Lou Williams Is Playing Borderline Impossible Basketball for the Lakers

We should probably go ahead and give the Sixth Man of the Year Award to Los Angeles Lakers guard Lou Williams already.
December 13, 2016, 7:19pm
Photo by Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA's Sixth Man of the Year Award is, for whatever reason, still decided by the most archaic factors: essentially, whoever averages the most points while not being in a starting lineup wins every time. Since the parameters are unlikely to change this year, we should probably go ahead and give the award to Los Angeles Lakers guard Lou Williams. It'll be his second in three years.

At 30 years old, Williams is somehow off to the best start of his career. His points, usage percentage (ninth highest in the league), Player Efficiency Rating (PER), and True Shooting have never been better—the rare case in which heaping more responsibility on a player doesn't make him less effective.

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Almost nothing in the NBA is as predictable as a Lou Williams possession. He usually starts either on the right wing or just above the arc, receives a ball screen going left, starts to drive and drift at the same time before pulling up to shoot at the exact moment his defender reaches in. For whatever reason, they always reach. It's mesmerizing. Nobody draws fouls on the perimeter—with impeccable timing and enough confidence to rise and shoot every single time he's touched—like Williams.

According to Synergy Sports, Williams is averaging 1.45 points per possession on left-side pick-and-rolls where he pulls up to shoot a jumper. That figure is mind-blowing. A little over a quarter of his points have come at the charity stripe, but that alone doesn't explain his recent explosion.

On December 3, he scored 40 points on 20 shots against the Memphis Grizzlies, with Tony Allen locked on him for most of the game. Williams followed that up with 38 points, seven assists, and six rebounds against the Utah Jazz; 24 points in 25 minutes in a blowout loss against the Houston Rockets; and another 35 points against the Phoenix Suns—in 35 minutes. According to the Lakers, it was the most points any NBA player has scored off the bench in a four-game stretch since 1971, when the league started to track starters and reserves.

Williams has never been more accurate beyond the arc (40 percent), and the Lakers' offensive rating is 108.5 with him on the floor and a team-low 96.0 when he sits—the same gap exists between the NBA's sixth and 30th (dead last) offensive units. What he's doing is unprecedented and borderline physically impossible.

Williams is going on a historic offensive tear. Photo by Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

At 6'1" and 175 pounds, Williams is too frail to hide on the weakest offensive threats, and he sometimes blurs the line between reliable bucket-getter and end-of-bench vagabond. It's no surprise that he has struggled in the postseason, when opponents can really hone in on his predictable tendencies and force him to either drive all the way into the paint (where he's actually been extremely effective this season, but not so much in years past) or make tough outside shots.

His career free-throw rate in the playoffs is .369, versus .419 in the regular season (and .557 in a Lakers uniform).

Which brings up a few interesting questions about his place in Los Angeles, and whether the organization should cash out sooner than later despite the good vibes and positive momentum his surgical offense is providing. Even though the playoffs aren't realistic for the Lakers this season (FiveThirtyEight gives them only a 6.0 percent chance), dealing your leading scorer while he's on a team-friendly contract for future assets may ruffle some feathers.

Williams' usage gives off slight late-career Kobe Bryant vibes. He isn't hijacking L.A.'s offense with jab steps, pump fakes, and enough iso-action to turn every other play into a staircase to nowhere, but all his used possessions could be transferred to the team's younger generation, like Brandon Ingram, D'Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, and Julius Randle.

Ingram has struggled through the first 27 games of his career, and a majority of his minutes have come with Williams also on the floor. Most of the second overall pick's numbers are better with Williams playing, but instead of having Ingram bring the ball up, call a play, and then space the floor or turn into a member of the audience, it would be nice to put the ball in his hands a little more.

A fair argument can be made to let Ingram get as comfortable as possible, and boost his confidence as a knock-down shooter who plays off his teammates, attacks closeouts, and operates in a simplistic role. He's still only 19 years old and there's no need to rush his evolution.

It's also impossible to blame rookie head coach Luke Walton for riding his best offensive player as much as he possibly can. Walton has done a good job staggering Williams and Russell, but the Lakers are awful when Williams isn't in the game, and usage rates for Randle and Clarkson don't really shift whether Williams is in or out.

The Lakers are ridiculously better on offense with Williams on the floor. Photo by Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Wins feel better than losses, and it's easier to recruit free agents with a stable product on the floor every night, but beyond that there's no rational incentive for the Lakers to be good right now. On the other hand, a full-on tank doesn't make much sense either, given that their pick will go to the Philadelphia 76ers if it falls outside the top three (which it almost definitely will).

In that case, maybe we're overthinking this whole thing. Perhaps hanging onto Williams and the "measly" $14 million he's owed this year and next is perfectly fine. Let him hypnotize opposing defenses for the rest of the year and know that getting off his contract won't be difficult should the Lakers need to clear salary for more cap space in July.

But as fun as this run is, don't expect Williams to remain onboard until the Lakers are actually good enough to make the playoffs. His 12th season has been his best one yet, and his skill-set belongs on a contender's bench. It would be nice to see him get there before he starts to decline.

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