We're running a series of "exit interviews" of the 2011 Los Angeles Clippers. An overview and analysis, player by player, of all 14 Clippers who ended the 2010-2011 season on the roster. In this edition: late-season acquisition Mo Williams.
Name: Mo Williams
2010-2011 Key Stats: 15.2 ppg, 5.6 apg, .398 3P% (22 games with the Clippers)
Years in the NBA: 8
Years with the Clippers: 1
2010-2011 Salary: $9,300,000
Contract Status: Signed through 2012 at $8.5M; player option for 2012-2013 at $8.5M
In a Nutshell
When news broke just hours before the Feb. 25 trade deadline that the Clippers had traded Baron Davis and their 2011 first-round pick for Mo Williams and Jamario Moon, my initial reaction was somewhere between shock and relief. Shock that another team had agreed to take on Davis' monstrous contract, and relief that it had actually happened. The timing of the whole thing felt awkward - especially after Davis finally seemed to be happy and playing well, and just shortly after he had thrown an alley-oop from inside a Kia sedan to Blake Griffin in a gesture symbolic of an improbable re-birth, of a recognition that ceding control of the franchise was both the fun and the right thing to do. And so, part of the shock was that, just as soon as Baron appeared to have found his place with the Clippers, it was all being taken away far more abruptly.
Much of the relief stemmed from the sudden realization that the burden of Baron's salary and his sway over the direction of the team were gone - and that in return, the Clippers had received someone just two years removed from an All-Star season. For being a salary throw-in, Moon was decent, but Williams, the centerpiece of the Clippers' haul, also was an established point guard and easily a better shooter, if half the distributor Davis still is. Gone would be the instinctive backdoor alley-oops with just the right amounts of loft and velocity, but in came a softer touch from beyond the arc, certainly softer than anything we saw in Davis' continuous parade of ill-timed clanks. Financially, this appeared like a smart move, too, exchanging a more expensive contract for a kinder one that didn't bring with it the same "bust" potential - Williams was a known, and less volatile, commodity.
But then the more I thought about it, the more I doubted my original impression. Granted, the trade made sense, yet I couldn't stop thinking about the opportunity the Clippers had relinquished. Despite his age and iffy conditioning, Davis had shown he was still plenty capable of guiding this team, as he did in a 9-5 January, running and dishing his way back into the hearts of more than a few fans. Without him, the Clippers would miss their fiery leader and the connection he had forged with Griffin, in particular. Forget the contract - this Baron finally had you rooting for him.
The more logical conclusion, though, remained clear, if less romantic. It was time for Davis to move on. This had already become Griffin and Gordon's team, and the Clippers needed to bid farewell to Davis' contract as soon as they received a fair offer. They did and got a different player who may not have Davis' bravado but quickly proved a worthy investment as he eased into a supporting role, helping the Clippers to an 11-11 record in the games he played for L.A. last season. Even if we'll likely see more of the same from Williams over the next two years - a prospect not everyone can get excited about - chances are we'll also watch him facilitate the continued ascension of such players as Griffin and Gordon, and ultimately, that's what matters.
Williams is similar to Davis in at least one regard: he relishes taking the big shot. The difference is that he's decidedly better at making that shot. While Davis' inefficiency becomes even more glaring in crunch-time, Williams was one of the best in the league in these situations last season, though, as indicated by the negative points differentials of the Cavaliers and the Clippers, he didn't play in many games that went down to the wire. Still, despite the small sample size, there's no denying his effectiveness. In 51 minutes of clutch time (defined as fourth quarter or overtime, less than five minutes left, neither team ahead by five or more points) last season with the Cavaliers, he averaged a remarkable 45.5 points per 48 minutes, better than anyone not named Kobe Bryant or Derrick Rose. That's before you consider that, in the clutch, Williams (.441 FG%) shot better than either Bryant or Rose (both had a .402 FG%) and averaged 11.4 assists per 48 minutes, a mark that put him behind only Deron Williams, Rajon Rondo and Steve Nash.
Those numbers dropped with the Clippers, though they were still good enough to place him near the upper echelon of end-game performers. In 53 minutes of clutch time with the Clippers, Williams averaged 34.5 points on 40% shooting per 48 minutes, while his assist average dove to 5.5. Much of the drop in production had to do with the fact that, next to an even more efficient shot-maker in Gordon, Williams wasn't asked to do as much in crunch-time. Regardless, there's no denying he was one of the league's best last-game options last season.
Amid all the talk of Williams' marksmanship - he complements his outside shooting by being an 86.7% career free-throw shooter - and the complaints that he's not in Davis' class as a distributor, Williams' passing skills are probably being slightly underrated at this point. While he's not what you would consider a "true point," he really isn't a bad passer. Between his stints in Cleveland - where, in the wake of LeBron James' exit, he was tasked with creating opportunities for a terrible team - and L.A. last season, he ended more than a quarter of his possessions with an assist, a pretty respectable ratio considering that he specializes in outside shooting. And on a team with two gifted, developing passers in Griffin and Eric Gordon, you don't need to rely on a single player to dole out the looks.
By all accounts, Williams already acknowledges that fact, which is a positive sign for next season. Toward the end of his time with the Clippers, Davis at long last understood his role - get the ball to Gordon and Griffin first, score second - but there was always the fear that, at any moment, he would revert to the selfish, awful-shot-loving Baron of old. With Williams, the Clippers have a point guard who can run a pick-and-roll, lead a break and make the right passes, but also one less likely to ignore the talent beside him. Already, Gordon has hinted that he prefers Williams over Davis as a floor-mate, and though concerns exist that Williams often failed to get him the ball in his "favorite spots," Gordon's struggles during the final month of last season were probably more a product of attempting to play through a wrist injury that was clearly bothering him.
Alas, Williams isn't completely unlike Davis because, even though he's much more accurate, he's also prone to shooting his team out of games once in a while. Certainly not as often as Davis, but there's always the risk of that happening with a streaky shooter like Williams. It happened in just his sixth game with the Clippers, when he shot 3-for-17 in a 102-98 loss to the Nets, and Williams seemed to have as many good shooting nights as he did poor ones the rest of the season.
With some players, you get the feeling that, provided enough space, the shot is always going in. It's not quite the same with Williams, at least not all the time. Maybe it's that he's simply not a pure shooter, but more attention should be paid to the fact that he's not the marksman he was a few years ago. He shot right around 40% from 16-23 feet in each of the last two seasons, but 45% from that range in 2009 and a Nowitzki-an 53% in 2008. Last season Williams had been shooting a dreadful 38.5% from the field with the Cavaliers before being traded to the Clippers, where playing next to a more talented cast helped him up his accuracy, though not to where it was during his peak a few seasons earlier.
The declining percentages don't bode well for Williams, who depends so heavily on his outside shooting. Fortunately, he's only 28 and still has time to show he can fully recapture his shooting form. And since he's not one of the top two options on the Clippers, he'll have to make himself useful in others way as well. That's where he runs into trouble, though, because apart from his shooting, he doesn't excel at anything else. For one, his lack of height makes him a liability on defense, even more so when you consider he starts next to a 6'3" shooting guard. Williams is quick, but that trait manifests itself more on offense and he doesn't have Davis' strength or Eric Bledsoe's athleticism at his disposal on defense.
As for his passing, Williams could stand to sharpen his existing connections. He will never be much of a drive-and-kick type of player - he rarely penetrates, and on the few occasions he does get to the rim he's primarily looking to score - which would call for him to perfect the passes he can make, including entry passes and lobs to Griffin. We did see flashes of his creativity, especially in some clever bounce passes on the break, but cutting down on turnovers (three a game last season with the Clippers, compared with 5.6 assists) and learning how to get the ball to his teammates quickly and efficiently should be his main concerns for now.
Future with the Clippers
Here's an experiment I'd like to see: the Clippers bringing Williams off the bench in a Jason Terry-type role. Give Eric Bledsoe valuable experience by starting him, but still play Williams a lot of minutes, especially at the ends of games, to provide a healthy dose of outside shooting. Not that I'm counting on it ever happening - the Clippers are paying him to be a starter, and while he's expressed his desire to be a mentor to Bledsoe, I doubt a former All-Star would be willing to sacrifice that much in the process.
That said, I do believe we'll begin to see more and more of Williams playing off the ball. He might be the most experienced ball-handler and passer on the team, but he's clearly not the Clippers' best player, or even the second-best. Gordon has proven himself a shaky but promising ball-handler, as well as one of the best clutch scorers in the league, and Griffin is frighteningly good with the ball for being a 6'10" power forward. The Clippers' powerful young duo already has the tools and the talent to run things, and Griffin and Gordon's responsibilities with the ball will undoubtedly increase as they mature. What's more, Williams has done plenty of off-ball work before, having played with LeBron in Cleveland, so handing the reins to the youngsters shouldn't be a problem.
Such a plan would have faced some complications had the Clippers passed on Cleveland's offer. Davis may have finally found harmony with the team, accepting that he would never be its brightest star, but given his track record, the risk that he would hijack things, even if unintentionally, remained real. And really, by then, it was too late for Davis. Too late not to trade him for Williams, at least. In ridding themselves of that massive contract, the Clippers in return received a pretty decent player, who was younger and ironically less sexy, but safer and more reliable. Who knows how much longer Davis could have kept playing at a high level before injury or complacency struck? The Clippers essentially sold him high, getting a nice piece in return to add to what's swiftly becoming Blake and Eric's team.
There are those who still pine for Davis' dynamic playmaking and unique swagger, but it's all about context in this case. I'd rather have Williams, both younger and more aware of his shortcomings, with a more flexible contract to boot. Upon learning of the trade, Williams waived his early termination option for next season and has a player option for 2012-2013, which he will likely exercise. So it's a good guess that he'll stay with the team for at least the next two seasons, which, given his own strong leadership and apparent commitment to building something here, really isn't a bad thing. I'd be surprised if the Clippers, currently engrossed in the youth movement, kept him beyond that point, but there's no telling if Bledsoe will have become a legitimate starter by then or if a more permanent solution comes along. For now, Williams seems like a pretty good fit, though we'll find out more next season. At the very least, he appears to understand the nature of his role, and though he came to the Clippers in a more advantageous situation, Williams has the added benefit of already knowing what didn't work for Davis before him.
Other 2011 Exit Interviews