Checklist for Mo Williams to Thrive with Portland Trail Blazers
It's hard to say whether Mo Williams found what he was looking for on the free-agent market.
On one hand, he joins a rising Portland Trail Blazers team with legitimate postseason aspirations for next season.
But on the other, the former All-Star had to settle for a modest two-year, $5.6 million contract while joining a roster headlined by the reigning Rookie of the Year, Damian Lillard, who happens to play the same position as Williams.
From Portland's standpoint, though, the signing has all the makings of a resounding success. Williams brings legitimacy and, more importantly, proven production to a second unit that managed a league-worst 18.5 points per game last season, via HoopsStats.com.
Any offseason acquisition brings with it the potential for disaster. Williams is hardly an exception to the rule, as he reportedly griped about his usage on a 40-26 Los Angeles Clippers team just two seasons ago.
But if he's willing to buy into Portland's plan of attack, if he's ready to start scratching off the items on this checklist for success, he could play his way into becoming the steal of the 2013 offseason.
Item No. 1: Embrace a Reserve Role
Williams isn't bringing any false hopes to the Pacific Northwest of unseating Lillard from his starting role. But that doesn't mean he's ready to concede his chances of seeing significant floor time.
At his introductory press conference, Williams told reporters he envisions himself as a "sixth starter" for the Blazers, via The Oregonian's Sean Meagher.
If Williams is planning to receive a J.R. Smith-type workload (33.5 minutes per game in 2012-13) he's in for a rude awakening. Besides Williams and Lillard, Portland coach Terry Stotts will have to find backcourt minutes for veterans Wesley Matthews and Earl Watson, sophomore Will Barton, and rookies C.J. McCollum and Allen Crabbe.
For someone who hasn't averaged fewer than 26 minutes since his rookie season of 2003-04, the success of this transition hinges on his ability to bring the right mindset to the floor regardless of playing time.
He'll still be the first guard off Stotts' bench, and the combined scoring prowess of Williams (12.9 points per game last season) and Lillard (19.0) should lead to some shared floor time. Unless the Portland brass calls for meaningful minutes for McCollum or Barton, Williams should be able to scratch out something in the 18-25 minute range.
Maybe he'll feel underused if he lands closer to the low end of that projection. Maybe he'll even look vindicated in that belief on nights when Lillard shows his inexperience.
But those emotions can't control the kind of effort he brings to the floor. He can always opt out of this deal at season's end if his role is not to his liking, but that should be even more reason to embrace this role.
Opting out won't seem nearly as attractive if he's regarded as a 31-year-old malcontent next summer.
Item No. 2: Survey the Floor
Obviously this is paramount to the success of any point guard, but for Williams its meaning goes beyond reading and reacting to the defense.
While Portland took dramatic steps to improve its second unit this summer, the reserve core still lacks another player who can light up the scoreboard as quickly as Williams. He averaged better than 17 points in three of his 10 NBA seasons and hasn't seen his scoring dip below 12.9 in any of the last seven.
A scorer's mentality is a must for Williams whenever he's surrounded by the rest of his bench mates. If defenses are keying on him, then Dorell Wright's perimeter looks get cleaner, and Barton, Thomas Robinson and Meyers Leonard have more space to attack the basket.
But Williams will have to tailor his approach when he's filling that "sixth" starter's role. He's a capable setup artist (career 5.0 assists against 2.3 turnovers per game) and will need that distributing touch to give Portland's premier scorers prime offensive chances.
Between Lillard, Matthews, LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum the Blazers have four players who averaged between 14.3 and 21.1 points last season. All four finished the year with a better true shooting percentage than Williams' 51.9 mark.
For Williams, the key here is picking his spots to be aggressive. He needs to score enough to keep defenders from locking in on Lillard and Aldridge, but not to the point where he'll hinder that talented twosome's production.
Sometimes that will mean using the threat of his dribble drive to pull extra defensive attention his way. Sometimes it will be as simple as serving as a long-range decoy—he is a career 38.6 percent shooter from deep after all—to maintain optimal offensive spacing.
It won't always lead to the most glamorous box scores, but could transform the Blazers from a mediocre offensive group (105.8 offensive rating in 2012-13, 15th best) into a point-producing powerhouse.
Item No. 3: Bring a Strong Leadership Voice
For all the talent that now resides in Portland's locker room, it's still lacking in postseason experience.
The Blazers projected starting five (Lillard, Matthews, Batum, Aldridge and Robin Lopez) features only two players who have ever made it out of the first round.
Matthews' Utah Jazz won a first-round matchup over the Denver Nuggets in 2010 before being swept by the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference semis. Lopez was a member of the Phoenix Suns team that made it through to the Western Conference Finals that same year, but injuries limited him to only six games during that playoff push.
Williams, on the other hand, knows what it takes to see prolonged postseason success. He helped engineer three playoff series wins as the starting point guard for the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2009 and 2010, then assisted on another in a reserve role for the Clippers in 2012.
Williams needs to bring that same unabashed confidence that has taken his career this far and instill that same sense of belief into his teammates. The difficulty of that task will likely change by the day.
With the Western Conference shaping up to be as deep as its ever been, there are bound to be some rough nights ahead for the Blazers. Crushing last-second defeats, routs and at least a handful of head-scratching losses are unavoidable over the course of an 82-game season.
But Williams has to be the voice of reason inside Portland's locker room. He can't let the team get too high on those good nights, nor fall too low on the long ones.
If the Blazers can snap their two-year postseason skid, Williams' job won't get any easier. In fact, he'll need to take an even more vocal role.
While he hasn't scaled the game's greatest summit, he's come the closest while playing a major role for his team—Wright was a seldom-used sophomore on the Miami Heat's 2006 title team. Other players might have a grasp of what it takes to win basketball games, but no one on the team has a better understanding of the challenge of winning a postseason series.
Can It Work?
Well, that probably depends on your definition of making it work.
Has Portland done enough to punch a 2014 playoff ticket?
The opportunities for individual accolades just won't be there for Williams. At best he'll be a deep sleeper in the Sixth Man of the Year race, but even that will be an uphill battle given his likely minutes crunch.
But the chance for Williams to manufacture team success is right there at his fingertips.
No one will have a bigger say in helping Lillard avoid the dreaded sophomore slump. Williams is also the key component of a second unit that the Blazers appear to have turned from a weakness into a strength.
He can search for more money or even a starting spot next summer if this situation proves to be something dramatically different from what he had in mind.
As long as he carries this checklist with him, though, he may find the promise in Portland to be something far greater than he could have ever imagined.
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