The Minnesota Timberwolves finally have made their first significant move of the offseason, on its 28th day, signing veteran point guard Mo Williams to a one-year, $3.75 million deal Monday. While almost every NBA fan has been waiting for something to happen regarding Kevin Love, The Timberwolves have not had any involvement in free agency other than rumors.
Williams marks the first major acquisition for the team. Williams is a former All-Star (in 2009 with the Cleveland Cavaliers), and he’s an experienced NBA veteran who has been productive in every stop he’s made since his rookie year in Utah. He fills Minnesota’s biggest needs offensively: 3-point shooting and quality backup point guard play.
Williams’s biggest asset for the Timberwolves will be his 3-point shooting. Williams has been a quality 3-point shooter throughout his career, hitting at 38.5 percent over 11 NBA seasons. His shooting slipped a little bit to 36.9 percent from outside last season, but his career averages suggest that that’s a bit of an outlier. More importantly for the Timberwolves, however, is where Williams hits his 3s.
Last season, Williams appeared to have the most success scoring from the left corner and from the top of the key. As we discussed last week, these are areas where the Timberwolves struggled last season, particularly designated shooter Kevin Martin. Williams can hit from two spots where the Timberwolves normally didn’t set up 3slast season, and that could add a nice dimension to the Wolves’ offense.
Williams is also a decent passer as a backup. Williams averaged 4.3 assists per game and 6.3 assists per 36 minutes last season, and that is going to be very useful for Minnesota.
While Williams is more of a scoring point guard than a primary distributor, he was acceptable at hitting teammates, and with Ricky Rubio around, that’s good enough for the T’Wolves backup point play. He’ll likely play about 8-10 minutes as the primary ball-handler for the T’Wolves, so it’s not like he’ll be asked to command the offense for long stretches.
Williams turns the ball over a ton, which can be a detriment to the offense when he’s the primary on-ball point guard. His turnover percentage was 17.3 percent, which means he turned the ball over once nearly every five possessions.
This is especially of concern for Minnesota because Ricky Rubio turns the ball over at an even worse rate, about 21.8 percent of his possessions; with Williams being even more turnover prone than J.J. Barea, that’s going to present some issues. However, the Timberwolves are helped by the very low turnover rates of their other starters; Love, Martin, Corey Brewer, and Nikola Pekovic all had turnover rates less than 11 percent, which is very solid.
As long as Williams and Rubio can be even a fraction less turnover prone than they were last season, this shouldn’t be too much of an overall issue for the team.
Defensively, Williams is mediocre on the ball and downright atrocious off the ball. Williams isn’t great but isn’t terrible at defending the pick and roll, and he anticipates screens well, although he could do better to recover if he gets held up by the screen.
Off the ball, however, is a different story. Williams allowed 1.12 points per possession and a ridiculous 49.3 percent from 3 on spot-ups last season, per Synergy, and it’s easy to determine why. Williams ball-watches with the worst of them, constantly swiveling his head between the ball and his man.
This results in him losing his man often, which leads to giving up several 3-point attempts from the corners. Williams also gambles a fair amount, which results in plenty of steals, but also a fairly high foul rate (3.9 per 36) for a point guard.
Williams will likely play a similar role with Minnesota to what he played last season in Portland. For the Blazers, Williams was most often used as a secondary ball-handler next to Damian Lillard in a two point guard lineup, with a few minutes commanding the second unit.
His role in Minnesota will likely be the same. Williams probably has the most use for the Timberwolves as a shooter, because Rubio is going to be on the floor for 30-plus minutes per game as the primary point guard. He’ll likely pair with Rubio in two-point guard lineups, and spend about 10-12 minutes per game as the primary ball-handler while Rubio sits, with Zach LaVine or Barea (If he’s still on the team) getting the remainder.
Off the ball, Williams will likely be utilized as a corner 3-point shooter and off dribble hand-offs, freeing him up to shoot from his most effective areas, the elbows and the corners. This will help the Timberwolves get better looks in these areas than they got last year from Barea and Martin.
The move to put Williams as the captain of the second unit should also be a boost to the T’Wolves bench, as Barea-captained units had an offensive efficiency of 101.7 with Rubio off the floor, per NBAwowy.com, while Williams-led lineups for the Blazers had an efficiency mark of 105.6 when Lillard was off the floor. This should hopefully help shore up the Timberwolves’ second units, which were when the offense collapsed for Minnesota last season.
Williams should help guys like Alexey Shved and Zach LaVine better looks than Barea did, and provide better shooting himself, so even if the units are a little worse defensively, they should at least be able to keep pace with opponents.
Defensively, the pairing of Williams and Rubio might be disadvantageous to the Timberwolves. Williams and Rubio are both shaky off-ball defenders, and are better suited for on-ball roles.
However, Rubio is becoming a very strong on-ball defender, and the T’Wolves are probably best off playing Rubio against opposing point guards and sacrificing the threes Williams will give up off the ball. The T’Wolves will suffer replacing Barea with Williams defensively, as Rubio/Barea lineups were particularly effective on defense (98.6 DRtg).
However, Williams’s shooting should be helpful for creating more offense in these sets, and the Timberwolves have to hope that this would couterbalance things. However, this is probably the scariest proposition of pairing these two on the floor at the same time.
The Williams signing also raises the question of what the team will do with J.J. Barea now. Williams and Barea would fill basically the same role, and with LaVine also likely warranting point guard minutes, Barea is likely the player that would be squeezed out of the rotation.
Barea also has an expiring contract, which means he should be easily tradable, and the Wolves have to be confident they can do this, even if Barea starts the season with the team. If the Timberwolves start the season without trading Barea, it’s reasonable to expect that the Wolves would send LaVine to the Iowa Energy to begin the season, then promote him when Barea was dealt.
In the meantime, Barea and Williams would likely provide redundant skill sets, but it wouldn’t be the worst thing for Minnesota to use both to begin the season.
Overall, the Williams signing is one that should help the Timberwolves. Williams is a better offensive player than Barea, and he should help boon their woeful second unit.
Defensively he’s going to be a negative, that can be allowed, especially if Rubio improves as an overall defensive player. Williams is on a manageable contract, and no one-year deal is a bad one in today’s NBA. Even if Williams flops, he’s not on long-term money like Barea was. This is a fine deal for the Minnesota Timberwolves.