The Mo Williams signing represented a value get for a team that had already made plenty out of this offseason. They had already brought in numerous quality players through trades, the draft, and free agency, addressing just about all of their needs.
Williams was reasonably productive as the starting point guard for the Utah Jazz last season, averaging 12.9 points and 6.2 assists in 46 games (a thumb injury cost him a large portion of the season). The Blazers snagged Williams for under $3 million a season, his overall contract costing $5.6 million over two seasons. Essentially, he’s the cherry on top for Portland.
In spite of the great value he came with, however, Williams is really more of the same for the Blazers. There’s no question that he can be a very serviceable player, and his presence allows the Blazers to rein in Lillard’s workload a bit after he finished second in the league in minutes per game last season (38.6, tied with Kobe Bryant). However, what he offers is more akin to what the Blazers already have a surplus of, as opposed to what they lack.
First and foremost, Williams is a scorer at the guard slot. He’s a bit undersized for the shooting guard position at 6’1″, but it’s a position his skillset fits just as well as the point guard position. He’s a solid playmaker, but a significantly better long-range shooter. Williams’ best years in the NBA came alongside LeBron James with the Cleveland Cavaliers, where he played the role of a spot-up shooter more often than facilitator.
Does that sound familiar? A lot of the same could be said for Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, both also scoring guards that take an awful lot of threes. Lillard attempted 6.1 threes per game last season, and McCollum took 5.3 per game with the Lehigh Mountain Hawks. Even Wes Matthews and Nicolas Batum, the starters at the shooting guard and small forward positions, threw up 6.2 and 6.1 threes per game respectively, although almost all of their shots came in catch-and-shoot situations.
Lillard will undoubtedly see the lion’s share of scoring opportunities with the ball, leaving us wondering what might be left for McCollum and Williams. They might see a lot of usage as spot-up shooters, alongside Matthews and/or Batum. Regardless of how it plays out, the Blazers will be taking a lot of threes this season. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially since the Blazers’ shooters are generally proficient from deep. However, falling in love with the three ball can be a very dangerous thing. As the saying goes, a team can “live or die by the three”.
Williams’ presence also throws a bit of a curveball at some of the Blazers’ lower-end youth at the guard position. Previously, McCollum looked like he was in line for sixth man minutes at both backcourt positions, but now it looks like Williams will back up Lillard at the point while McCollum will stick to shooting guard behind Wes Matthews. Also, there’s the question of what type of minutes are left for the likes of Will Barton and Allen Crabbe. Both seem squeezed out of the rotation entirely for now.
Even more of a concern is Williams compounding one of the Blazers’ primary weaknesses: defense. Their defense wasn’t great last season. They ranked 21st in the NBA in points allowed and 29th in opponent field goal percentage with 100.7 points given up per game on 47.4% shooting. Bringing in Williams won’t help with their existing concerns on that end of the floor, especially against the bigger guards that somebody is going to have to defend.
Between Lillard, McCollum and Williams, you have three scoring guards that are all a bit short for the shooting guard position. If Williams’ presence is pushing McCollum to extended minutes as the 2, guarding the many 6’5″-6’7″ shooting guards of the NBA will be a problem for his thin and wiry 6’3″ frame. Lillard was mediocre at best defensively in his rookie season, and while improvement is to be expected, he won’t be the Blazers’ saving grace.
Williams has played shooting guard in the past, most notably with the Los Angeles Clippers, but he has a difficult time defending even average point guards. Williams struggles mightily in keeping up with more agile point guards, and he was one of the league’s worst pick-and-roll defenders. Between his size and his subpar lateral quickness, defense could be a major issue for him, one that will stack with the Blazers’ existing issues in that area.
Certainly, the Blazers do have Nicolas Batum and Wes Matthews defensively. They’re one of the NBA’s better defensive pairings on the wing, and they will often be the ones tasked with guarding the opponent’s best offensive players. Robin Lopez was brought in to replace J.J. Hickson as the new starting center, and he’s a significantly bigger and better defender.
Even then, however, can the defensive shortcomings of Lillard, McCollum and Williams be viable for a team trying to make the playoffs in the Western Conference? Even with Lopez and Thomas Robinson in, the Blazers’ interior defense is still a questionable thing. LaMarcus Aldridge is a strikingly average defender, and Meyers Leonard isn’t even that. Batum and Matthews won’t be the ones guarding the Chris Pauls and the Russell Westbrooks. Instead, that task will fall on to the shoulders of the Blazers’ smaller guards.
The Blazers’ gameplan next season is simply to outscore the opponent, not necessarily to try and limit them to 90 points every game. As an explosive scorer and a decent playmaker, Williams will help them in that regard. Nothing changes the fact that he came at great value during the late stages of the offseason, and his contract is very team-friendly.
With that said, Williams’ the Blazers need to be wary of allowing some of these issues to come back around and bite them. Williams could be the guy that pushes them past other teams into the 8th seed, but he could also be the guy that leaves them in the dust.
It’s going to be very important that the Blazers watch his impact on both ends of the floor, and know the difference between when he’s helping and when he’s making things worse. This signing could be a case of the rich getting richer, or it could be a case of redundancy that ends up limiting the Blazers on the floor.