The Los Angeles Clippers failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 2010-11 season. Back then, Vinny Del Negro was in his first season as the team’s head coach and Baron Davis was the team’s franchise point guard. With an early end to this season, the Clippers can collectively take a long look in the mirror and figure out how to build off of what turned out to be an encouraging, though disappointing, campaign.
One issue they won’t need to give much thought to, however, is the future of guard Lou Williams. In early February, the Clippers and Williams agreed to a partially guaranteed three-year extension worth $24 million. The Clippers originally acquired Williams in the trade that sent Chris Paul to the Houston Rockets and he quickly made an impact in Los Angeles this season. The Clippers had the options to trade Williams prior to the trade deadline, give him an extension or simply let his contract expire at the end of the season. With this extension, the Clippers get a high-scoring combo guard at a solid annual rate and Williams gets some stability after moving from one team to another over the last few seasons.
This season, Williams averaged 22.6 points, 5.3 assists and 2.5 rebounds while shooting 43.5 percent from the field and 35.9 percent from three-point range. Williams also shot an impressive 6.2 free throws per game at an 88 percent clip. His ability to score in isolation, attack the rim and pick apart defenses in the pick and roll provided the Clippers with a focal point on offense and playmaking ability that was desperately needed. The Clippers lost Patrick Beverley early in the season to a significant knee injury, while Milos Teodosic and Danilo Gallinari were sidelined for much of the season with their own injuries. Additionally, Blake Griffin, who is one of the better playmaking power forwards in the league, was traded to the Detroit Pistons, which required Williams to take on even more of the team’s playmaking responsibilities. This was a task that Williams has had to embrace in prior campaigns and willingly did for the Clippers this season.
“I just got used to it after a while,” Williams said recently. “That’s just what became my make up. It just became what was needed.”
Whether he came off the bench or was in the starting lineup, Williams provided a wide-range of contributions on offense while limiting his defensive shortcomings this season. At age 30, Williams posted the second-best Player Efficiency Rating of his career (20.2). Despite Williams’ efforts, the Clippers fell short of making the postseason, which some may argue should count heavily against Williams in the Sixth Man of the Year voting. Williams disagrees.
“Yes,” Williams said when asked about whether he believes he should win this year’s Sixth Man award. “First player to lead the team in scoring and assists off the bench. I had an opportunity to be in the All-Star talks and just for us to be competitive with the way that everything went. Honestly speaking, I had a lot to do with it.
“I’ve seen guys win awards based on their numbers and teams not be as successful, so with history being made I’d think so.”
Williams correctly pointed out that he was a legitimate candidate to be named an All-Star this season, which is quite rare for a player that is primarily profiled as a bench scorer. Williams also became the highest-scoring bench player in 29 years. While his defensive limitations are notable, this level of offensive production makes him a strong candidate and likely the favorite to win this year’s Sixth Man of the Year award.
If Williams doesn’t win this year’s Sixth Man award, he will surely be disappointed. However, regardless of what happens in that regard, Williams can take satisfaction in putting together arguably his best NBA season, engineering a surprisingly gritty and successful campaign for the Clippers and locking in a solid contract extension with a team he feels comfortable with.
Looking forward, Williams seems confident that this year’s core of players, if healthy, constitutes a playoff team.
“You look back on everything we went through, we still gave ourselves an opportunity,” Williams said after the Clippers were officially knocked out of postseason contention. “You know, ran out of gas, ran out of firepower. Man, I think healthy, we’re a 50-win team, easy. We’ll still end up, no matter where, we’ll still end up being a .500 team and that’s lot of credit to the guys that we had in this locker room. So many different guys that had to step up and play different positions, including myself. You know, I had to play a bigger role, a larger role with this group, and we dealt with so much.”
The Clippers will need to restructure the roster around those core players this offseason, but after trading Paul and Griffin, they have the flexibility to make some interesting moves that could push them closer to playoff contention next season. The future of Montrezl Harrell is one of issues the Clippers’ front office will have to make some decisions on. Harrell was another sparkplug off the bench for the Clippers this season and saw firsthand what Williams was able to do this season.
“I know the type of level scoring he’s capable of and it’s effortless,” Harrell said. “The guy definitely scores the ball at will anytime he can and anytime he really feels like it really, so it’s nothing new that I haven’t seen.”
When asked if he believes Williams should win Sixth Man of the Year, Harrell didn’t hesitate to endorse his teammate.
“I feel like he is. I definitely feel like he is.”
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