Clippers on guard about having to play without departed Montrezl Harrell
After center Montrezl Harrell agreed to sign with the Lakers on the first night of free agency last month, Clippers guard Patrick Beverley, realizing he had suddenly become a now-former teammate of Harrell’s, went online to register his reaction. He tweeted one word — “what” — sandwiched between the emojis of a face-palming man and a red-faced, frustrated expression.
The fiery guard had not only been a teammate of Harrell’s since the 6-foot-7 center joined the Houston Rockets in 2015, but also they are friends. Was he truly surprised by the news?
“Yes,” Beverley said Sunday, chuckling.
No Clipper was destined to feel the fallout of Harrell’s decision more than reserve guard Lou Williams. During last year’s regular season, the pair logged 1,388 minutes together; no other Clippers duo eclipsed 1,000. Of the 2,587 passes thrown by Williams, 26% went to Harrell. Likewise, 34% of all the passes Harrell received came from Williams.
During his Lakers introduction, Harrell intimated that the Clippers didn’t try to re-sign him and said his former teammates, including Beverley and Williams, understood because they were the ones who had taught him about the brutal business of basketball. Williams didn’t say Monday whether it caught him off guard.
“Business is business,” he said. “Trez made a decision for himself so in that aspect things happen and you move on.”
The Clippers held their first group workout of training camp. Players are citing as motivation the team’s loss to Denver despite leading the series 3-1.
Entering his 16th season, Williams has his own thoughts on the business to consider. The 34-year-old, 6-foot-1 guard has one year left on a contract paying him $8 million.
“I’m blessed to be in a position where I’m kind of in control of my destiny after this season, whether it’s moving forward or whether it’s not,” Williams said. “I’m excited about this year and competing for a championship and then once I get to that bridge, I’ll deal with it.”
Williams’ name has also been floated in trade rumors, with league executives telling the Los Angeles Times that his peerless scoring off the bench could be valued by playoff teams so long as they could work around his problematic defense.
He is also only a few months removed from having departed the league’s bubble to attend a funeral in Atlanta before being seen on social media visiting a strip club for a meal. Williams offered contrition following his release from a lengthy quarantine upon his return to the NBA’s Orlando, Fla., restart, but the team felt embarrassed by the attention.
A top offseason priority for the Clippers was upgrading their rotations for the playoffs, team president Lawrence Frank said, and the question remains how the Clippers see the three-time sixth man award-winner fitting after his struggles at both ends of the court during two playoff rounds last summer.
“I just unplugged from basketball and focused on my family and enjoyed the time I had with them,” Williams said when asked about his offseason. “I really didn’t hear a lot of the noise. My job is to come in and compete on a team that I’m playing for and be a professional. Other than that, I can’t deal with things that I can’t control.”
Without Harrell, whom the Clippers will face three times in the next two weeks beginning with Friday’s preseason opener and culminating in the season opener on Dec. 22, Williams will be required to adapt his offensive bread-and-butter.
Serge Ibaka, the free agent signed to replace Harrell, isn’t the rim-runner that Harrell was coming off pick-and-rolls. Of the 22 forwards or centers who acted as rollers on at least 150 possessions last season, Harrell’s 1.2 points per possession ranked fifth-best, according to Synergy Sports. Ibaka’s average of 1.06 ranked 16th.
But where Harrell crashed the rim almost exclusively, Ibaka is just as likely to pop open after setting a screen for a mid-range shot or three-pointer. Last season, more than 61% of Harrell’s shots were taken at the rim, compared with just under 24% for Ibaka.
After rolling on a pick-and-roll, Ibaka caught a pass and shot without dribbling 89 times last season, shooting 44% — about the league average of 1.0 points per possession. He rolled to the hoop on 128 possessions, and also averaged about one point per possession. Overall, he made 41% of his three-pointers.
Clippers look forward to gathering for full pratices with healthy stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, unlike last year. They hope the season ends better too.
Ibaka’s 7-foot size also presents a more effective defensive deterrent near the rim, a presence the Clippers are counting on to add teeth to a second unit that leaked points last season.
“Seeing Trez play here last year, being an assistant coach, I thought it was phenomenal,” coach Tyronn Lue said. “Just his motor, the way he played offensively, attacking the glass, getting to the paint, getting to the basket, was great for us.
“I think you add a differential type of player in Serge, who’s a stretch five, more of a pop player, but also is able to protect the rim, protect the basket. That’s what he does well from Day 1 of his career. So very excited about that.”
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