A day or two into free agency, Charlotte Hornets head coach Steve Clifford invited Marvin Williams out for breakfast.
Clifford likely had a good old-fashioned American breakfast consisting of two grade AA eggs lightly fried in butter, a single golden pancake slathered in the smoothest of Canadian-made maple syrups, two pieces of toasted, saffron-colored potato bread, and two sizzling strips of bacon.
Williams, I imagine, enjoyed a salad — maybe bacon bits on kale, maybe pomegranate on quinoa — with a single hard-boiled egg and a small bowl of grits.
The breakfast wasn’t just a coach courting a player with fine dining. Clifford and Williams both knew that while there were certainly other options for Williams out there, the best situation for him was undoubtedly staying in Charlotte.
While both of those sound great in theory, they represent opposite ends of a spectrum. One the one hand, Williams could take a substantial pay cut to chase a ring. On the other, he could usher along a terrible franchise to ensure his children’s children’s children have three-car garages in 2060.
Instead, Williams did what he’s always done. He opted for the happy medium and rewarded loyalty with, well, loyalty.
Long seen as one of the NBA’s greatest busts, Williams unexpectedly blossomed into one of the NBA’s premier power forwards last season. He’s still not a star in the traditional sense — he’s not going to fill his shelves with awards or score 30 points per game over an entire season — but Williams proved that he’s an excellent player capable of filling in where his team needs him.
On some nights, Williams might need to camp behind the arc and nail a handful of 3-pointers. On others, he might need to anchor the post on defense against a player half a foot taller than he is. On others still, he might not need to play at all.
Williams’ game is not about ego or pretension. No, Williams approaches basketball with a stoic demeanor and his eyes on the one thing that matters — winning.
He’s whatever you need him to be at any given time and holds his teammates to that same standard.
Up until that weird stretch with the Utah Jazz, Williams was seen primarily (or exclusively, some might argue), as a small forward. Over time, however, coaches realized that Williams’ “bust” status might be indicative of him playing against his strengths, not his actual ability as a basketball player. Tyrone Corbin shifted Williams from small forward to power forward over the summer of 2013 and saw instant results, both statistically and with the good ol’ eye test.
Then, Williams signed with the Hornets and Clifford decided to play him at power forward much like Corbin did. This was equal parts creative genius and necessity for Clifford, as the Hornets’ old power forward, Josh McRoberts, left for Miami over the summer and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was unquestionably the team’s starting small forward.
And with MKG and Al Jefferson — neither of whom are particularly good shooters outside of 15 feet — sharing the floor, the Hornets needed as much shooting as they could get. Furthermore, Jefferson’s well-documented limitations as an interior defender necessitated that the Hornets’ power forward would need to be excellent inside. Williams conveniently addressed both of those problems.
In short, Williams was already the perfect player for the Hornets all along and simply needed Clifford to pull it out of him.
That first season in Charlotte saw Williams adjusting to a new team and trying to solidify himself as the Hornets’ starter. Both his shooting and defense were good but not particularly great, due in small part to a crowded frontcourt forcing the Hornets to roll out all kinds of weird lineups.
His second season with the Hornets, 2015-16, saw everything change. The frontcourt was pruned, making Williams’ role much clearer. Nicolas Batum was added, alleviating some pressure off of Williams and other players to create their own shots. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist missed a significant number of games, which meant Williams would start alongside a total of four decent shooters. He also had the prior year to develop an intimate understanding of Clifford’s systems, which gave him liberty to break from plays and do what was needed on a given possession. Basically, everything worked in Williams’ favor last year.
And he flourished.
This year, things aren’t quite so clear. Frank Kaminsky is growing fast and will need minutes. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is back and starting. The Hornets’ systems have changed a bit to accommodate the loss of Jefferson and the addition of Roy Hibbert. Various minor injuries to key players has introduced some odd lineups to the Hornets’ rotation.
There will be an adjustment period, and if you’ve watched any of the Hornets’ preseason, it shows. Thus far, Williams is 1-of-14 from behind the arc through four games, good for seven percent.
However, Williams hasn’t been complacent. He was 0-of-6 against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Monday and once he realized his shot wasn’t falling, he began to attack the rim. He ended up finishing 9-of-9 from the free throw line with seven rebounds.
That’s who Williams is. If something’s not working for him, he’ll try something else. Whatever helps the team win. (The Hornets won their first preseason game on Monday, too.)
It’s unlikely that Williams has a year as statistically brilliant as last season. It’s not easy for any player to shoot 40 percent from behind the arc, nor to lead their team in blocks, nor snag 6.5 rebounds per game, nor anchor a team’s defense. And it’s especially difficult to do all of those things at once.
That isn’t to say Williams will have a down year. Not in the least. Chances are Williams finds his shot and continues to contribute in whatever way the Hornets need him to. It’s just unlikely that he finishes with career highs in several categories given the multitude of blessings that helped him have as good a season as he did last year.
For the Hornets to be successful in 2016-17, Williams simply needs to find his shot and chip in where needed. Hibbert can man the middle now. MKG can do some of the dirty work on the boards. His niche may have shrunk a bit, but he will continue to be successful.