Lou Williams has been the Clippers’ most important player since Blake Griffin was traded away over a season ago. He’s the straw that stirs the Clippers’ drink, the engine to their ship, the one player whose abilities absolutely can’t be replaced. When Lou Williams is on the court, they’re pretty damn good. When he’s not, they’re awful. There are many reasons for this, but the most significant is that he’s one of the deadliest offensive players of this entire era.
Everyone knows about Lou’s ability to draw fouls. Despite his (comparatively) small stature and lack of explosive leaping, Lou has been adept at getting the free throw line since his third season in the league, way back in 2007-2008. Even at age 32, with 22,407 NBA regular season minutes on his treads, Lou has a remarkably high free throw rate of 0.425: for every field goal attempt, he gets that many free throws. Since Lou is a career 83.9% free throw shooter, and is shooting a career high 89.6% this season, free throws are essentially guaranteed free points. Getting to the line is what makes Lou so efficient and such a relentless scorer, even when his shot is off. This season, whenever the Clippers have needed points to stop a run by the opposing team, Lou has been able to get to the line. His ability to feel out contact, catch guys leaning, and generally force players to jump into him is incredible. He’s a magician at drawing fouls, there’s no two ways about it.
However, as mentioned above, Lou has been a foul-drawing master for over a decade. What’s really made his play leap this season has been his improved playmaking. Lou’s assist percentage this season is 33.9, a career high by a massive margin, and it has shown during games. More than ever, Lou has looked to create for his teammates rather than forcing shots of his own. He’s become a sublime passer in the pick and roll, especially when partnered with Montrezl Harrell, and is able to make passes all over the court off simple actions. He can hit the roll man, hit the strong-side corner, flip the ball to the wing, and even make skip passes to the weak-side corner. In transition, Lou is patient, waiting for trailers running the lane or spotting up for three. While there are flashier passers than Lou, and players with better overall vision, not many NBA players are better at setting up their teammates for easier looks.
Not only has Lou upped his game as a creator this season, but he’s done so while also lowering his turnover rate from last season. While his turnovers often frustrate fans because they seem sloppy and forced, considering how heavy his scoring and playmaking responsibilities are, Lou’s actually quite careful with the basketball. Since he’s as close to a non-entity as possible in transition, it’s essential that he keep opponent fastbreaks to a minimum, and for the most part, he’s done so.
Of course, while Lou can pass and get to the line, he really gets cooking when his outside shot begins to drop. This season, Lou is hitting a career high from deep at 37.2%, though his attempts are at a shockingly low 3.8 per game. Lou’s three-ball fell off a cliff in the second half of last season as he grew fatigued, and a good guess is that he’s conserving his legs this season, knowing that he will have to take an even heavier burden down the stretch. While it’s not great when Lou starts taking too many threes, he will need to up his attempts from deep to provide the Clippers with increased spacing and create the deadliest version of himself.
There’s no question that Lou can improve this season. In two months, November and January, Lou has been positively frigid from the field, with 36.8/32 shooting splits in the former and 41.1/30.3 in the latter. If he can avoid another extended cold spell, his numbers will look that much better, and the Clippers’ prospects will correspondingly improve.
Even with a couple long shooting droughts, Lou’s impact on the Clippers has been unparalleled. There’s his 3.64 ORPM, which is 10th highest in the NBA, and highest among all shooting guards, signifying how potent an offensive force he is. Then there are his truly outrageous on/off numbers. When Lou Williams is on the court this season (1382 minutes), the Clippers have a 6.7 Net Rating (113.5 ORTG, 106.7 DRTG). In the 1475 minutes he’s been off, the Clippers have a -5.2 Net Rating (104 ORTG, 109.2 DRTG).
One could argue that those numbers are just the result of playing with a stacked bench unit and not a struggling starting group. But the next-highest Net Rating of any Clipper with semi-extended minutes this season is Ty Wallace (3.9), and the next-highest with a significant every-game role is Pat Beverley (2.8). The reverse also holds: the Clippers are a positive or slight negative with every play in off-court rating except Lou (Pat is the next lowest at -1.6).
Basically, when Lou plays, the Clippers’ overall play approaches the Golden State Warriors on the season (6.9), and when he doesn’t, they’re somewhere between the Atlanta Hawks and Memphis Grizzlies. If anyone doubts the weight of the numbers, the eye test supports Lou’s case 100%. When Lou is on the court, no opposing lead feels safe, and the Clippers’ possessions always have a certain level of reliability. When he’s not, the Clippers sometimes shine with increased ball movement and shared ball-handling, but more frequently flounder with non-threatening possessions and handing the basketball around the perimeter like a hotcake. Lou’s ability to shoot, create for others, create his own shot, and get to the line can’t even be close to replicated by anyone else on the Clippers’ roster. In fact, they can’t be replicated by many players in the NBA, period.
Lou’s boxscore stats - 19.9 points and 5.3 assists in just 26.1 minutes - are impressive enough to win him a record-tying third Sixth Man of the Year Award on their own. But it’s his impact, the way he juices the Clippers’ offense from poor to phenomenal, that makes him a virtual lock to win the honor. It was tough to make an All-Star case for Lou this season: the West is stacked, and the Clippers weren’t good enough that they had to merit a representative. But Lou unquestionably would have (or should have) made the team in the East, and he’s right on the fringe in the West. Aging like a fine wine, Sweet Lou remains a unique weapon, and the most potent bench player in the NBA. The Clippers are fortunate to have him.