Lou Williams is a phenomenal basketball player. He was the best player on the Lakers roster this season and thrilled fans night in and night out with his ability to go on insane scoring binges, which inspired countless tweets of fire emojis, exclamation points, and expletives.
He is a bad-shot maker, the kind of player who can carry a team when everything else is falling apart (a truly valuable skill), and his mind-boggling ability to get to the free throw line is one of the wondrous mysteries of the NBA.
And yet, the Lakers are better off without him.
In his first official move as president of basketball operations, Magic Johnson personally oversaw the trade that shipped Williams to the Houston Rockets in exchange for a 2017 first-round pick and veteran swingman Corey Brewer. Initial analysis of the deal concluded that the Rockets were adding yet another flame-thrower to Mike D’Antoni’s impressive arsenal while the Lakers assured themselves that they would have a selection in this summer’s draft regardless of how the ping pong balls bounce in May’s draft lottery.
Absorbing Brewer’s deal was simply the price of doing business. It was a win-win trade that got both teams what they needed.
However, while it has been an admittedly small sample size of just three games, it appears as though we underestimated just how much of a positive impact not having Williams on the floor would make on the young Lakers.
They may be a better team (i.e. win more games) with him, but Williams acted as training wheels for the young Lakers. He can get his own shot in just about any situation, which meant that whenever the offense bogged down, Lou was there to bail the youngsters out. He also had the highest usage rate on the team at 30.6 (that’s near-Kobe level), which deprived future core players of valuable learning opportunities.
With Williams gone and the team is now free to ride on their own. They will wobble a little and crash a few times, but in the long run, they are going to develop faster because they no longer have Lou there to hold them steady. Indeed several Lakers, most notably D’Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson, have already had to step up their games.
It’s an admittedly small sample size, but in three games since the Williams trade, Russell has averaged 23.3 points, 6.0 assists, and 2.0 steals in 33.7 minutes, a represents a major increase over the 14.8 points, 4.8 assists, and 1.2 steals in 27 minutes that he has averaged for the season. Without Lou to lean on, Russell’s aggressiveness has hit another level, allowing him to increase his shots from 13.2 to 19.7. The uptick in playing time to a more respectable number for a starter and allows Russell to get valuable experience in crunch time, which had been one of the few criticisms lobbed at head coach Luke Walton.
Simply put, the Lakers are better off long-term letting Russell steer the ship through the rough waters of the fourth quarter rather than Lou. It may mean absorbing a few extra losses this year, but considering the top-three protected status of their 2017 first-round draft pick, the Lakers don’t really want to win games right now anyway.
In order to stay competitive the Lakers simply have to get production out of their former second-overall pick, and so far he has provided just that. Russell has been far from a model of consistency over the course of his fledgling NBA career, so a regression is always possible, but for the time being it appears that he has accepted the challenge of leading the Lakers.
Williams fired up an average of 14 shots per game this season, so even with Russell launching 6.5 more shots per game, someone has to get the leftovers, and it appears that it’s Clarkson who will be the beneficiary.
After signing a new contract last summer for four years and $52 million, Clarkson was expected to be the Lakers starting shooting guard, but Walton surprised everyone by using him as a bench scorer instead. The move made some sense, as pundits have long questioned whether Clarkson would ultimately be best used as a reserve, but it slotted him next to sixth-man extraordinaire and occasional ball-stopper Williams.
As a result, we saw a diminished version of Clarkson for much of the season. He could never seem to find a rhythm on the offensive end, often attempting to force shots because he knew if he passed the ball to Williams he was unlikely to get it back. It makes some sense, as Williams often gave the Lakers the best chance to score, but again, it’s not about this season for Los Angeles. Clarkson taking a back seat doesn’t make sense if he’s the one expected to be part of the team’s long-term future.
Fortunately, the three games without Williams have seen a resurgence from Clarkson. He has returned to being the dynamic player that made him such a steal as the 46th pick in the 2014 draft, and consequently, he is once again making his contract look like a bargain.
Like Russell, Clarkson’s minutes and shot attempts have gone up post-Williams, but the numbers don’t really do justice to how much more comfortable he has looked on the floor. When he really gets going, Clarkson has the ability to survey the court and find seams to get into the paint. He is very quick, but he doesn’t explode to the basket so much as he slithers, using long strides to get a step on his defender and attack the rim.
Without having to give up the ball to Williams, Clarkson has been able to get back to that style, picking his spots carefully to either drive or pull up for a jumper. What’s particularly promising have been the few plays where Clarkson’s passing has made an appearance. As a full-time point guard during his rookie season he would often drive into the paint and kick out to open shooters, but that skill faded last season and all but disappeared when he was pushed to a bench role.
If he can find a way to interweave his scoring and passing skills then the Lakers will truly have a valuable asset coming off the bench.
It’s a small sample size, but as Lakers young guards step up and show growth, the Williams trade is looking more and more like an inspired move. They added a first round pick to their stash of assets, but perhaps more importantly, the Lakers have also created an ideal situation for their young guards to grow and develop.