The chances of reaching the postseason once seemed like a long shot for the Charlotte Hornets when starting point guard Kemba Walker underwent knee surgery back on January 28.
The team realized that they would need to address that issue and add more depth in order to have any chance of sneaking into the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. Shortly after Walker’s surgery, the team opted to bring in veteran point guard Mo Williams to help lead the team in Walker’s absence and it appears that decision is paying off.
The Hornets acquired Williams and Troy Daniels from the Minnesota Timberwolves in exchange for Gary Neal and a future second-round draft pick. Although it’s a very small sample size (seven games), the 11-year veteran is playing some of the best basketball of his career with the Hornets, which couldn’t have come at a better time.
Entering Thursday’s slate of games, the Hornets are holding onto the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, just a half-game behind the seventh-placed Miami HEAT and a half-game ahead of the ninth-placed Indiana Pacers.
Walker has missed just over five weeks of action and is reportedly very close to returning as he has been cleared to resume all basketball-related activities and is eying a return next week. With Walker out, Williams has stepped in and provided the offense with a lethal weapon on the court and veteran leadership off of the court. The strong start to his time with the Hornets was much needed as the playoff race in the East has become very cramped with six teams all within four games of each other vying for the final two playoff spots.
So far, Williams has been playing extremely well for the Hornets, averaging 21.6 points, 8.9 assists and one steal in 35 minutes per game and is coming off of a 14-point and 14-assist performance on Wednesday night against the Brooklyn Nets.
“He’s a pro player and he’s been everything I expected him to be in all good ways,” said Hornets head coach Steve Clifford. “I don’t think he’s going to continue to score like he has but I think he can continue to play efficiently every night. It’s why when you look at the teams that win they have all the players. Mo has his style of play and he’s done it for years so when he’s coming into a team and is locked into a game plan he asks a couple questions here and there and then he figures it out because that’s what pro players do. He’s very verbal, good with his teammates as he’s getting comfortable so I thought those things because he’s been around but certainly he’s been so efficient offensively.”
Once it was known Walker would require knee surgery, rumors began to swirl as to who might the Hornets target to replace Walker. HEAT point guard Norris Cole was one of the top names mentioned the Hornets would target, but they ultimately passed on Cole for Williams, who is in his twelfth season in the NBA. With Williams, the team gets a player that has plenty of winning experience to help a young team get into the postseason.
Williams helped LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers to deep playoff runs in each of his first two seasons in Cleveland and has more playoff experience with the Los Angeles Clippers and Portland Trail Blazers. It’s that experience that made Williams so attractive to the Hornets.
“Development comes in many ways,” Clifford said. “For me as a coach, guys like P.J. Hairston and Noah Vonleh have an opportunity to learn what a pro-player is everyday watching [Williams] just like when [Luke] Ridnour was here. The way they work, the way that they play and the way they know the league. There’s nothing more valuable than that to me. I think a lot of times people think that development is they get to play in the games whether they play poorly or well.
“I know Cody Zeller and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist grew so much from the opportunity they had last year to play in meaningful games. To me, you perform well, you get to play in the game. You do your work, you’re professional you get to play in the games. They have to learn that. I’m not into the we drafted him here so they get to play, I think guys get the wrong idea. If you want to get the rewards [of the league], you have to practice like a man, be a professional like a man and learn from the guys who know what it takes to be professional.”
The change of scenery has Williams in a position to compete for another postseason appearance, something that didn’t seem likely at the beginning of the season. Williams signed with the Timberwolves in the offseason and seemed more likely to help the team’s younger players mature and develop rather than compete for a postseason berth. Williams previously admitted to taking the success the Cavaliers had for granted, but is ready to return to the postseason and make new memories.
“It’s always fun to play for something special at this point in my career,” Williams said. “Big Al [Jefferson] hit me up, he knew what was happening before I did so I started to get kind of excited about it even before it happened. This summer we even talked about it, I wanted to come here this summer but unfortunately it didn’t happen then, but when we talked about it right around the deadline it happened the next day. So I’m glad it happened, some things are just destined to happen. I wanted to come here this summer and fortunately it worked out.”
The Hornets are planning on playing both Williams and Walker together once Walker returns to the lineup. Walker’s return will provide a huge boost for the team’s offense, which has struggled for much of the season and is the third-worst in the league in offensive rating since Jan. 1. For now, the team is relying on a defense that has become the league’s best since the calendar flipped to 2015. The team ranks first in defensive rating and is holding opponents to the fewest points in the league at 92.2 points per game.
“You can get physical with guys and you could be a good individual defender, but even the best defenders are hard to guard,” Williams said. “It’s always the offensive guy that has the advantage. Me being a good offensive player I know that, I’ve got an advantage every time down the floor but if a team has got a good attention to detail, and all five guys are working on it, it’s going to be hard to score on those guys. So that’s what kind of defensive team we are. We got great attention to detail, we get to our spots and we make them take the shot that we want them to take which is a low percentage shot.”
JaVale McGee Won’t Join Celtics
After getting waived by the Philadelphia 76ers earlier this week, it appeared as though free agent center JaVale McGee was close to signing with the Boston Celtics, however, the two sides were unable to reach an agreement on a contract. The 76ers opted to waive McGee before the playoff-eligibility deadline, which would allow McGee to sign with a playoff contender and play during the playoffs.
The two sides reached a snag in the process over control of next season’s option. McGee reportedly wanted control over his future and was seeking a player option for next season while the Celtics wanted control of the option in case McGee played well so they’d be able to keep him under contract.
McGee is said to be garnering interest from just about every team currently in the playoff picture, with the exception of the Cavaliers, Thunder and Clippers. The Celtics appealed to McGee because he’d have a chance to play significant minutes for head coach Brad Stevens and help lead a young team to the playoffs. The Celtics are one of six teams in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race and are just two games back of Charlotte for the final playoff spot.
The Toronto Raptors have been mentioned as a team that will reach out again to McGee, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports. McGee remains a solid option for teams in the playoff chase that could use a rim protector off of the bench.
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