The latest news from Charlotte Observer is that Cliff may go with the surprising starting unit of Walker, Batum (SG), PJ Hairston (SF), Al Jefferson and he’s still undecided between Zeller or Williams for the PF position. To me, if he goes with Williams over Zeller for PF, that’s making a big mistake even WORSE. The starting lineup of Walker/Batum/Hairston/Williams/Jefferson has too many players playing out of position and it doesn’t leave enough time for our stacked Power Forward position.
Before I delve deeper into why I think starting Hairston AND Williams is a mistake, I want to say that overall I think Cliff is a solid coach. To me, he’s the best coach Lin has had (and I’m including D’Antoni, who I’ve never been really high on). I know some Lin fans hesitate to question Cliff’s coaching, since he’s treated Lin so well so they don’t want to “rock the boat”. But since Cliff is clearly struggling with the decision of who to start and likely questioning himself, I don’t see questioning Cliff’s starting lineup as “rocking the boat” or any sign of disrespect towards Cliff. I think even after Cliff makes his decision, he’s going to continue to question whether or not he made the right decision.
So me questioning Cliff’s starting lineup is simply a way of exercising critical thinking as an observer of the game and bringing up issues that Cliff maybe wrestling with. It’s not at all about disrespecting coach Cliff. Just because I like Cliff, it doesn’t mean I’m going to blindly agree with everything he does. I’m someone who enjoys analyzing things, so naturally, I’m going to analyze and think critically about key decisions that are made by the coach, regardless of whether or not I support the coach overall. I want to be clear in stating that Jeremy Lin made the right decision when he decided to join the Hornets, so me questioning Cliff’s starting lineup doesn’t mean I’m questioning whether or not Hornets is the right team for Lin. Now that this caveat is out of the way, let’s get to some reasons why I think starting Hairston AND Williams is a big mistake.
If Cliff goes with Williams over Zeller, he has TWO guys in the starting lineup playing out of position: Batum and Williams. Also, we have three really good Power Forwards fighting for time off the bench: Zeller, Kaminsky and Hansborough. I think we need at least one true PF in the starting lineup, just because of the sheer strength the Hornets have in that position. Why wouldn’t you make sure you maximize your PF spot, since you’ve got a lot of talent in that position? It’s just insane to me that Cliff may even think not to have a true PF in the starting position, because he’s got so many of them he can put in that position. Why have Williams play out of position? This is made even more insane when you think about the fact that we lost MKG, who’s a Small Forward and need a solid Small Forward, which is what Batum is! To me, the obvious silver lining to MKG going down is that Batum (a big key for the Hornets) gets to go back to playing his natural position. So, instead of letting Batum go back to his natural position, you’re going to replace MKG with PJ Hairston and force Williams to play PF? To me, that’s a jumbled mess. I think its a big mistake to have one of your big key players (Batum) pay out of position.
Cliff’s reason for starting Hairston is that he thinks Hairston can be a defensive stopper. I think this is where Cliff has really confused himself. He’s still trying to hold onto last season’s Hornets strategy, rather than completely embracing the new look Hornets offense. This season’s Hornets isn’t going to win on defense, they’re going to win on their offense. Their defense just needs to be adequate. Missing MKG this season is totally different from missing MKG last season, so why get hung up on trying to find an MKG replacement by putting Hairston in there as a very poor man’s MKG? I think this is where Cliff is getting too cute and over thinking things. Being too smart for his own good, by trying to piece everything together like a puzzle.
With this insane lineup, of Walker/Batum/Hairston/Williams/Jefferson, you have a lot of talent on the bench and you have a lot of guys potentially playing out of position. With this lineup, I don’t even know what happens to the second unit. Does Lamb play SG or SF? Does Lin play SG or PG? If PG, then what happens to Brian Robberts? Is Kaminsky going to get much playing time? And Hansborough, who has been great in the preseason as a rebounding machine and somewhat of a rim protector, is not going to see the floor, which is unfortunate. With this unit, the only easy substitution is Hawes coming in for Jefferson. Everything else is a jumbled mess, since you got a lot of guys playing out of position. Why create so much havoc, simply because you want a poor man’s defensive stopper to replace missing MKG, which is probably the LEAST important issue for THIS new look Hornets team to solve?
I think coach is way over-thinking things. In my view, the rotation is very simple:
Second Unit: Roberts/Lamb/Williams/Kaminsky/Hawes
Third string: Troy Daniels, Aaron Harrison, PJ Hairston, Tyler Hansborough
Another way you can look at the rotation is thus:
In this scenario, you only have ONE player who’s playing out of position: Jeremy Lin. And this player has shown that he can play shooting guard very well. To me, it’s more important to have your guys play in their natural position than probably anything else. Even superstars, like Carmelo Anthony, suffer when they’re forced to play out of position. I think playing out of position is probably the most detrimental thing to a player’s game. With Cliff’s projected starting unit, he’s got so many guys playing out of position, which is a huge mistake to me.
Hopefully, Coach Cliff will realize his mistake sooner rather than later. But it looks like no matter what Cliff seems to be adamant about Lin coming off the bench, which is a big mistake and a shame. As much respect as Cliff has for Lin’s game, he STILL doesn’t see Lin as the best player on the team. Because if he did, then Lin would be starting. In every example not involving Jeremy Lin, the best player on the team starts no matter what! So the fact that Cliff appears to be adamant about not starting Lin tells me that Cliff doesn’t see Lin as clearly the best player on the team. Don’t give me examples about Iguodala or Ginobili, because neither of these players are THE BEST players in their respective teams. If they were, they would be starting, no doubt about it!
Cliff is not starting Lin, because he likes Lin with Hawes, Lamb and Zeller. But Lin can play with anyone–especially now that Lin has a deadly jumper–so to me I think you want the unit of Walker/Lin/Batum on the floor as much as possible. So you should start that unit, not just close with that unit. There’s no question to me that Cliff will close games with Walker/Lin/Batum. With Lin coming off the bench, I expect him to get around 28 minutes or less, which is a HUGE mistake. Lin should be getting 34+ minutes for Hornets to maximize their potential. There is still a chance Lin may be able to break the 30 minute mark. If so, then one could argue that that may even be better for Lin than if Lin got to start, IF it means Lin will be the primary ball-handler when he’s on the floor. We’ll see how it all shakes out.
No matter what happens to Lin, though, I think this crazy starting unit with Hairston and Williams is a big mistake overall for causing too many guys to play out of position and not fully utilizing the position where the Hornets have the most talent: Power Forward. This crazy starting lineup is also going to suffer against good teams, since it’s not powerful enough offensively to make up for its defensive liability. With the starting lineup of Walker/Lin/Batum/Zeller or Kaminsky/Jefferson, your offense is going to overwhelm and more than make up for your defensive liabilities. By the way, I think this lineup is just as good or at least not much worse defensively as the crazy lineup that Cliff appears to be going with for defensive reasons. Again, I think Cliff has himself all turned around, because he’s too fixated on filling the whole that MKG left (trying to fit all the “old” pieces together, rather than embracing a completely new set of puzzle pieces if that makes any sense).
With this weak starting unit, Hornets are likely going to have to fight from behind against good teams. This unit is also going to struggle against big lineups. If I were Ciff, I would consider starting Hansborough whenever Hornets go up against really big lineups, since Hansborough is the only one on the team that comes close to being a rim protector and a rebounding machine. But Cliff appears to be very low on Hansborough, probably because Cliff likes to play four out and Hansborough can’t shoot. I think most of the time, that strategy is good, but against some teams, I think you can sacrifice spacing for rim protection and rebounding.
Again, I want to stress that I think Cliff is a fine coach overall. I just think he’s overthinking things and trying to be too cute and creative by playing too much with the lineups and asking too many players to play out of position. Hopefully, he’s open-minded enough to change course if it looks like this lineup causes more problems than it solves for the Hornets. From what I’ve observed of Cliff so far, he does seem to be pretty open-minded and willing to change course. But it will likely take him time since he’s going to want to keep the starting lineup the same for a while. If Cliff goes with the starting lineup of Hairston AND Williams for more than, say, 30 games, then I am no longer optimistic about the Hornets winning 45+ game and be seeded at number 5 in the East. I think with that crazy starting lineup for 30+ games, they’ll barely make the playoffs at the 8th spot. I just hope he realizes his mistake sooner, rather than later and changes course after 10 games. We’ll see.
Regardless of what Cliff does, if Lin doesn’t manage to break the 30 minute mark, which is a very difficult feat coming off the bench, then the Hornets are not going to maximize their potential. With Lin playing 34+ minutes a game, I see the Hornets getting the 4th seed in the East. This ONLY happens if Lin starts. As a result, I’m less optimistic about Hornets’s chances of making a lot of noise in the playoffs now that I know Cliff wants Lin coming off the bench. Sure, they’ll make the playoffs, but they’ll likely be in the 6th to 8th spot. IF Lin comes off the bench with 30+ minutes, then they’ll be in the 5th spot. But, of course, Hornets making the playoffs is already exceeding people’s expectations of them, so this is the problem that we face. No matter what the Hornets do, they’ll exceed very low expectations, so looking back no one will see that NOT starting Lin and NOT playing Lin 34+ minutes was a big mistake. They’ll think they made the right decision to have Lin be a spark off the bench.