It’s uncommon to see a player in the 12th year of his professional career take the proverbial next step, but Lou Williams appears to have done just that.
The veteran combo guard is currently setting career highs in multiple categories, including points per game (18.6), three-point percentage (38.6 percent), free-throw percentage (88.4 percent) and effective field-goal percentage (a very healthy 52.7 percent). He’s averaging 3.2 assists, 2.3 rebounds and 1.1 steals per contest, as well.
With Williams’ play trending up, and the Los Angeles Lakers as a whole moving in the opposite direction, it made sense for the two parties to split. After all, Williams is already 30 years old, making him a somewhat strange fit for the Lakers’ youthful roster.
Not to mention, Los Angeles only keeps its 2017 first-round draft pick if it finishes within the top three of the lottery. It was time for the team to fully accept its predestined path and blow the whole thing up.
Because of Williams’ playoff experience and efficient scoring, he had multiple suitors. Among them: the Washington Wizards, Charlotte Hornets and Utah Jazz (via ESPN.com’s Chris Haynes, Ian Begley and Zach Lowe). All three teams have playoff aspirations but lack a dynamic bench scorer.
Instead, an unexpected Woj Bomb hit us when Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical tweeted Williams would be on his way to Texas, joining the Houston Rockets. In exchange, the Lakers received the quintessential tanking package—a bad player on an (almost) expiring contract in Corey Brewer and an asset: Houston’s unprotected first-round pick.
The deal was a total surprise; of all the teams linked to Williams—and there were many—the Rockets’ name rarely came up. Furthermore, Houston already had an elite bench scorer in Eric Gordon.
So, why add another one?
What Williams Brings to the Table
Williams is one of the NBA’s most efficient scorers.
He shoots a lot of threes, takes a ton of free-throws (5.9 per game, 10th-most among guards) and avoids the dreaded mid-range jumper (fewer than two attempts nightly). His true shooting percentage stands at an absurd 60.9 percent, which is the sixth-best mark among guards who have played at least 25 games with a usage rate over 20, behind the likes of two-time MVP Stephen Curry and All-Star Isaiah Thomas, but ahead of Giannis Antetokounmpo and three-point sniper Klay Thompson.
The diminutive Williams (6’1”) is also surprisingly adept finishing around the basket. He shoots 58.5 percent within five feet of the rim, slightly ahead of the behemoth DeMarcus Cousins and his 57.2 field-goal percentage from the same area.
Meanwhile, Houston shoots the lowest number of mid-range jumpers, and bombards the opposition from beyond the arc and the foul line. It leads the league in shot attempts from deep and ranks third in free throws per game.
We can rather easily surmise why head coach Mike D’Antoni would covet another player like Williams. They’re, quite frankly, a perfect match—the heady player who wasn’t quite quite appreciated enough joining the forward-thinking team.
Williams stands out as elite in a couple other categories, too.
His iso-scoring abilities are treacherously effective. One of 75 players with an iso frequency of 7.5 percent on at least 50 possessions, the 30-year-old sits in the 86.1 percentile with 1.07 points per possession:.
As a pick-and-roll ball-handler, he also produces 1.07 points per possession, which places him in the 94th percentile. Among the 54 players who have used at least 200 such possessions in 2016-17, he stands out rather nicely:
Once Williams has you in a pick-and-roll situation, he’s more than likely going to do one of three things: step back and bomb a three, slither into the paint for an easy look or draw a foul.
He’s simply a nightmare to defend.
While Williams is deadly enough as the PnR handler, Rockets fans should be absolutely giddy that he’s now matched with one of the NBA’s premier roll men. Houston center Clint Capela is scoring 1.20 points per possessions rolling to the hoop—the No. 9 mark among players with a frequency over 15 percent and at least 100 possessions in the book.
They’re going to be beyond lethal together.
In Morey We Trust
Even before trading for Williams, the Rockets already had one of the NBA’s most productive benches. Houston’s reserves rank fourth in net rating (5.0), ninth in scoring (37.8 points per game), and sixth in three-pointers made (4.3 per contest).
Moreover, backup 2-guard Eric Gordon, much like Williams, is playing at an incredibly efficient pace. His 54.3 effective field-goal percentage is the highest mark of his career. And as James Harden’s backup, he’s still pouring in 17.2 points and 3.5 three-pointers per night.
Why rock the boat? Why risk what the Rockets already have by adding Williams to a bench that was already stacked?
For starters, general manager Daryl Morey is one of the league’s most ambitious executives. Let’s not forget that when the Oklahoma City Thunder inexplicably made Harden available after coming within three wins of the 2012 title, it was he who immediately pounced. (Sidenote: It’s still hard to believe the Thunder did that.)
To that point, Harden had been nothing more than a strong backup. He had shown flashes of greatness, but his 2012 Finals performance was a forgettable one. Regardless, Morey dealt two first-round picks, along with Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb, to acquire him.
He was also the man who signed a disgruntled Dwight Howard after his brief stint with the Lakers. Though that didn’t work out as well, it was still thought of as a coup at the time.
Essentially, Morey knows what he’s doing.
In Williams, he’s not just adding your run-of-the-mill bench scorer, either. He’s acquiring one of the NBA’s best offensive talents.
The new acquisition’s total points added, per NBA Math, is 74.7—good for 40th overall. His 163.77 offensive points added ranks No. 17, easily the best clip among bench players, The next highest reserve is Patty Mills (64.56).
Just to be clear, that’s a difference of almost 100 points over the next bench player. And that’s absurd.
Williams’ numbers will almost certainly take a hit in Houston. It doesn’t matter. Adding an ingenious attacker to an already elite offense could be the difference between reaching the second round of the playoffs and pushing the Golden State Warriors harder than they expected in the conference finals.
When the path to the Larry O’Brien Trophy requires going through a juggernaut on the Warriors’ level, any edge you can get is well worth acquiring.
Follow Frank on Twitter @frankurbina_.