To the Faithful Departed: Lou Williams

To the Faithful Departed: Lou Williams
August 15, 2012, 6:46 am

This week, I'll be saying a proper goodbye to some longtime Sixers
players that won't be suiting up in the Red, White and Blue next season.
On Tuesday, we remembered Elton Brand. Today: "Sweet" Lou Williams, let walk as a free agent, now signed with
the Atlanta Hawks.

Don't worry, I won't do you the
disservice of pretending I'm not thrilled that Lou Williams will not be
playing on the Sixers this season. With the obvious and sizeable
exception of Samuel Dalembert, there has been no Sixer of the
post-Iverson era that I've enjoyed rooting for less than LouWill. So
frustrating did I find his play that I started finding it difficult to
root for him to enjoy any level of success, for fear that every made
basket and good play would lead to more playing time, more
responsibility, or—gasp—a new contract. This off-season, I wanted him
gone at all costs.

Why my distaste for Sweet Lou? Well, it wasn't anything personal,
certainly. By all accounts he was a decent guy—his teammates and coaches
always seemed to like him, he never gave the fans any PR-related
reasons to turn on him (and he even served as something of a de facto
Fan Favorite for a little while), he never got in trouble or took games
off (even though I often wished he would) or anything like that. He had a
goofy rapping career and appeared in the Meek Mill "Ima Boss" video for
no apparent reason, but that's just what basketball players do—they
have goofy rapping careers and appear in Meek Mill videos. No real harm
there.

Nah, my venom towards Lou was strictly on-court-related. Even there
it wasn't entirely his fault—for all the countless times I cursed out
Lou for his play, I always held a percentage of my bile for the
management that put him in the position they did. He was, for the great
majority of his career on the Sixers, simply given too much
responsibility for the team's offense, a role which he was always more
than willing to take on (and then some), but which he rarely deserved.
Part of that was out of necessity, but part of it was also due to what
really seemed to be general coaching laziness—it was always easier to
live or die with Sweet Lou than it was to actually devise a
less-predictable (but still coherent) plan.

Lou was drafted out of high school in the second round of the 2005
draft, the last NBA class to allow preps-to-pros. An undersized scoring
dynamo Sweet Lou undoubtedly would've domianted in college, but instead,
he spent his first post-HS season essentially chained to the bench
behind fellow pint-sized scorer Allen Iverson. Given more PT the
following year after Iverson's trade, and evolving into the Sixers'
go-to sixth man in the first full season with the two Dre's running the
team, Williams quickly revealed himself as a poor man's AI—similarly
prolific and confident-to-a-fault on offense, but with a little less raw
skill, a little less of a feel for the moment, and a lot less of a
galvanizing personality.

Still, Sweet Lou was a valuable reserve on both the '07-'08 and
'08-'09 teams, a refreshing change of pace of the bench from the
stunning mediocrity of unavoidable starting two-guard Willie Green, and
an occasional dispenser of outrageous highlights. (For a little guy, the
dude had ups—remember that alley-oop he threw down
against the Jazz in '07, after blocking center Mehmet Okur at the other
end?) Promoted to the starting job in '09-'10 after the departure of
Andre Miller, Lou provided one of the few bright spots of a disastrous
27-55 season—he wasn't a true starting point guard by any means, but he
increased his scoring, assists and field goal percentage numbers, all
while cutting his turnover rate. You had to give it up for the guy,
really.

It wasn't until the next two seasons—the Doug Collins years—that I
really started to turn on Lou. Before then, I had certainly found him
frustrating in spots, but had to mostly give him a pass since the team
didn't really have other scoring options in the backcourt—Andre Miller
could score, but he was more of a pass-first guy, and Willie Green was
Willie Green, so to let Lou loose to do his thing basically made sense.
So a couple bad shots here and there were forgivable—at least he had the
confidence to take them, and he was better at making bad shots than
anyone else on the team anyway.

But with first-round pick Jrue Holiday coming on towards the end of
the '09-'10 season, and then Evan Turner drafted with the #2 pick in the
'10 off-season, we finally had a young, talented backcourt with
tremendous upside. Despite his improvement the season prior, as Sixers
fans we basically already knew what we had with Sweet Lou—he was a
talented scorer, effective off the bench as instant offense, but one
whose lack of a true position (the dreaded combo guard) and inability to
defend meant he could probably never be a starter on a contending team.
It was quickly obvious that Jrue and Evan were the future, with
Williams at best a stopgap until those guys could officially take the
reins.

And that would be fair enough. Except that in two seasons with Jrue
and Evan being championed as the backcourt of the future, Williams kept
on stopping that gap. It was obvious that Collins trusted Williams far
more than Holiday and Turner, and while those two guys both gave Collins
plenty of reasons to not trust them—Evan had a miserable rookie season
and an impossibly up-and-down sophomore campaign, while Holiday
occasionally drifted in and out of games over the two seasons—it wasn't
like Lou was winning a ton of games for the Liberty Ballers either,
shooting the team out of as many (if not more) games than his hot
scoring helped them be competitive in. Still, you generally knew what
you were gonna get from Lou, if not always the results, and that somehow
made him more trustworthy for Collins at the end of quarters and games
than Holiday or Turner.

Williams' reckless gunning and feast-or-famine streakiness was
excusable when the team had nothing to lose, but when it came at the
expense of valuable playing time and experience for two guys we hoped
could take us to the next level, it became downright infuriating to me.
Every missed shot, every poor decision on the fast break, every
defensive lapse stuck a pin under my fingernail, made me near-sick with
rage, not just that Williams was doing this and would keep doing this,
but that the team not only permitted it, it actively encouraged him. I
never understood why Collins gave him such free reign, and it makes just
as little sense to me writing this article today.

One thing Lou taught me over those two years was that while advanced
stats are great, they're still incomplete. By the standard of Player
Efficiency Rating (PER, the most high-profile stat of the advanced-stat
community), Lou was the best offensive player for the Sixers the last
two years, with last year's score of 20.2 putting him at a near-All-Star
Level. Lou tends to score high in PER because, despite his relatively
low field goal percentage (between 40-41% the last two seasons), he gets
to the line at a decent clip (nearly five times a game) and converts
well while there (low 80%s), while also turning the ball over with
exceptional rarity (barely one a game). He also gets love from the
Moneyball types for his embracing of the two-for-one at the end of
quarters, where a player opts for a rushed shot with about 30-35 seconds
left in the quarter to ensure that his team gets another possession
after the opponent uses their full 24-second clock, a smart
play-the-percentages move.

This is all well and good, but it wasn't the whole story with Lou's
offense. Lou gets marks for getting to the line at a good rate, but PER
doesn't take into account the number of times over a season he goes
careening into the lane with abandon trying to draw fouls and failing,
costing his team a chance at actually getting off a good shot. He
doesn't get called for actual TOs much, but that's largely because he
rarely passes—4.2 assists a game is his record, as a starter in '09-'10.
His turnovers basically come from his previously mentioned
ill-conceived foul-bait drives, and from bad shots late in the shot
clock, neither of which technically count as turnovers.

And the two-for-one, good lord. The first possession in a Lou-for-One
(as it came to be called) is usually a rushed three or some other kind
of off-balance, low-percentage jumper, which is largely excusable,
because it's gaining you another possession at the end of the quarter,
and a low-percentage extra possession is still better than no extra
possession at all. But what really killed me with Lou was that the
second possession was rarely any better—he'd dribble out the clock at
the top of the key, until taking a contested, often away-from-his body
jumper that looked really impressive the occasional times it went down,
but pretty goddamn stupid the majority of times that it didn't. The
Lou-for-One rarely seemed to add up to one decent possession, and it killed the team's momentum on any number of occasions.

The worst of it usually came in the fourth quarter. Marc Zumoff
would occasionally refer to these clutch stretches as "Lou Williams
Time," which was technically accurate in the sense that Lou Williams was
often prominently featured at such moments, but untrue in the
implication that he thrived under such circumstances. One good late-game
performance against the Lakers last year seemed to earn Sweet Lou an
endless amount of crunch-time credit, which by nearly all measures, he
squandered. Even the advanced stats are down on Lou's 4Q performance
last year—according to 82 Games,
he shot 35% in close late-game situations last year, and the disparity
between his offensive and defensive ratings were worth a difference of
-22 points over the course of 48 minutes. (He also accounted for a grand
total of four crunch-time assists last year.)

What's more, Lou always underperformed in the playoffs. Over 30
games across four post-seasons for the Sixers, Sweet Lou averaged a
meager 11.1 points and 2.8 assists a game on 36.7% shooting for Philly,
his PER only eclipsing 13.0 for a post-season in the '07-'08 playoffs.
My definitive post-season memory of Sweet Lou will always be Game One
against the Celtics last year, where his unspeakably poor showing in the
game's waning minutes cost the team a chance to steal the series opener
in Boston—a series of plays that included a sprawling fast-break layup
that never had a chance, an attempted drawn foul that resulted in a
turnover, and an ill-conceived long two early in the shot clock. It was
so Sweet Lou it made me want to puke.

It must be noted, however, that despite all of this—the ill-advised
ball dominance, the late game non-heroics, the awful post-season
showings—Lou Williams did hit the single most exciting shot of the last
six years of 76ers basketball. You probably know the one I'm talking
about—Game Four of the '11 playoffs against the newly devised and
much-hated Miami Heat superteam, with the Sixers down 3-0 and looking
for all the world like they were gonna be swept. Down one with about ten
seconds to go, Lou gets the ball at the top of the arc, a couple steps
behind the line, and quickly pulls up for a contested (of course)
three—and somehow, it goes down, and the Sixers go on to win 86-82,
forcing a Game Five in Miami. Lou walks away acting like he knew it was
going down the whole time, undoubtedly thinking to himself, Ima boss.

That was Lou WIlliams for you. He took way more crazy, ill-advised
shots than anyone else, sure—but he also made way more of them than
anyone else, shots that nobody else on the team would ever dare take,
and probably wisely so. He wasn't blessed with the greatest sense of
self-awareness, but he certainly never lacked confidence, and if you saw
him pull up for that deep top-of-the-arc three against the Heat, you
might not believe he was gonna make it, but you at least knew that he
believed he was gonna make it. On most nights it was enough to drive a
man to drink, but on that night (afternoon, technically), it resulted in
one of the most satisfying made baskets in my NBA-watching career, one
that proved the mighty Heat beatable and showed that LeBron didn't
always have all the answers just yet.

And if there's one thing that really must be said for Lou Williams,
it's this—he never did anything on the team that he wasn't asked to do.
I'll go to my grave wondering why he was asked to do some of
those things, but again, that's on the coaches—Lou was always willing to
comply with whatever role the team had for him. Instant offense off the
bench? Worked for him. Moved to the starting lineup? Cool. Bumped back
down again to make room for some rookie? If you said so. He never
complained about minutes, never sold out his teammates, never demanded
anything that wasn't already being given to him. For a guy whose
on-court game so often seemed modeled after AI's, he completely missed
the part about being a diva and/or problem child off the hardwood, which
was pretty commendable.

Truth told, I'm actually kinda pumped to watch Lou on Atlanta, where
he signed this off-season for a couple years. Partly it's due to my
being thrilled that he didn't sign some sort of five-year, $40-million,
crippling contract with the Sixers, and a little due to my excitement
over Hawks fans coming to the realization that PER isn't always all it's
cracked up to be, sure. But it's also because I look forward to being
able to watch Lou without seeing my team's future flash before my eyes,
to root on the guy who served the Sixers faithfully without having to
lose my mind every time he takes a contested three early in the shot
clock. Plus, he should have fun playing with Josh Smith and Al Horford,
and being in Atlanta will undoubtedly do wonders for Lou's goofy rap
career—within weeks, he'll probably be popping up in Waka Flocka Flame
videos. It's a good fit.

Farewell, Sweet Lou. To paraphrase Wes Mantooth, I might not be your
biggest fan as a player, but damn if I didn't always respect you. If
you were my guy, you probably wouldn't see a second of playing time in
the last five minutes of any important playoff game—unless we were down
three with a half-second left and needed some patented crazy three-point
shot to even have a chance, anyway. But I'd always pull you out of the
bear pen to safety, y'know?

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