Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Life Of Mo

A funny thing happened during Mo Williams’ ascent to NBA stardom. Somewhere along the line (I’m saying the 2009 postseason), the plucky, persevering underdog- y’know, the guy that sports fans love above all others- morphed into one of the league’s least likable players. This change in perception is due in no small part to his confidence, aggressiveness and assertiveness- the very qualities that had originally made him popular and allowed the 47th pick in the 2003 draft to succeed in the first place.

While I’ve never been what you would call a “Mo Williams fan,” for a significant chunk of the last two seasons, I’ve defended him, sometimes rather heatedly, to the doorman of my apartment building (insert snob joke here), who’s not one to keep his disdain a secret, and has yet to pass up an opportunity to take a proverbial bat to Mo’s head.

More, recently, last Friday night, as a matter of fact, while in Newark watching Blake Griffin’s only visit of 2010-11 to Prudential Center, my wife- the most casual of NBA observers and someone who’s genuinely saddened any time a player is booed- and I had the following exchange:

Wife: Hey, who’s the Clippers’ guy with the red headband.

Me: That’s Mo Williams. They just got him a couple of weeks ago. He’s not bad.

Wife: He’s a ballhog. I don’t like him and his teammates don’t seem to either. (A fourth quarter dead ball in which Williams tried to get his teammates to huddle up and only got two willing participants supports this theory)

While my pro-Mo stance had weakened considerably of late, especially in the aftermath of his trade to the Clippers, it wasn’t until this moment that I came to a realization. I too truly dislike Mo Williams. More accurately- given the fact that I’ve never met the man- I dislike him, rather intensely, as a basketball player. Why? Let’s sum it up in less than 280 characters. In prepping for this piece, I searched my Twitter history for any Mo-related tweets, of which I found three. The first stated “Say what you will about Baron Davis, but dude understood how to get the ball to his bigs. Mo Williams has NO sense of timing on his passes,” while the other two, more concisely, and almost identically declare that Mo “needs to understand his place on the NBA food chain.”

I wasn’t really aware of Mo in his two college seasons- though perhaps my adversarial relationship with him began in 2002, as I do remember Kent State’s second round upset of #2 seed Alabama (of which Williams was a part) eviscerating my tourney bracket- nor did I pay much attention when he was selected by the Utah Jazz in the 2003 draft, 46 picks after LeBron James. And his rookie year, when he appeared in 57 games, averaging 5 points in 13.5 minutes? Not a blip on the radar.

A free agent that summer, Mo inked a three-year ~$5.3 million deal to take his talents to Milwaukee, where- with incumbent starter T.J. Ford sidelined for the entirety of the 2004-05 season with a spinal injury- he was entrusted with the starting point guard role. In 80 games, he averaged just over 10 points and 6 assists (his 35.4% Assist Rate was sixth in the league) in 28 minutes per game. He showed flashes of what would one day be a quality NBA player, as evidenced by seven games of 20+ points, 11 of 10+ assists, seven of 3+ steals and eight double-doubles, including a then-career-best 22 points, 10 assists and three steals in a late-season win over the Hawks.

Although the Bucks managed just 30 wins with Williams at the helm, he’d become a player to watch. The next season, he picked up where he’d left off, with 12.6 points per game in November. He was even better in December, averaging an efficient (48% FG, 40% 3-pt) 18.5 points and emerging as a Sixth Man of the Year Candidate. Unfortunately, however, foot and ankle injuries derailed his season, causing him to miss 21 of the Bucks’ final 58 games and take the floor for no more than 20 minutes in 11 of the other 31.

In spite of this, it was clear to the Bucks that really had something in the young lead guard- so much so that they traded T.J. Ford to the Toronto Raptors that summer, in exchange for Charlie Villanueva. Talented, reasonably priced and, more durable than Ford (a low hurdle to clear, I know, but still), Williams was handed the reigns, as the Bucks’ lead guard of the future.

Though he missed some time over the next two seasons, Williams’ consistency was remarkable. In 134 games, he averaged 17.2 points, 6.2 assists, 1.2 steals and fewer than three turnovers per game, while maintaining a PER of 16-17 and a near-30% Assist Rate. Unfortunately, his ability to translate stats into wins was also remarkably consistent, as the Bucks won 28 and 26 games in 2006-07 and 2007-08, respectively.

In the midst of this stretch, despite having won just 58 games in two seasons with him as a starter, the Bucks elected to push even more chips to the middle of the table with Mo. In August 2007, he signed a six-year, $52 million contract, on which he’s still owed $17 million, assuming he picks up his $8.5 million player option for 2012-13 (let’s go ahead and assume that’s happening). During the 2007-08 season, the first of the new deal, the Bucks learned what many of us have since come to accept as fact- Mo Williams is probably not going to lead you to the Promised Land.

Fortunately for Milwaukee, the Cleveland Cavaliers, fresh off a seven-game playoff loss to the Celtics and a year removed from a Finals sweep at the hands of the Spurs, were in search of a complementary piece to help LeBron James over the championship hump. In August 2008, as part of a three-team trade in which they only had to give up Damon Jones and Joe Smith, the Cavs acquired Williams. This was a brave new world for Mo, who was now recognized as not only a legitimate NBA player, but also a vital piece on a high-profile contender, playing alongside the (at the time) league’s Messiah. Not a bad half-decade for a guy who eked his way into the Association as a mid-second-rounder.

Early on, the limelight seemed to agree with him. With Mo as the perimeter threat they’d been lacking, the 2008-09 Cavs won 30 of their first 36 games en route to a league-best 66 wins and the top seed in Eastern Conference- dancing, hugging and taking group photos the entire way. Doing his part, Mo improved his scoring (15.9 in November, to 16.4, and 19.8, before falling back to 18.7 and 19.5 in February and March), and his 17.6 points per game (on 46.8% FG and 40% 3-pt) at the break were enough to earn him a (not too egregious at the time) “the best team in the league needs multiple representatives” All-Star selection.

Heading into the 2009 playoffs, fresh off a regular season in which he achieved career highs in scoring (17.8 ppg), 3-point shooting (43.6%) and PER (17.2), Williams was a star, LeBron’s buddy and about to play a big role in the King’s coronation. Never had he been more famous, successful or likable. Times were good for Mo!

Though no one knew it at the time, it was at this point that the worm began to turn. Kinda like the “Charlie Sheen and Darryl Hannah decorating a pimped-out new pad” montage in 1987. As was the case from that point forward for young Bud Fox, Mo’s past two years have had a decidedly downward trajectory. A pair of subpar playoff performances (15.4 points and 4.7 assist per game, 40% FG, 53% TS%, Assists Rate in the low-20%s), with a less-than-stellar 2009-10 regular season sandwiched between, one damning Decision, an awful, injury-plagued season on a historically bad team, from which a trade to the Clippers was a major upgrade- not good times.

The shift in sentiment has less to do with Williams’ actual performance on the floor than it does with his own expectations of that performance. Mo’s not only having the worst season of his NBA career (14 ppg, 39% FG, 30% 3-pt, 13.9 PER, career-high 26% Usage Rate) in 2010-11, but he exacerbates the issue by continuing to carry himself like a veteran star (that he’s paid like one doesn’t help) on a contending team, ignoring the fact that he’s more recently been associated with the longest losing streak in NBA history than with a postseason-bound squad.

Overdosing on self-importance and carrying yourself like the best player on the floor is cute and lovable (and necessary) when you’re a second-round longshot fighting for playing time on a perennial lottery team. However, as an above-average eighth-year man starting at the point for a team that features a) the greatest alley-oop receiver tandem in recent memory, b) an elite, super-athletic power forward, c) one of the NBA’s better “true centers” and d) an extremely athletic core of wing players, one of whom ranks among the league’s elite at putting points on the board. Even if we forget everyone else, taking touches away from LeBron James, Blake Griffin and (once he’s healthy) Eric Gordon is no way to make friends and influence people.

Williams is not as bad a player as the current season’s performance would indicate, but neither is he as good as he needed to convince himself he is in order to stick and to thrive in the NBA. Better than a role player, but never going to be a star. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it here again- for the long-term good of both his career and the fate of the teams on which he plays, Mo Williams would do well to recognize his place on the NBA's food chain.

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