I tend to think there are two ways of looking at storytelling.
On one hand, I’m inclined to think that it’s not the protagonists nor the events around them that make a story remarkable. And while it needs to be well-told, it’s not even the storyteller. Rather, a story is great simply by the nature of commiting to frame that story on a specific person, any person, and the events they’re living adjacent to. We all live around and personally generate humor, sadness, excitement, unpredictability, and an incomprehensible degree of world-altering decisions, but we can’t contextualize them in real-time because, if we took the time to do that, it would be at the cost of our literal survival skills. But when we see them organized in front of us by means of a central character, we can process it all as a drama. So, if you see a crowd of people and wonder who would make the best protagonist, I might suggest it doesn’t actually matter.
But a theory is really a theory when someone disproves it. I’ve written nearly double-digit introductions to various JR Smith/Dion Waiters Power Rankings, and honestly, they’ve all been just about this dramatic. We keep coming back to JR and Dion, and that commitment might sound like it bolsters my theory, but I still can’t help but think I mean, it’s something about them, though. See, the NBA is the perfect example of a context that remains static in its structure; there are literal rules, and characters are phased in and out every year. Superstars will be replaced by different superstars with different skills and aesthetics. JR and Dion are not as capable as the superstars and not as consistent as the role players, but if you see a crowd of NBA players and wonder who might make the best protagonists, I might point you to these two.
And right on cue, just as they had seemed to wash out of the league, they competed with each other for a role on the title favorites. And if this column was created for anything, it’s moments like these. Unfortunately, Alex was unable to contribute to this edition (he apologizes!), as he’s embedded in the commitments of work and his terrific wife and their unclear number of cats, one of which is legally my niece.
By now, you know the rules. The Power Rankings are determined by the committee of Alex Siquig and myself and qualifying participants can rank anywhere from number one all the way to number two.
1. Dion Waiters, Los Angeles Lakers
Michael Jordan once punched Steve Kerr in the face.
LeBron James was gearing up for a run at the championship and looked at Dion Waiters and JR Smith and said, “Get me one of those two.” And some of you are still calling Jordan the GOAT?
So, Waiters showed up to Los Angeles and delivered what was deemed an “impressive” workout. What did he do in that workout? We don’t know. He probably made, like, four three-pointers in a row. He probably told LeBron that Pat Riley is “actually kinda corny.” And I assume he forgot Jared Dudley’s name but recovered nicely by calling him “my guy.”
And for Waiters, that’s enough. See, Waiters’ baggage doesn’t really matter at this point, because he’s brilliantly tricked people into thinking it’s simply the trade-off for what he has to offer on the court, like when a taco or sandwich shop has a line around the corner so you think “it must be good” even though the line is simply because they’re short staffed.
But if that sandwich or taco actually is good then the line was not only worth it, it helped set the place apart from some equally good sandwich or taco shops. The line becomes part of the story.
Sure, Waiters got paid and showed up to this season out of shape, but who hasn’t let themself get out of shape? I know I have. Sure, he took an edible on an airplane and freaked out. But who hasn’t done that. I know I have. But when you’re watching the Dion Waiters Experience literally be worth it, you can’t help but enjoy it as a whole, like the baggage was part-narrative and part-madlib.
If you root for a playoff team other than the Lakers, then it’s entirely possible that you’re just waiting for your team to be buried by Dion Waiters in the fourth quarter of a game, and you’ll know that you, personally, are a prisoner to that moment, and that it might be something that Dion conceived of a few months back in a fever dream 30,000 feet in the air.
2. J.R. Smith, Unemployed
In the most basic sense, Smith had to be number two in these rankings. The Lakers literally chose Waiters over him. But there are reports that...the Lakers are still interested in adding another shooter...like...J.R. Smith.
If this happens you can pretty much expect me to move to Los Angeles and write a column that begins, “Why I joined The Athletic…” because they’re going to need someone providing full-time coverage. But would LeBron and the Lakers, currently in the driver’s seat for an NBA championship, be willing to fly that close to the sun? Would LeBron really take a team into the playoffs with Dion Waiters, J.R. Smith, Dwight Howard, JaVale McGee, and Rajon Rondo?
There’s a difference between the way that JR and Dion can cost you a title and the way those other Lakers will cost you a title. The way Rondo or Howard might come back to bite you is by their personality becoming grating to the people around them when things get hard. Their personalities will become louder and their contributions will become quieter. And it’s James who will have to answer for the losses at the end of the day.
But if J.R. Smith is going to cost you a Finals game he’s going to bring a grenade into the room and then jump on it. No one will come out unscathed, but he’ll take the brunt of it. Maybe he’ll forget what the score is. Or maybe he’ll remember what the score is and remind you why he and Dion have a Power Rankings column named after them and Landry Shamet and Reggie Jackson don’t.