What Makes Lou Williams So Great and Why the Lakers Should Still Trade Him

By: Chuck Lee

Imagine the terror one must feel as a defender as Lou Williams gets a step on you driving hard to his left. Maybe he pulls up and hits beyond the arc. Or he can take it into the open space behind you and finish at the basket. Or worst of all, you’re going to hear a whistle sending him to the line yet again for more free throws.

Williams is having by far the most effective season of his career. Not only is he averaging his most points per game this season (the Lakers’ leading scorer at 18.6), but on a per 36 minute basis, he is scoring 27.7 points, over five points more than when he Sixth Man of the Year at Toronto. His true shooting percentage is 60.9%, also the highest mark of his career. He is one of only two Lakers this season who have a positive on court net rating, and the team is over 14 points worse off per 100 possessions when he’s not on the floor.

Despite his stellar year, Williams is likely the leading candidate among the Lakers to be traded before the trade deadline, and for a haul ranging from a lottery protected late pick to a non-star young prospect. Not to take anything away from his individual brilliance, but this is a move that the Lakers should probably make.

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Just before the Allstar break, after he dropped 29 in 24 minutes on the Kings, Sacramento coach Dave Joerger complimented him and called him “a hired-gun professional scorer.” Yes, Williams is a specialist, but one who’s reaching the peak of his craft. If you’re a regular watcher of Laker games, you know these three things about him:

1) He is a right handed player who LOVES going to his left.
2) He can somehow hit shots up to 23+ feet away through contact after the whistle blows.
3) He draws an ungodly amount of fouls.

Taking a look at his shot chart and you can see that he hits at a high volume at a league average level or above from the left side of the court.  This is an impressive feat considering that he takes so many pull up 3’s rather than the typically more efficient catch and shoot variety. Lakers broadcaster Stu Lantz calls him the “Drifter” for his ability to make shots going full speed to his left and pulling up while still drifting in that direction. In order to do that, he usually takes a quick dribble with his left hand which he gathers the ball with above his waist before shooting it with his right over his head.

Coaches teach on-ball defenders to keep the inside hand or arm either on the dribbler or poking at the ball, particularly when forcing them to the sideline. While an extended forearm making contact with the dribbler is a foul per NBA rules players don’t usually don’t get called for it if the extension isn’t so obvious, such as with repeated touches rather than continuous contact. Kobe used to take that a bit further and pin the offensive player’s own hand to his hip so that any attempt at a crossover would result in the ball popping out.

The moment Williams sees a defender’s arm extended toward or touching him he will quickly swing up his shooting right hand without the ball into the defender’s arm and then gather with his left.

This is much quicker than a two handed swing through because it’s only with one hand and without the ball.

As the foul is being called, Williams is often then still able to shoot it as the ball isn’t in the shooting hand until after it draws contact (or else it would have just popped out) for the and-one. He can even do this going to his right on occasion, where his left hand does nothing but sweep up to the guide position while he dribbles, gathers and then shoots with his right hand.

Defenders know that he’s hunting for the foul, and yet they still get caught over and over again with their hands in the cookie jar. When Williams gets a step on them and they try to slow his penetration, their instincts take over. And even when they do remember to take their hands out of there it’s still a problem because Lou will take it all the way to the basket where he’s an excellent finisher for his size.

Check out his defender trying to slide while pulling both arms away to a safe position. Williams simply uses this to his advantage by driving around him into the paint:

Throughout his career, Williams’ teams have put in specific plays that cater to his special abilities. Coaches Dwane Casey, Byron Scott, and Luke Walton all have made the A.I. or Iverson set (named after his former teammate Allen Iverson) a key part of their playbook when he’s on the floor:

After the wing to wing cut, he either just drives or receives a ball screen.  Most of the time he ends up attacking along the left sideline, with three teammates spaced out on the weakside.

Another play the Lakers run for him is what LFR calls ‘Chin Fist’, which also gets the ball going into a ball screen towards the left sideline:

Other times they will have him zipper cut from the baseline to the top of the key and then receive a ball screen there (“Zip Fist”).  These are all plays in the half court that set Williams up going to his left with the floor spaced out.  In early offense situations, he simply attacks off of drag screens.  As a scorer in all of these actions, he is deadly efficient.  He is in the 94th percentile in scoring efficiency off of ball screens at 1.06 points per possession (PPP), drawing fouls on 18.1% of these possessions, the same rate as James Harden, according to Synergy / NBA.com.

This creates a dilemma.  Williams is too good at scoring and his style too specialized for coaches to run much else while he’s on the floor.  Outside of play calls out of stoppages, the Lakers run few actions for other players when he is on the floor, such as a simple ball screen for Jordan Clarkson.  Although a capable spot up shooter, Williams spends many of his off ball possessions like this:

Yes, he is capable of hitting from 35+ feet out, and the space makes it easier for him to receive the ball and then get another screen, but often this results in the play being reset with the ball in his hands rather than creating an advantage.  If this happens then his defender can get in the way of Clarkson’s driving lane without consequence.  Clarkson, who spends much of his time on the court with Williams and is averaging only 0.76 PPP on his own pick and shoot plays (43 percentile), is 92 a percentile scorer on off-ball screens (1.22 PPP) but only uses them at 6.3% frequency out of all of his playtypes.  Their other perimeter partner for much of the season, Lakers rookie Brandon Ingram, was often reduced to either standing in the corner or bringing the ball up to set up the play and then getting out of the way.

It’s not really fair to blame Williams for Clarkson’s regression as an all around player this season or Ingram’s rookie struggles.

Their combination has worked despite its deficit of outside shooting and spacing, as the heavily played trio is in two of the Lakers’ top three lineups by net rating on the season.  But with Williams dominating the style of play, it will be difficult for the Lakers to assess what they really have among some of their young players. The thirty year old guard also does not fit into the time frame of when the Lakers’ young core hits their prime nor does he fit the style that head coach Luke Walton prefers for the team.

Williams is actually a good passer in the pick and roll when he has space.  He’s adept at pocket passes to the roll man for either the finish or the short roll, as well as hitting bigs cutting along the baseline.  What he doesn’t do is reliably skip the ball to the weak side when the defensive alignment calls for it, the kind of play that can get the ball moving and more players involved.  Many possessions with Williams on the floor result in one player bringing it up the floor, getting a screen and then shooting without a single front court pass being thrown.  Teams like the Bucks have been able to shut him down for stretches by trapping him on ball screens using mobile defenders who refused to give him space to either turn the corner or throw the pocket pass.

Coach Walton has on several occasions stated his preference for a passing and motion based offense and lengthy defenders who can switch.   He won’t be able to completely implement this with Lou taking up half of the meaningful guard shifts in the rotation.

The former Warriors assistant coach pays particular attention to the number of passes his team makes per game as an indicator of team play, but with the style that the bench plays, they’ve thrown around 292 passes per game.

This is only 10 more than with Byron Scott’s isolation driven offense and far less than the roughly 320 that his old team averaged.

The defensive end presents another challenge.  As an offensively minded 6’1 guard, Williams often fails to make rotations on help side defense, or when he does get there, is too small to make a difference.  Although the Lakers have done a decent job covering at that end with certain lineups featuring mobile big men, playing him at shooting guard results often results in situations where the lack of backcourt height can be exploited by certain teams.

Lou’s ideal role is to provide a shot of adrenaline to the bench unit, not to try to close out games by himself on a young team still struggling to find its identity.  Despite his being one of the NBA leaders in fourth quarter scoring, his efficiency has dipped in fourth quarter clutch situations where opponents are locked in defensively and where he has to go against their best lineups.  In the twenty three games that were within five points with three minutes to go, Williams has shot just 25% and his on court net rating drops to -33.3 per 100 possessions.  A contending team would do well to have him feast on opposing benches and then shift back to a more versatile five man lineup when the competition heats up.

Based on media chatter around the trade deadline, Lou is likely to be moved to a team that’s a better fit in terms of its stage of contention.  For the Lakers the case for moving goes beyond just keeping their draft pick.  Also, it will be difficult for his trade value to become higher after this season.  But in the case that he isn’t moved, Lakers fans shouldn’t be all that disappointed.  He’s putting up great production on a relatively cheap contract.  And we get a bit more time to appreciate a scoring master at his craft.