahoma City in 2012 as part of the Harden deal and wore 23. So following Martin isn’t quite like following Harden.
The Thunder needs Waiters to look good regardless of the number as it tries to climb into the top eight in the Western Conference. The Thunder entered Saturday 10th in the West, three games behind Phoenix for the eighth and final playoff spot.
Houston, Phoenix, Memphis, Dallas, New Orleans either have made moves or on the verge of shaking up their rosters.
The Thunder is trying to overcome a bad start caused by injuries to stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
It’s important to note Waiters is not Harden.
Harden was the NBA Sixth Man of the Year in 2012 before being traded to Houston, where he has become an MVP candidate this season.
Waiters has averaged 14.3 points in his three-year career. He averaged 10.5 points in 33 games with Cleveland this season as his role in the offense lessened with the additions of LeBron James and Kevin Love.
Harden has the ability to serve as a lead facilitator. Oklahoma City acquired Waiters to pressure opposing defenses with his scoring and improve an already good defense.
Waiters, however, said comparisons to Harden will exist, especially while coming off the bench.
“Of course there’s always going to be something like that, but I don’t pay attention to it,” Waiters said. “I try to come here, play my game, win games and show everybody what I could do with this opportunity.”
Much has been said about Waiters’ attitude in Cleveland. But in the NBA, a player can go from being labeled a malcontent to a fiery competitor if his team wins.
Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks said he likes Waiters’ competitiveness and isn’t worried about the player’s reputation.
“He’s coming in with a clean slate,” Brooks said. “He understands what we demand here. We always want to be professional. We want to make sure we focus on the right things.”
Waiters hopes he’s not judged on hearsay. He also believes the NBA hasn’t seen his best play.
“I’ve always been like held back a little bit from really reaching and showing what I can do,” Waiters said. “I think last year I got a chance to do that when guys went down.”
Waiters could help the Thunder reach the postseason, but Brooks expects the push to be difficult.
“More than ever, you’re going to have so many tough, physical games down the stretch before the playoffs even begin because teams are going to be fighting to get into the playoffs and fighting for position,” Brooks said. “There are going to be two or three teams that don’t get in who are really, really good.”
With that in mind, don’t expect the deals to stop in the West.
It’s still about the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference.
That’s right, the Atlanta Hawks.
The Hawks haven’t meant a lot to the casual basketball fan since the days of Dominique Wilkins. The biggest news the Hawks made in the offseason was racially offensive remarks by general manager Danny Ferry about Luol Deng.
There’s no controversy on the court this season. Atlanta has won seven in a row and entered Saturday with a three-game lead over Washington for the top spot in the East.
It can’t get much worse for the New York Knicks. They’re 5-35, the worst record in the NBA, with a 15-game losing streak. Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith were traded to Cleveland. There’s still talk Carmelo Anthony should sit out the rest of the season because of knee issues.
Well, there’s always next season.
“This is a mea culpa. I take responsibility for it.”
– Knicks president Phil Jackson, on the team’s season.