Von Wafer is a gamble, which is fine, because you can afford to gamble at the end of the rotation. And he represents the sort of gamble the Celtics probably had to take in order to realistically contend for a championship next season. He’s young, he’s an athlete and he’s an offense-first scorer who can create points from all over the floor when nothing else is working. Signing Wafer and Nate Robinson—and quibbling over a third year for Tony Allen—shows that the Celtics understand their offense let them down last season.
But, man, is Wafer a gamble.
Wafer has been around the NBA for a half-decade, but he comes into the 2011 season as nearly the equivalent of a second-year player. Prior to his solid 2009 season for Houston, Wafer had taken exactly 100 shots in bits of three prior NBA seasons. Antoine Walker would have jacked that many in four games in 2000. During the 2009 playoffs, Rick Adelman, Houston’s coach, kicked Wafer out of a game against the Lakers after Wafer threw a mini-fit over playing time. Kicked him out of a playoff game.
Wafer left the NBA for the big money (about $5 million per season) at Olympiakos, the Greek powerhouse, but they quickly decided they wanted no part of him. He shot below 40 percent in Europe and clashed with the Olympiakos coaching staff, so they cut him before 2009 was out.
And so there is almost no record from which we can judge Wafer, and the little record that exists is dotted with attitude flare-ups and a mysterious failed physical last season. It’s strange for a team that came within a few minutes of winning the NBA title to sign an almost unknown commodity for a potentially crucial back-up role.
But Wafer will help if he can be a calmer version of the player who shot 45 percent overall and 39 percent from deep for Houston. Eddie House can shoot threes. Tony Allen can attack the rim and post up smaller guys. Wafer can do both. In 2009, he took just as many shots at the rim as he did from three-point range (about 2.5 per game), and finished those shots at the rim 60 percent of the time—a league average mark for a guard. (League average is wonderful for a back-up). He hit long twos at a solid clip and flashed a usable mid-range game.
In other words: He can score from anywhere on the court. He won’t always do it efficiently or within the flow, but there isn’t a spot from which he is a total non-threat.
His passing numbers in 2009 were dismal, but he turned the ball over on fewer than 10 percent of the possessions on which he tried to do something with it—an outstanding mark for a guy who looks for his shot so often, and a lower mark than every Celtic regular last season other than Rasheed Wallace. (And Sheed wasn’t exactly driving and dishing in 2010).
With Wafer and Jermaine O’Neal on board—and with TA in Memphis, no longer being “overshadowed”—the Celtics have a chance to cut their team turnover rate from league-worst to league-average. That would help, considering Boston’s offense slipped to 15th in points per possession last season and couldn’t create enough decent shots with the championship on the line.
And that’s what the Wafer and Robinson signings are about—offense. The 2009 Rockets scored more with Wafer on the court, and Neil Paine at Basketball-Reference just got through a study that showed (among many other things) Nate Robinson scored more efficiently against elite defensive teams than almost any player in the league.
These guys don’t fit into the narrative of the KG/Thibodeau-era Celtics. They think about their offense first, and they can be flaky about their defense. Signing guys like this shows both an understanding of the team’s flaws and a belief that almost all NBA-level athletes can become good defenders in the right system. The 2009 Rockets allowed about two more points per 100 possessions with Wafer on the floor, but Wafer’s direct head-to-head counterparts—usually the other team’s two guard—produced well below their average levels.
Does this mean Wafer was a good individual defender but a poor team defender? I have no idea, and the sample size is probably too small to tell us anything real. But Wafer’s 6’5”, he’s an athlete, and guys like that have a habit of turning into solid defenders on well-coached teams that stress defense above all else. He played a bit of small forward for the Rockets, meaning he might be able to fill that spot in a pinch more readily than a string bean such as Rudy Fernandez.
The Wafer signing does not necessarily kill the Fernandez trade talks, though it makes a deal with Portland less likely. The C’s now have 12 players ready to go for next season (not including Sheed), and Luke Harangody will soon make 13, the minimum number of required roster players. But with one of those 13 players (Perk) out until February, I’d be shocked if the C’s didn’t sign a 14th player and would not be surprised at all to see them go with the maximum 15. That leaves room for a wing and a big guy, and if they can still nab Fernandez without surrendering more than a first-rounder, they should jump at the chance.
But Wafer provides insurance if they can’t swing a Rudy deal. There were safer bets out there—Damien Wilkins, Antoine Wright, the Graham brothers. Signing Wafer is a higher-risk, higher-reward move. He might shoot 35 percent and pout his way to the end of the bench, but if things go well, we could see Doc turn to him for big playoff minutes during a sequence when the veteran-heavy offense is going to hell.
And if you think about it, Doc was never consistently comfortable doing that with House, Robinson or TA. He fell in and out of love with each of them as a post-season bench spark, but he has yet to fully trust any of them, and they’ve all spent time rotting on the bench as the starters sputtered.
Will Wafer gain that trust? I don’t know, but it’s worth a veteran’s minimum contract to find out, even if he ends up only as a regular-season minutes-sopper for Pierce and Ray Allen.