Last year the then Charlotte Bobcats had one of the most productive starting lineups in the league. Seriously, out of 5-man lineups that played over 300 minutes, the Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Josh McRoberts, Al Jefferson lineup outscored opponents by 10.9 points per 100 possessions, which was fourth best in the league. On paper, that lineup does not fit. Three mediocre 3-point shooters and a wing afraid to get to the free throw line surrounding a low post threat seems like a recipe for disaster. However, it worked. It wasn't perfect and teams prepared to take away Jefferson definitely made the Hornets sweat, but the defense was always organized and the effort was always there.
Now you may be asking, why does any of that matter? This is supposed to be an article about Cody Zeller versus Marvin Williams. Well to answer that question one can't simply ask who is playing better, but for reference feel free to review the stats below.
To really determine if Zeller should be starting, we have to look at the fit. The current starting lineup of Walker, Lance Stephenson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Williams, and Jefferson has been horrible. They've played 92 minutes together, shooting 40.1 percent from the field, and have been outscored by 32 points (also for reference: 90.5 OffRtg, 110 DefRtng and -19.5 NetRtg). Would inserting Cody Zeller fix current issues like turnovers and poor execution that last year's starting lineup never had? Of course not, he's a second-year player just finding a niche in the NBA.
Having watched every minute of the Hornets this year, I can tell you that this lineup lacks chemistry. It could get better (and they've gotten better throughout the year), but so far I've seen so many breakdowns. It's either a player not knowing where to be early in a set or someone popping up to set a screen that is never used or a guy not knowing what to do after dropping it in to Jefferson.
These are things last year's team never did. The then Bobcats were a well oiled machine; a boring, predictable, well-oiled machine, but a productive one nonetheless.
Williams' role in the starting unit
No one thought Williams would come in day one and replace what McRoberts brought last season. Charlotte ran a lot of offense through McRoberts at either the elbow or the top of the key. Marvin Williams on the other hand has mainly been relegated to camping out on the side opposite Jefferson or the occasional dribble hand-off. At just 3.1 elbow touches per game and 1.6 assists per game, he's just not a focal point of the offense. Also, he's been pretty turnover prone (1.3 per game). He hasn't been horrendous, but even the occasional "oh crap" bad pass adds up when your team's offense is built around maximizing shot clocks and possessions.
What he does bring to the unit is a legitimate jump shot. So far this year he is 7-12 or 58.3 percent from midrange and 10-28 or 35.7 percent on non-heave 3-pointers. On those shots, over half of them are taken with a defender more than six feet away from him and he's converting those at a 69.2 percent effective field goal percentage (accounts for 2-point and 3-point shots). Basically, he's knocking down his open shots.
What hasn't been part of his value this year is spacing. Either Williams is camped out on the opposite side of Jefferson or teams are ignoring him anyways. Considering how productive he's been while open, especially from the left side where Jefferson goes to work, the spacing may still come as team's start to adjust to the scouting report.
What does Zeller bring
In the second half of last season Cody Zeller was the first player off the bench for Josh McRoberts and played 139 minutes with the four other starters. That lineup wasn't quite as good as the starters plus McRoberts, but with a plus 5.9 net rating and a boost from 22 percent offensive rebounding percentage to 28 percent, the unit was very productive.
So despite even less shooting, this lineup was still good. This year, the new starters plus Zeller has only played 14 minutes together. That's a really small sample size and that unit, although performing pretty poorly, has still been better than the starters plus Williams unit (-1.4 net rating versus -19.5 net rating).
With Zeller instead of Williams, the offense gets a completely different look. Zeller is setting a large number of screens (per Zach Lowe's article, he's setting 10 more ball screens per 36 minutes this year) and getting plenty of touches at the elbow, where he can drive, now shoot, and see over defenders to find Al Jefferson down low.
Defensively and on the glass, he brings a lot to the table as well. This season in particular Zeller has been rebounding at an incredible pace and guarding some of the league's best power forwards on a nightly basis. He has really good tape against Anthony Davis, Paul Millsap, and LaMarcus Aldridge.
So who should be starting?
So far this season, statistically speaking the argument is pretty much in Cody Zeller's favor. He's the better rebounder, the more productive scorer, and defensively he's been great. But there are some things to consider:
- Just seven games into the year, what are the implications of a change to the starting lineup? The team is in the middle of a crazy month where there is little room to practice and if Zeller moves into the starting lineup, then that has a domino effect on other lineups.
- Coach Steve Clifford has recently benched Gerald Henderson (former starter and current captain), Bismack Biyombo (former starter two years ago and played almost every game last year), and Lance Stephenson (for two fourth quarters). Can the team, which according to the coach is struggling to find it's "intensity", afford more changes?
- Has there really been a large enough sample size to make this decision?
- Does losing William's 3-point ability hurt more than the benefit of Zeller's screening, rebounding, defense, and passing?