A while back, I wrote about the Chaos Effect that Chris Paul creates. At his best, he’s completely unpredictable and indefensible. Will he roll the ball to half-court only to explode past an overzealous defender, dribble up lazily and run brutal pick and roll half-court sets, push the fast break, or wind around defenders, sanguine and unfathomable, with his patented fake-dribble, opposite shoulder juke, and thread a no-look pass past defenders to an open three point shooter? Paul is leading all point guards in 3-point shooting, is a master of drawing fouls (with a correspondingly deadly 90% accuracy at the line), and can carve up your team with zero-to-sixty acceleration scoring drives or his unerring ability to draw defenders and dish it out for assist on easy basket after assist on easy basket. That ability to do everything well, concomitant with the willingness to be cerebral and deceive defenders makes him difficult to guard in even the worst of his games.
When the Miami Heat started their 21-1 stretch earlier in the season, one of the observations made was that James, Wade, and Bosh were reacting to defenses and exploiting what they saw in the moment, rather than running straight sets. That is, they were all deciding on the spot what to do and using their growing cohesion and athletic talent to take advantage. One of the keys? They became much, much more unpredictable. When a team is predictable, it is easy to stop as long as you have the right defensive strategy and can execute it, which, in contrast, the early strugglesof the Heat, before that streak, showed. Some commentators likened this evolution to Phil Jackson’s judo-like reflexive Triangle offense, which, by design, runs less straight plays and instead takes what it is given. Jackson is the most successful coach in NBA history, so we don’t have to question the efficacy of his strategies. Unpredictability, inherently, shares a link to chaos, in that neither can be controlled.
When I first proposed my Chaos theory, I asked what the second unit could do to replicate Chris’ unpredictable skillset, even if to a lesser degree. At that time, I suggested Julian Wright might be able to produce chaotic effects to the team’s benefit, with his ability to shoot threes, long arms on defense, ability to run the break, and thunderous dunks. Wright never developed with any consistency, however, and was shipped out to Toronto over the summer. But what I wrote then still holds as true then as it does now: sometimes you have to stop trying to make players into your kind of guy and just free them. Any coach that tries to make CP3 or David West into anything they aren’t is fooling themselves. To his credit, new coach, Monty Williams, has done a superb job of building an offense around those two. But there’s just one thing he still needs to learn is okay.
How to free Marcus “Lil’ Buckets” Thornton.
Say it again. Free Marcus “Buckets” Thornton. Say it again. Free Buckets. The young second round draft pick has surpassed the expectations of most players picked in his position and has exploded over defenses again and again. Most three pointers by a Hornets rookie ever. Most points in a quarter by a Hornet (rookie or otherwise) ever. Listen to announcers from other teams on League Pass. They are always nervous when he enters the game. With good reason. Marcus has one of the quickest releases in the League and isn’t afraid to let it go. One of the reasons he is so valuable is that he can score in any way, at any time. How do you defend someone who is as likely to catch-and-shoot a deep three as he is to pump, pump, pump, and then explode past you to the rim, twist through your help defenders and contort around the rim for an impossible lay-in? How do you game someone who is as comfortable coming around off-ball screens to fire an open look as he is to take the ball, drive to the next defender, and dish to an open teammate? He runs the break with the best of them and can dominate defenders in isolation. He’s an excellent ballhandler, who despite being a natural shooting guard rarely turns the ball over, even when pressed to play the point, such as when injuries reduced the Hornets to him as the only guard last year, or even just to help beat the press. So the only question is what is causing Williams to give him less minutes than expected?
I understand the argument that he can be your sixth man. People like to compare his offensive game to Jason Terry, Jamal Crawford, and J.R. Smith. I’m fine with that. I wouldd prefer Paul and West get the largest percentage of first unit shots. So bringing Thornton off the bench makes sense. Kind of. I am also partial to starting your best players. But, regardless, Thornton is playing 16 minutes per game under Coach Williams. Terry plays 32 minutes a game, Crawford 31, and Smith 24. So what is it that Williams sees in those 16 minutes or at practice that he would prefer Willie Green at the two-spot? With three less minutes a game, Thornton is averaging more points, rebounds, assists, and steals per game than Green, while shooting the deep ball 6% better. Is it that defense thing? Monty would have us believe so. But I don’t buy it.
Thornton is a chaotic defender, who, though he can get lost from time to time, can also disrupt opposing offenses. He cheats the lanes, gets steals, and leads or participates in more fastbreaks than any Hornet on those turnovers the Hornets are so good at creating. And where does Thornton get the idea to play like that? Surely other Hornets don’t do that. Unless you’re talking about Paul or Trevor Ariza. Our two best defenders. Of course Marcus is not nearly as good as a defender as either, but he’s cut from the same cloth and he’s way better than he’s given credit for. Another factor is MT5’s speed. Green can’t match that; neither can Jack for that matter, who also sees some time at the shooting guard spot next to Paul. A lot of faster players can blow by a slower Green, while Thornton has the ability to keep with those guys. For that matter, I submit Thornton is as good as a defender as the Hornets’ starting two guard, Marco Belinelli, who has never been known as a stout defender (though has he has done reasonably well under Coach Williams). Does he have techniques and strategies to improve on? Of course. He’s a second year player.
But not always knowing whether he’ll be a frenetic devil on defense or a lost-in-screens, over-cheating two guard are not reasons to bench Thornton. A guy who can easily put up 16 points in 17 minutes on 70% shooting (with one of his misses being a half court heave) is not the guy that should be in a suit or getting a DNP-CD, just because he might go 2-10 instead of 7-10. In the NBA, every shooter has off nights. But most nights, Thornton is shooting lights out. If he’s not starting next to Chris Paul, he should be the first one off the bench, with heavy minutes in crunch time.
Coach Williams talks a lot about trust, and of young guys needing to learn at actual game speed. So how about it, Coach? Ready to sit back, take a deep breath, and be okay with not knowing what Buckets will bring your team? I’m not denying his performance will create chaos. But what I am saying is that it might be a good thing. Chris Paul creates MVP-quality chaos. Marcus Thornton could easily create sixth man of the year chaos, laying waste to NBA second units. But Williams has to go to him first. Not just when he’s desperate to stage the best comeback in team history.