How Clippers coach Tyronn Lue unlocked a more aggressive Lou Williams
It is a general guideline, but many across the NBA consider the first 20% of any schedule a time to gather information about their teams without making sweeping judgments based on trends that may or may not prove true in the long run. It’s why early season trades are so infrequent.
When Clippers coach Tyronn Lue and his staff gathered Saturday to review what their eyes and data told them about their 6-4 start, they were a little over 10% of the way through their 72-game schedule. And they had just a two-game sample size with their team at full strength after the midweek return of forward Marcus Morris.
But in one area, Lue had seen enough to make changes.
Though the team’s starters ranked atop the NBA in plus/minus rating, its bench that had been so potent in previous seasons lagged in last thanks to its matador defense. From the coaches’ discussion emerged the idea to keep four strong defenders on the floor whenever possible. Doing that required changing the substitution patterns of starters Paul George and Patrick Beverley while breaking up the defensively porous three-guard bench combination of Reggie Jackson, Luke Kennard and Lou Williams that had played together nearly eight minutes per game.
“We gave it a shot, and the numbers weren’t as good as we need them to be,” Lue said on a Sunday videoconference. “So I had conversations with all the guys last night, talked to each guy individually, just told them my mind-set and what my thinking was and everybody was great with it.”
Lue told Jackson, whose opportunity would be pinched most by a trimmed-down, nine-man rotation, about “staying ready.” He told Kennard that his minutes would be staggered to avoid pairings with Williams as often as possible. And he told Williams the advice the NBA’s all-time leading scorer off the bench badly needed to hear.
Kawhi Leonard had a big game in the Clippers’ 130-127 victory over the Chicago Bulls, scoring 21 points in the third quarter to finish with 35.
“I just said offensively, he’s been trying to do the right thing of moving the basketball,” Lue said. “But I just told him, you know, ‘You just got to be yourself. Be who you are. Who you’ve been the last 14, 15 years, and if you score, we’re going to keep you out there.'”
The decision unlocked a more aggressive version of Williams one day later as he scored a season-high 21 points during a comeback victory against Chicago. It also underscored how Lue’s track record of lineup tinkering played a factor in his October hiring following the tenure of Doc Rivers, who endured criticism throughout the last postseason for being too reactive with his adjustments.
As coach in Cleveland, Lue once benched stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love for the fourth quarter of a playoff game, a move that paid off in a 25-point comeback victory. He stuck with Tristan Thompson at times of inconsistency. Just as important, according to people who observed Lue’s three seasons with the Cavaliers, was his ability to inform players of changes to their roles and minutes without losing their focus. Not every move worked. But Lue earned praise for his willingness to adapt on the fly.
The Clippers have seen that side of their coach too.
Lue is “just trying to figure a way out to make us better, to make each and every player more comfortable, to just make our unit stronger,” Kawhi Leonard said. “Whatever five is out there, he’s trying to find a way to keep it balanced and keep it steady in order to play overall great 48 minutes.”
After Williams posted a 30% usage rate over his first three seasons with the Clippers, it dipped to 20% this season when the reserves’ offense no longer flowed through him. He accepted the move: He was 34, in the final year of his contract and had seen the Clippers allow Montrezl Harrell, who’d combined with Williams to produce the league NBA’s top-scoring reserve duo, walk in free agency.
The lineup he‘d played with most often this season included Kennard. His second-most frequent lineup featured Kennard and Jackson, players whose strengths, weaknesses and needs all overlapped. The Clippers had allowed opponents to shoot 50%, and nearly 41% on three-pointers, when the trio played. Williams scored in double figures only four times in 10 games.
“I was just trying to play within the system, trying to be a positive impact with the minutes that were allotted to me,” Williams said. “I understand the phase that I am in my career. I understand that the identity of this team has slightly changed with bringing Luke in, bringing Serge [Ibaka] in. That makes us a deeper team.”
Still, it didn’t take Lue long to notice the adjustment hadn’t worked.
“He didn’t win sixth man [of the year] for being a passer,” George said. “He is one of the best scorers to do it. So we want him to score, we need him to score and be Lou Williams.”
It was the point Lue made Saturday. The season was still young, but changes were coming.
“The first 10 games I think I was being more of a facilitator, wasn’t being as aggressive as I could be on the offensive end and [Lue] told me that needed to change and go back to my old ways,” Williams said. “That’s what’s natural to me. So that’s what I told him: Just say less, I’ll take care of the rest.”
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