This might sound like it’s getting old, but Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford thinks it’s all about being new.
Specifically he was talking about three free agents in his rotation – Lance Stephenson, Marvin Williams and Brian Roberts.
“I think they’re all getting acclimated,” Clifford said of the three off-season signings. “All three of them I like. All three do things that can help us play better and win.”
The winning part, not so much yet. The Hornets are a disappointing 4-9 entering Sunday’s 6 p.m. road game against the Miami Heat. They are on a four-game losing streak and face a tough stretch of five games in seven nights starting with the Heat.
The three new veterans – wing scorer Stephenson, power forward Williams and backup point guard Roberts – have been OK so far; nothing horrible but also nothing great.
The transition to a new team (and in the case of Williams, a new role) has been complicated by preseason injuries. Stephenson missed half the eight exhibitions with a hamstring strain. Williams missed an exhibition with an elbow contusion and then missed some regular-season time with knee tendinitis.
Clifford says he’s seeing progress, particularly with Stephenson, who signed a three-year, $27.4 million contract in July.
“Obviously Lance is becoming more comfortable and will do more and more things,” Clifford said at practice Saturday. “He did a really good job on (Orlando’s Tobias) Harris defensively. And the rest of his game – particularly his passing – he’s getting more comfortable.”
Williams is with a new team and playing a position – power forward – that he filled just the last of his nine previous NBA seasons. The Utah Jazz used him there last season, but prior to that he was a small forward with the Atlanta Hawks and Jazz.
Williams is long enough to play power forward, but doesn’t have the bulk that his predecessor, Josh McRoberts, had to guard big men. McRoberts often took the toughest cover defensively, allowing center Al Jefferson to focus primarily on offense.
Roberts is a late bloomer, a player who had to go overseas before establishing himself in the NBA with the New Orleans Pelicans. Fans seem to be down on him, but that’s primarily due to an early-season shooting slump.
“Brian Roberts has really played very well. He hasn’t shot the ball well,” Clifford said. “Defensively he’s solid. I just know what he’s going to do – he’ll organize the team, he’s skilled, he can shoot and pass and he’s a solid defender.”
A detailed analysis of the current three acquisitions, and how they compare to the players they replaced or supplanted.
Stephenson vs. Gerald Henderson
Henderson’s statistics last season: 14.0 points per game, 43 percent shooting from the field and 35 percent from 3-point range. 4.0 rebounds, 2.6 assists. 1.5 turnovers.
Stephenson’s statistics so far: 9.8 points per game. 37 percent shooting from the field, 23 percent from 3-point range. 8.8 rebounds, 5.5 assists. 2.5 turnovers.
Analysis: It’s only 13 games into the regular season, and Stephenson deserves a chance to work into a rhythm and better synergy with new teammates. But the primary reason you’d make Stephenson the starter over Henderson is shooting, and so far that hasn’t been the case.
To his credit, Stephenson has found other ways to contribute. He’s been the best rebounding guard in the NBA this season and his 5.5 assists are much needed on a team hurting for the playmaking McRoberts once provided. On the other hand, his 2.5 turnovers are a detriment on a team without much margin for error. He tends to over-dribble without necessarily creating much advantage.
Stephenson has vacillated between imposing himself on games and deferring to teammates. That’s understandable in a situation such as this, but here’s Clifford’s advice: “He’s better when he’s on the attack, no question about it.”
Clifford added: “There are so many parts to (Stephenson fitting in). It’s him with his teammates. Defensively we’re similar in what we’re doing (to the Indiana Pacers), but offensively it’s so different. He does want to please – he wants to play well.”
Williams vs. McRoberts
McRoberts’ stats last season: 8.5 points per game, 43.6 percent from the field and 36.1 percent from 3-point range. 4.8 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.1 turnovers.
Williams’ stats so far: 6.7 points per game on 46.1 percent from the field and 40.5 percent from 3-point range. 3.2 rebounds, 1.2 assists and 0.9 turnovers.
Williams would be the first to tell you just how dissimilar his game is from that of McRoberts, who signed with the Miami Heat. Yes, they both have a reputation for making smart, quick decisions with the ball. But McRoberts’ special talent is a point-guard line ability to dribble and pass, while Williams’ first inclination is to shoot from range.
Williams is making 40 percent of his 3s, which should have the intended effect of spreading the floor, making like easier in the post for Jefferson. He is a sound defender in technique, but he doesn’t have the bulk and the physicality that McRoberts offered at that end of the floor.
Clifford recently called his team “tiny” in describing their tendency to give up offensive rebounds at the worst times. The McRoberts-to-Williams tradeoff did not help in that regard.
That does not mean, however, that the coach is displeased with Williams’ performance.
“This is a bigger adjustment for him” because of the position shift, Clifford said. “In his last stop he played the (power forward) spot, but that’s a different system. He’s been a (small forward) his whole career.
“His basketball IQ is very good and he has a high skill level.”
Roberts vs. Ramon Sessions
Sessions’ stats last season: 10.5 points, 40.9 percent from the field and 22.1 percent from 3-point range. 2.1 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 1.7 turnovers.
Roberts’ stats so far: 5.4 points per game on 37.7 percent shooting from the field and 28 percent from 3-point range. 1.0 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 0.8 turnovers.
Roberts made himself no fans by shooting so poorly initially. That’s something that was supposed to be a strength. But there other ways he’s contributed.
Clifford can’t be quite blunt in critiquing his players (think Bismack Biyombo earlier this season). He’s been consistently upbeat about Roberts because he feels he knows what he’s getting – a defender, a strong pick-and-roll player and a true point guard who keeps his team organized offensively.
“I’ve never seen teams that go deep into the playoffs without good organization,” Clifford said. “Everything your team should be about is how do you advance in the playoffs? What is San Antonio about? They’re incredibly organized on every possession at both ends of the court.”
Sessions isn’t a perfect comparison because he was traded at mid-season to Milwaukee in the Gary Neal deal. But he set a higher bar than his replacement, Luke Ridnour.
Sessions had one special talent – a gift for penetrating in a way that forced teams to send him to the foul line. Roberts doesn’t do one thing with such skill, but he’s more of a generalist and more of a facilitator.