Marvin Williams looked like a miscast stretch-four during the 2014-15 season. The former Tar Heel had played the four spot the previous year at Utah and was signed by the Charlotte Hornets as a much-needed floor spacer for a starting line-up which was set to feature lane-clogging wings in Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Lance Stephenson.
The experiment failed as the fit wasn't there for all parties involved. In Marvin's case, not only couldn't he solve the spacing problems by himself (could have been expected), but he also wasn't quite put in the position to do so. I would only be delighted if someone smarter than me could explain why it is so, however, Williams was and is stationed on the other side of the paint during Al Jefferson post-ups (a much lesser problem these days given the drop in Al's post touches).
Williams's movement has always suggested that it’s his objective to place himself on the other side of the paint whenever the ball is entered to Al.
That just didn't seem like a smart use of a player who averaged one free throw attempt and one offensive rebound per 36 minutes last season. It was hard to imagine in what way Marvin Williams could help the starting line-up when he was stationed in the paint. Surely, he wouldn't be a player to follow-up a possible miss by Jefferson.
The mind-boggling aspect of this conundrum was the fact that we used Josh McRoberts and Anthony Tolliver quite effectively around Jefferson’s post-ups during the 2013-14 season.
While McRoberts was operating in the offense from up top and would frequently enter the ball in the paint from the same left side of the court where Al is posting up, Anthony Tolliver would be stationed on the three-point line across the court to prevent weak-side defenders from helping out on Jefferson.
McRoberts could just wait for a strong-side defender to help on Al, an All-NBA 3rd-Teamer at that point, and punish the opposition with a three.
To compare the three players and to put this into perspective, both Tolliver (during the 2013-14 season) and Williams (2014-15) received an assist for a bucket from Big Al ten times. However, Tolliver played only two thirds of the minutes with Al that Marvin played that particular season. Moreover, Tolliver made seven threes off of Jefferson, while Williams only made five such long-range bombs. McRoberts meanwhile connected for 13.
The Al Jefferson - Marvin Williams duo also proved to be as bad as expected on defense. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Gerald Henderson did their best on the wing and limited action to the side-lines as much as they could helping Charlotte at least return to the top-10 in defensive efficiency. The 997 minutes of Jefferson and Williams produced a net rating of -6.3, 96.6 points per 100 possessions on offense and 103.0 points given up on defense. That number was down to 93.1 during the 241 minutes Al and Marv shared the court with MKG and Hendo.
All in all, Williams looked like a fail case of trying to move a player up a position to increase his value and lengthen his career in this three-pointer happy era. He had the bulk for the power forward spot, yet didn't have enough upward athleticism to make up for his height. Hypothetically, he was a small forward playing against slower fours and should have had the ability to punish them with his speed, yet some of his plays rendered him as a 6-9 basketball player who has problems dunking the ball.
Coach Steve Clifford ultimately acknowledged Cody Zeller's defensive prowess and inserted him in the starting line-up, while Marvin somewhat shone on bench units which played more like the pace-and-space team of this year. Williams had a positive net rating during his stint as a bench player where a fun dynamic with Biz made sense on offense. They were two completely different pick-n-roll options as Biz could suck in the weak-side defender with his runs to the rim, while Marvin could pop out for jumpers.
Yet, at the end of the day, Marvin still was a 7-million per year bench floor spacer. That doesn't seem like a bargain.
That has changed this season. Williams reportedly arrived to training camp in the best shape out of all the Hornets players. Marvin's comments about focusing on cardio and not only lifting weights (in the hyper-linked article by Rick Bonnell) do make perfect sense. He has looked like a completely different athlete this year and is almost unrecognizable.
This season the 29-year-old actually resembles a player capable of playing both forward spots due to the necessary physical abilities.
Williams is flying up and down the court for a couple of athletic offensive rebounds or blocked shots every game. Marv is averaging 1.1 blocks per game (a career-high) and he has reached new heights in SportVU’s rim protection stat. Opponents have made only 43.3% of their baskets when attempting a shot within five feet of the basket and Williams is there to defend it (in comparison to the 51.8% last season).
It has been achieved by him channelling his inner MKG and flying in for swats from the weak side or on fast breaks:
Or how about this clutch possession against the New York Knicks? I don’t think we would have expected Marvin Williams contesting a jumper and then blocking two more put-back attempts last season. This was awesome:
His versatility is well displayed by looking at the two positions he's constantly playing this season. Charlotte's two most often used line-ups are the following. It's the starting unit of Al Jefferson, Marvin Williams, Nicolas Batum, P.J. Hairston and Kemba Walker, which has recorded a net rating of +10.9 (111.2 - 100.2) in 162 minutes and the Spencer Hawes, Frank Kaminsky, Marvin Williams, Jeremy Lamb, Jeremy Lin bench mob good for +26.6 (114.3 - 87.7) in 80 minutes.
Who's the player present in both line-ups? Marvin Williams. Capable both as a power forward against other starting units and as the lone starter playing the small forward position with the bench guys.
Such positional versatility and the improved agility for it can be displayed best with examples from the defensive end. Clifford's Hornets have mostly been a conservative defensive team during his coaching tenure here. We follow the Tom Thibodeau approach of forcing action towards side-lines, ICE-ing pick-n-rolls and trying to make the offense take mid-range shots (7th, 4th and currently again 4th in opponent mid-range shots per game under Clifford's helm).
However, the team is switching a bit more on defense this season when the personnel out there is capable of such action. That mainly applies to Cody Zeller, Nicolas Batum, Marvin Williams and P.J. Hairston, out of whom everyone has the necessary athletic ability to keep up against several positions.
Let's take a look at how Marvin and Hairston switching assignments can stall the opponent's possession, the main task of switching since it can render screens useless if done properly and if executed with versatile players.
Here's Dwyane Wade running a pick-n-roll with Chris Bosh, seeing the switch and thinking that this is a Marvin Williams he can beat off the dribble, only to be rejected:
A couple of possessions later Williams switches on Dwyane Wade to stall Miami's curl action. Wade now figures to exploit the Hairston - Bosh mis-match, yet Hairston smartly uses his strength, fronts the post-up and forces a turnover on the entry pass:
Jimmy Butler also had trouble with the same switch:
With the advantage that the pick-n-roll screen can give you now gone because of the switch, Chicago's players are left standing and trying to walk the tightrope that is entering the ball into the post in today's NBA. Nicolas Batum smartly helps out Hairston and covers up Nikola Mirotic from behind to make all of this even more harder to do:
Only an unforced Kemba Walker breakdown on defense allowed the Bulls to get out of this pickle. Couple of possessions later Butler, just like Wade, committed a turnover on the entry pass to Mirotic, who was defended by Hairston.
All in all, Marvin is the same calculated role player he was last year. He knows his strengths and weaknesses, and he rarely strays away from the things he is supposed to do.
However, this season that extra oomph, which Williams now has, allows the former UNC player to be much more impactful. He has showed that he can be a real NBA starting level power forward. The spring to his step allows Marvin to be a usefully versatile defender and good for a couple of random energy plays every game. At best, he would just get by on defense last season. This year some games he actually looks like a legitimately very good defensive player.
So far he seems more aggressive than usual with his touch from three as well by attempting a career-high of long-range looks per 36. Per NBAsavant.com, Williams is one of the eight players to have made at least five jumpers outside of 22 feet which come after zero dribbles and with at least 21 seconds left on the shot clock, a tribute to those ballsy threes he's been taking after offensive rebounds (Walker is also one of them).
Such looks almost seem like the opposite of Marvin's usual level-headed style of play. However, it's a good shot to take as the defense is still scrambling at that point. And, hey, this is the new, energetic version of Marvin Williams.
Given the era that we're in, a Marvin Williams who can both guard multiple positions and knock down threes is a valuable commodity. Williams is a free agent this upcoming summer and if he plays this season out in the same manner, he will earn himself one more nice contract and a place on any NBA team's rotation.
A few more random Hornets topics, which have been on my mind, to close out the article:
Frank Kaminsky Struggling on Drives
This season 218 NBA players have played at least 10 games and averaged at least one drive per game (a drive being any touch that starts at least 20 feet of the hoop and is dribbled within 10 feet of the hoop and excludes fast breaks, per SportVU). Frank Kaminsky ranks 216th among them in field goal percentage (17.4%).
NBA.com's stats also display a strong correlation between his field goal percentage dropping with every additional dribble he has taken before that particular shot.
It's clear that the scouting report on Kaminsky is out. Opponents have been very willing to over-aggressively chase him off the three-point line to let him pump fake and create off the dribble. JaMychal Green probably repeated his draft combine max vertical on this play:
Kaminsky will have to figure out how to make this work. He has the handles and creativity to pull off all kinds of scoop shots, yet they usually look like low percentage looks and sometimes come off of awkward and slow spin moves.
Such a situation is basically a small window of a 5-on-4 opportunity and Frank needs to learn how to pass out of it and what lay-up attempt is appropriate in it.
It's also noticeable that he enjoys the pump fake-and-drive game but he has to shoot the ball. That's his primary skill and when he has the open shot, he needs to take it. Clifford has made it clear more than a couple of times by now:
Batum for the OT vs. Boston
This play by Nicolas Batum reminded me of the Lance Stephenson game-winner against Atlanta, on which he blatantly ignored the play-call making Clifford raise his hands up in a what-the-hell gesture:
In this case, the play was obviously designed for Batum (unlike in the case of Stephenson), however, I have to wonder whether the pass to Jeremy Lin on the wing wouldn't have been the better choice. Isaiah Thomas just flat out fell asleep and left Lin wiiide open.
This is no dig against Batum, who's played at an all-star level. All in all, the team looked like it lacked the energy to compete after a game at Memphis the night before. But we might have pulled this one out if Lin had the chance to take that open three-pointer.
Eric Collins - Trivia Man
I couldn't get used to Collins at first as I missed Steve Martin on the call and wasn't ready for his ever-present optimism. Actually, I still do miss Steve Martin. But I kind of have accepted Collins as our play-by-play announcer. His cliches and phrases can go both ways (can't say that I enjoy the frequent use of "chin-up" or "dipsy-doo" but to each his own), however, there are enjoyable aspects to a game called by Eric Collins.
You can sense that the man is a basketball junkie who is always ready to name five players of a given team from the 80s. He also loves trivial facts. Recently we got treated to some terrific reaches by the man, ones I can truly understand as someone who himself is obsessed with basketball history.
During the game versus the Heat we learned that there have only been six NBA players who were born in North Dakota, that Mark Landsberger leads them all in points and that Miami's Tyler Johnson should break that record eventually (as evidenced by Basketball-Reference).
On Saturday he made the following connection between teammates Isaiah Thomas and Evan Turner. Collins noted that it's interesting that Evan Turner went to the same high school (St. Joseph in Westchester, Illinois, one should recognize it from the documentary film Hoop Dreams) as Isiah Thomas of the 80s. I know that the current Isaiah Thomas is named after the legendary Isiah, however, that still is one imaginative way to connect the two Celtics players.
My favorite moment from the past week, however, came at Memphis when Eric Collins's play-call could be heard on the emotionally deflated Grizzlies broadcast (go to 2:50 of this Kemba highlight reel):