What's Next for Portland Trail Blazers After Signing Mo Williams?

Stephen Babb@@StephenBabbFeatured ColumnistAugust 7, 2013

Despite reported flirtations with the Miami Heat and Memphis Grizzlies, Mo Williams surprised everyone on Wednesday with an agreement to join the Portland Trail Blazers.

As if the 30-year-old point guard's protracted free agency wasn't vexing enough, he turned down an NBA champion and conference finalist for a club that didn't even make the playoffs last year. The short explanation is Williams apparently wanted to be an important part of the solution and puzzle—someone who could help a team over the playoff hump rather than come along for the ride.

Though he figures to be Portland's sixth man—according to agent Mark Bartelstein, per The Oregonian's Mike Tokito—not all sixth men roles are equal. Williams will be relied upon heavily in the wake of a season in which Portland's bench averaged just 18.5 points a contest.

The rotation clearly missed Jamal Crawford, who bolted for the Los Angeles Clippers in 2012.

Free-agent signee Dorell Wright and first-round pick C.J. McCollum will help, but there's no substitute for Williams' experience running an NBA offense. He's also made nearly 39 percent of his career three-point attempts and found ways to produce everywhere he's played. That translated into 12.9 points and 6.2 assists in a starting role with the Utah Jazz last season, but Williams averaged as many as 17.8 points back in 2008-09 with Cleveland.

The veteran's addition clearly makes Portland a better team, but questions remain. Namely, is this a playoff team, especially in a Western Conference that somehow managed to get even more competitive this summer? And is general manager Neil Olshey done making moves, or is this just the beginning?

We won't know definitive answers until February rolls around, but at least some writing is already on the wall. 


Lineup Options

If Portland makes the playoffs next season, it will have as much to do with improved versatility as it does depth. As a sixth man, Williams should spend as much (if not more) time alongside Damian Lillard as he does backing him up.

It's an especially appealing arrangement when a primary ball-handler is also a team's best scorer. In other words, it would be nice to have someone around who could get Lillard the ball for a change, temporarily freeing the young point guard from the responsibility to create for everyone else.

Portland only had Eric Maynor around for 27 games last season, but head coach Terry Stotts used those games as an opportunity to experiment with lineups in which Lillard was complemented by another ball-handler. While Maynor made the lineup more palatable defensively thanks to his 6'3" size, Williams is a far more polished and aggressive scorer.

He also adds a unique scoring dimension. Note the areas of the court where Lillard looked for most of his shots last season.

Now compare with Williams' shot distribution.

Whereas Lillard took most of his shots from either three-point range or directly at the rim, Williams is far more likely to make use of his in-between game, pulling up for mid-range jumpers or tossing in floaters from just beyond the restricted area.

That makes Williams dangerous in pick-and-roll situations, but more importantly, it means he'll be in position to drive and kick the ball to Lillard. After attempting over six three-pointers a game in his Rookie of the Year campaign, Lillard clearly gets looks—it just wouldn't hurt if a few more of them were open.

This move was as much about putting Lillard in a position to succeed as it was exploiting Williams' production. 


The LaMarcus Aldridge Variable

It's a little hard to believe Williams would sign on with Portland without first getting the organization's reassurances regarding LaMarcus Aldridge's future with the team. Even so, the perception of discord has lingered in large part because of a report in July that someone from Aldridge's "camp" met with Portland's front office to discuss the possibility of a trade.

Chris Haynes of CSN Northwest, who originally broke the story, suggests that Aldridge is fine with returning but simultaneously intrigued by a change of scenery. In other words, we aren't looking at a trade "demand." Maybe more of a trade "hint."

The organization isn't necessarily in a rush to move Aldridge, who is signed through 2015. The closer he gets to becoming a rental in prospective suitors' eyes, however, the more difficult it will be for Olshey to get equal value in return. And as such, if Olshey's going to convince Aldridge his future is in Portland—or fail trying—now's the time to do it.

In other words, even if we're sold that Williams upgrades the Trail Blazers' postseason odds, it's really not our opinion that matters. Aldridge is the key to Portland's here-and-now—the difference between a potentially decent team and one firmly gripped in a rebuild. 

Improved though Portland's bench already was this summer, you can't overestimate the importance of a veteran who can make things happen with the ball in his hands. Nic Batum and Wesley Matthews aren't strictly spot-up shooters, but Portland needed someone else whose job it was to create—for Aldridge as much as anyone else.

If Williams doesn't change LaMarcus Aldridge's calculus entirely, he at least gives him something to think about.


Playoffs, More Moves or Both?

There's a good reason Williams and the Blazers negotiated a player option for the 2014-15 season.

Coming off a 33-49 campaign, it would be premature to view Portland as a finished product. But it's hard for Portland fans not to get a little excited—they're much better now than they were 12 months ago. Unfortunately, it's even harder to see how they sneak in the playoffs.

It's really not about how good Portland is in this case, it's how good everyone else is. Unless the Denver Nuggets take a step back or things get even worse for the Los Angeles Lakers, chances are 2014's postseason brackets will look pretty similar to 2013's. Only with the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors now firmly in the mix for one of those top four seeds.

Should Portland stagnate or even take a step back, the next move it makes will almost certainly involve Aldridge. There's no doubting this team's potential, but the guy just turned 28, and you can see why he'd like to live out his prime on a team doing the same.

If, however, Portland has legitimate playoff hopes, things change. And by "legitimate," I mean something more than being one of three or four clubs with a shot at the No. 8 seed. There are times when it seems like half the Western Conference is in that boat.

Making a push for the No. 6 or 7 seed is a different story, albeit an improbable one. That's where a deal of a different kind could come into play—something designed to build around Aldridge rather than mercifully sending him on his way. With Lillard, Williams, Matthews, McCollum and recently signed Earl Watson currently slated for Terry Stotts' backcourt, Portland has the kind of value and flexibility needed to make a deal.

And while it's still hard to know what to make of Nic Batum's contract (worth three more years and over $35 million), it's certainly not a complete turnoff to potential buyers—not for a 24-year-old player who's still getting better. Parting with the likes of a Batum or McCollum (or even Meyers Leonard or Thomas Robinson) doesn't seem appealing, but it could put Portland in position to make the most of Damian Lillard's rapid ascension. Portland has the tools to bring in another big name.

At least if it makes sense to do so when the time comes. If not, the good news is Lillard should be pretty good for a long time to come. Even if he doesn't win with Mo Williams and LaMarcus Aldridge at his side, he'll find a way soon enough.


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