Continuing the series that's started this week, we continue to evaluate different aspects of how Monty Williams performed his duties as the Head Coach for the New Orleans Hornets this season. One topic that generated plenty of discussion this year was Monty's rotation and more specifically, Monty's tendency to, too often, play small ball. Throughout the season, most of us, were frustrated by Jason Smith playing over Aaron Gray at center or by Willie Green playing Small Forward. However, given the Hornets lack of size (poor Emeka Okafor is only 6'9"), it's hard to truly define what constitutes a small ball lineup for the Hornets. For all intensive purposes, we'll include Okafor as a true, legitimate center and go from there. After that, the rules become a little clearer.
First of all, all numbers for this post are credited to basketballvalue.com. Second of all, here are some qualifications as to what constitutes as a small ball lineup. If Trevor Ariza is playing power forward, it's a small ball lineup. If David West is playing center, it's a small ball lineup. Similarly if Jason Smith is even playing center (although he's taller than Emeka), I'm going to consider that a small ball lineup. Marcus Thornton at small forward should constitute as a small ball lineup. Even though I don't see it as such, it'll be addressed. Also if there's a moment where Willie Green is playing small forward, I will include that. So the main thing here is to see how often Monty truly deployed those small ball lineups (because we seemed to catch them all the time) and how effective those lineups truly were. For clarification purposes, we will use offensive rating, defensive rating and overall rating for each lineup discussed. So let's jump into it shall we?
It comes as no surprise that the Hornets starting five received the majority of the minutes at each of their positions. Only once this year did someone in the starting lineup lose their spot in the lineup not because of injury, and that was when Marco Belinelli lost his job to Willie Green. Monty knew what lineup he wanted to use and traditionally used that lineup for huge portions of the game. As the season wore on, he tried finishing games with Jarrett Jack or Willie Green at shooting guard with mixed results. The second most used lineup this season consists of Willie Green playing with the other starters. This lineup saw an 11.72 point drop in overall rating than when Belinelli was in the game. The defense was better with Green in the lineup but the offensive rating goes from 108.17 to 94.86 with Green in the lineup. That's pretty staggering for the second most utilized lineup for the team.
Oddly enough, I criticized Monty for putting Jason Smith in the lineup at center all season. However, albeit in a much smaller sample size, the team performed better statistically with Smith at center than they did with Okafor. When the starters had Smith and Willie Green in the lineup, the offensive rating of the team went from 108.17 with all of the starters to 120.69. And even the defensive rating didn't dip much at all, going from 105.16 to 105.52. This came as a surprise to me because Smith's really low rebounding numbers were poor all season long. However the numbers proved me wrong again, as the team only gave up 1.85 possessions per minute with Smith in the game; exact same percentage as Okafor. But when Smith is in the game with a small lineup or without Green at shooting guard, the numbers look pretty bad. One thing that does stand out, however, is that the worst lineup used all season by the team (with at least 20 minutes together on the floor) was with Smith and Marcus Thornton on the court. Playing with the other starters and with Smith and Thornton, the team's offensive rating dropped to 87.37, the worst average on the team, although the 103.33 defensive rating is respectable.
The only way to properly evaluate Smith at center is to compare him with Aaron Gray. Gray was actually never paired with all four of the other starters at once. The most frequently used lineup that had Gray in it was comprised of him, Willie Green and the other three starters at their positions. In that lineup, the team's offensive rating was at 107.62, although their defensive rating suffered; rising up to 106.36. D.J. Mbenga did get to play with all of the other four starters at once, though, this season. The team's defensive rating would improve from 105.16 with the starters to 101.72 but the team's offensive rating would dip to 96.49. But the team was absolutely at its worst when David West was playing center. We all love West, and we all think the world of him. But we saw last season that this team just suffers defensively when he has to play center to close out ball games. This year was no different. When West played center the team suffered regardless of who else was in the game. When he played with Paul, Ariza, Jack and Willie (ultra small ball), the team had a good offensive rating of 110.42, but were trounced defensively to the tune of a 123.40 defensive rating. But it gets worse. When West played center next to Carl Landry (after the trade) but with the other starters, the team actually had a defensive rating of 134.15, validating what I saw and what I believe that West and Landry simply cannot play on the court together.
When Monty wasn't going small all over, the team actually managed to do fine with Willie Green at Small Forward. When he played with the other starters at the SF spot, Willie and company were the most efficient lineup for the team; sporting an offensive rating of 131.92 and a defensive rating of 93.00 for a whopping overall rating of 38.91. Only one other lineup comes close to that overall rating, at 33.98, and it oddly enough also has Willie playing small forward. In this lineup, Monty serves me a nice helping of shut up juice by playing Willie and Jason Smith with Paul, Belinelli and West. This lineup had an offensive rating of 136.26 and a defensive rating of 102.38.
In conclusion, we see that the team struggles when David West is employed at center and has majorly for the last two seasons. Monty still went to that lineup way too many times, though, and the numbers (and our eyes) state that the team got burned with West at center every single time. Jason Smith actually didn't kill the Hornets at center as I originally believed he did. There were lineups where the team succeeded with him in it and lineups were they were average to below average with him in there. The team actually performed fairly well with Willie Green in the game this season, which came as a surprise to me since his individual numbers were so damn bad all season. We've already mentioned the 38.91 and 33.98 lineups, but the Hornets also had a lineup that posted an overall rating of 27.92 (also with Jack at SG, Landry at PF with Paul and Okafor) and 25.93 (with Jack also at PG with the rest of the starters).
Willie's success could be attributed to the high volume of shots that Trevor Ariza took (and missed) this season as well but the defense didn't seem to dip with him playing at SF. In fact, the only lineup that played at least 20 minutes together this season and that really struggled with Willie at the SF spot had David West at center. But seeing Monty's propensity for playing West at center, and with no real consistent lineups with Aaron Gray at center, it's fair to argue that his late game rotations may have cost the team some victories this season that they otherwise would have earned. However, it's fair to say that those victories were not given away by a tendency to overplay Willie Green.