Mo Williams: The Why, How, and Who Else


Mar 20, 2014; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard Mo Williams (25) shoots the ball over Washington Wizards forward Drew Gooden (90) in the second half at Moda Center. Mandatory Credit: Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

The Blazers have essentially one important bench player. Their total minutes played list breaks down into three tiers. There are the starters, each with well over 2000 minutes. Then there’s Mo Williams. Then there’s everyone else. We’ve seen more of the bench guys recently, especially Dorell Wright, who’s been a placeholder in LaMarcus’s absence. But with LA back, and with the usual playoff tightening up of rosters, we can expect to see less of Wright, Will Barton, T-Rob, and the like. Joel Freeland (injured since February) will probably not have time to shake off the rust before the postseason starts.

So as of right now and for the foreseeable future, Mo Williams is the only bench player Terry Stotts trusts. Should he? I’ve written before about Williams’ issues, but the fact is that there wasn’t really an alternative. There certainly isn’t one now that the trade deadline’s past. CJ McCollum is neither ready nor a point guard.

Williams is not an efficient player. He currently has a true shooting percentage of .508, down in the morass of mediocrity that is the Blazer’s bench. He’s also beating former MVP candidate LaMarcus Aldridge by .001. Not with nearly his usage, granted, but still, wow.

However, I’d submit that it’s not his fault. Mo’s been on a mini-tear the last couple games, scoring 35 points on 21 field goal attempts. I watched every shot he took in the Memphis and Chicago games, figuring that it would demonstrate the ideal use of Mo in the Blazers offense. Turns out that’s not the case. Lets take a look.

It’s not hard  to notice that a lot of Williams’ shots are isolations. Some, like this one, are justifiable because he’s being guarded by a big after a switch. Taj Gibson is more agile than a typical big, but it’s still not a terrible shot. More damning than the shot selection is the stagnation. This is not what a Stotts offense looks like:

Lillard and Batum are standing straight up, and Aldridge and Wright are trying to recreate the Abbey Road cover.

When there is action run for Williams, it’s almost always a very simple pick and roll, without any cutters or off-ball motion. Here the only thing that happens besides the Mo-RoLo PNR is Dorell Wright realizing that he’s about to bump into the action and backing away quickly. Williams takes a pullup from 20 feet while defended by noted giant man Kosta Koufos. He makes the shot, but it’s still not a good one. Blame whoever you like on this one. Williams takes an ill-advised shot, to be sure. But Lillard hardly moves to bail Williams out of a tough spot and perhaps create some motion. And it’s clear no one was required to move here. Similar motionlessness is evident in this play too.

It seems like the Blazers don’t really know what to do when Williams has the ball in his hands. In this play, Williams’ best option is a shot that’s essentially blocked by Joakim Noah. That came from a stretch with mostly starters in. As a general rule, the only time the Blazers run anything interesting with Williams is with starter-heavy lineups. In this one, Portland runs Batum and Lillard around Lopez screens, and Lillard draws the defense turning the corner, opening a kickout for Williams. It’s a far cry from the nonsense the Blazers run with Williams as the featured offensive player. This sort of thing might account for the slight bump Mo gets in TS% when he plays with Lillard–about a percentage point, small but something. Even those plays, though, are the exception rather than the rule in starters+Mo sets.

It turns out Williams hasn’t done anything special the last two games. He hit the tough shots the offense gives him more often than usual, and maybe taken a couple fewer ISOs. But the offense around him remains pretty simplistic. This is a shame, because an efficient Williams is a massive boost. This mini-streak has been mostly pinned on the return of Aldridge. But in the Bulls game, LMA shot 2 for 10 for 5 points. It’s true that he impacts the game in other ways, but it’s also true that LMA shot 2 for 10 for 5 points. Williams, though, went for 18 on 12 shots, in a game ultimately decided by 17.

Again, it’s hard to tell who to blame. The Blazers offense yields a lot of tough, low-percentage shots when Mo has the ball. On the other hand, he takes these shots with gusto, often with time on the clock to reset and figure something out besides a 22-footer at the top of the key. It doesn’t seem like Stotts has much interest in running anything beyond a simple pick-and-roll with Williams handling the ball. It’s unlikely that this stems from a mistrust of Williams, since he’s actually the Blazers’ top assist man per 36 minutes.

The total lack of complexity might indicate a potentially fatal starters-centricity on Stotts’ part. It’s also possible that with all the moving pieces on the Portland bench, it’s all they can run consistently, because everyone’s been running the high pick-and-roll since they were 10. The bench players are also not quite as basketball-smart as the starters, who are both a) mostly veterans and b) good at basketball. All things considered, I think that Williams’ inefficiency is more a symptom of a generally weak bench (both on the players’ and Stotts’ ends), rather than the disease itself.

Williams’ chuckishness has a lot to do with the sort of offense the Blazers run for him, which is to say almost nothing. When Lillard is running the team, the offense is like Moby-Dick. When Williams is, it’s the SparkNotes version of Clifford the Big Red Dog. This will probably become more of an issue in the playoffs–teams that scout well (i.e.: all of them) will notice when the entire offense of a second unit is made of pick, rolls, and prayers.

We’re well aware at this point that Williams has a quick trigger sometimes. I don’t mean to completely excuse the bad shots he throws up, but the fact is that the Blazers don’t have anything else. The onus is now on Stotts to gussy up the Blazers bench offense before the playoffs.

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