Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams are experienced basketball nomads. They’ve adapted to new situations before.
Beverly’s adapted to entirely new countries, making his way through Greece, Ukraine, and even Russia in order to find his way to the NBA. Williams has been a domestic mover, moving from Philadelphia to Atlanta to Los Angeles to Toronto to Houston. As part of a Clippers team in the midst of a reinvention, they’ll have to adapt once again.
Williams and Beverley are players with markedly different skill sets. Both ended up on the Daryl Morey–led experiment in Houston; Beverley by way of a free-agent signing in 2013, and Williams via a trade-deadline move last season. They thrived, and were considered pieces of the puzzles that not only fit, but also were essential to the team.
A month before Beverley was shipped to the Clippers as part of the trade that brought Chris Paul to Houston, the Rockets were reluctant to include the staunch defender in any sort of deal. But when Paul expressed his desire to go to Houston, Beverley became expendable, as did Williams.
Just five years ago, Beverley was thousands of miles away in Russia, grinding through the Eurocup games and still trying to make his way back to the NBA after being picked in the second round of the 2009 draft by the Lakers, promptly traded to Miami, and then eventually waived by the Heat in the span of a year. Five years ago, Williams was on the second team of his young career when an ACL injury ended his season early, leading to his worst statistical campaign the following year and sending him on a small tour around the league, looking for a permanent home. So goes the business. Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams are familiar with it all, and now, they’re Clippers.
It’s often said that top-tier NBA players, or high-level athletes of any kind, make the game look easy. Tom Brady or Kevin Durant or Mike Trout come to mind. There’s beauty in their aesthetic effortlessness, in how they make an athletic feat seem reachable to the common man.
But there are other players who thrive off a type of exertion that is visible from afar, their hard work tangible even to the average viewer. Patrick Beverley is that type of athlete.
In Round 1 of the Western Conference playoffs against Oklahoma City, Beverley’s rugged edge got a national stage. In the opening game of the series, he had one of the best performances of his career.
Beverley turned into James Harden. He sliced through the lane for tough layups, crossed over defenders, and stepped back for 3-pointers, while remaining his stingy self on defense. Beverley adopted Harden’s finesse and infused it with his brawn, scoring 21 points while shooting 4-of-6 from 3 and grabbing 10 rebounds, adding three assists, and totaling two steals. On defense he bothered Russell Westbrook to no end, forcing him to miss 17 of his 23 field goal attempts. It was a remarkable re-introduction to a larger audience after Beverley burst onto the scene in 2013 when he caused Westbrook to injure his knee while going for a steal, the aggressive play a sign of Beverley’s potential. Beverley seemed the perfect backcourt partner for Harden. His value to the Rockets seemed astronomical.
This was the case the entire season, as Beverley made the Rockets nearly eight points per 100 possessions better when he was on the floor. He grabbed 1.5 steals per game and a career-high 5.9 rebounds per game last season. In 2015–16, Beverley had his best and most efficient shooting season. In 2016–17, he had one of his best all-around performances. Of the five most efficient Rockets lineups that played at least 70 minutes together all season, Beverley played in four.
In Los Angeles, Beverley is in an ideal situation to show that playoff game was no fluke. There’s no Harden to complement him, but there is Blake Griffin, who has the potential to elevate Beverley’s game just as much. Blake will be a pick-and-roll blessing that will likely net Beverley a bigger haul of assists next season. His hands will be used for more than just swiping steals.
"I just wanted to see what I can do away from [Harden] with some good pieces," Beverley told the L.A. Times after he was traded to the Clippers. "I’m pretty excited. I’m able to go into a situation where I can lead."
Though defense still remains one of the relatively unquantifiable skills in basketball, the gap between defensive and offensive monitoring has been narrowed by analytical advances like defensive net rating, defensive box plus-minus, and, more recently, "hustle" stats that track and account for plays not recorded by a simple box score. Unsurprisingly, this is where Beverley thrives. No one in the league recovered more loose balls per game than Beverley, not even Chris Paul, who had the fifth-highest average. Beverley also ranked eighth in charges drawn per game, one of the few guards ranked that high.
Even on a bad shooting night Beverley can still be one of the best defenders in the league. That makes his fit in L.A., where defense hasn’t been a team strength, perfect for Doc Rivers’s team. Beverley has an injury history that is bound to raise eyebrows, but over the past two years, as his usage and efficiency has increased, he has played 67 games and 71 games, respectively.
For Beverley, who is 29 but just going into his sixth year in the league, a move to the Clippers isn’t a fresh start as much as it is landing in a situation that will better allow him to shine. On this team, Beverley has a chance to turn the flashes of talent we’ve seen underneath the shadow of Harden into more consistent performances. Whether Blake becomes a lead facilitator and Beverley thrives off the space he creates, or whether Milos Teodosic provides the scoring in the backcourt and Beverley provides the defense, the situation has all the makings of a fit.
"I’m coming to beat some [butt] and win," Beverley told the Times. "That’s all I know. It’s going to be fun. I’m going to bring a different culture to the table."
What better stage to do that in than Hollywood?
I’ve always subscribed to the notion that some people are born to be utility players, while others are born to be shooters and scorers. I believe there’s something that demarcates those whose quest is to thrive at the game in whichever way possible, and those who maintain a dedication to scoring, even if that leads them to failure.
Neither is more honorable than the other, and in an age when the league immediately canonizes versatility and positional fluidity, scoring specialization may just come around to be the new market inefficiency, especially if found in the right place at the right time.
Lou Williams was born to be a scorer. He’s been looking for the right shooting situation his entire career, and has found it only in small windows. Williams’s Sixth Man of the Year campaign in Toronto (15.5 points per game) and his trigger-happy half year with the Lakers (career-high 12.7 field goal attempts per game), were among some of his most productive stints. In Houston, Williams’s overall numbers decreased, but he still had some hot shooting nights. In his first game as a Rocket, WIlliams dropped 27 points and downed seven 3s. Last season, he totaled six games of 30 points or more — two of them in the span of nine days for the Rockets. He was in the right place at the right time, it seemed.
Because Williams has a very specific, yet valuable skill, his move to the Clippers seems mutually beneficial. With Griffin or Beverley as a facilitator in a hypothetically spaced out offense, Williams has the blueprint and will have the chance to thrive coming off the bench to provide a scoring punch. The Clippers, meanwhile, replace an aging Jamal Crawford with a younger, more consistent scorer in Williams — who, by the way, also averaged a career-high three assists per game last season. In Houston’s 3-point-focused offense, a full year could have possibly revamped and improved Williams’s 3-point shot, which peaked at 38.5 percent last season. But now he arrives on a team in dire need of consistent, if not simply serviceable, bench play, a void his streaky game is perfectly built to fill.
Williams is on his sixth team in 13 years. We’ll have to wait and see whether his move to Los Angeles puts him in the right place at the right time.
For players below the NBA’s top tier, choice is stripped from a player the moment he enters the draft and only re-enters the equation once free agency comes around. When teams ship away their beloved pieces to acquire a superstar, there is in that move an inherent reminder that informs the players of their worth, and their place in the league.
The NBA is malleable for superstars. Players with sufficient résumés can demand trades. The superstar can render others expendable. The middle-tier player can only become expendable.
Both Beverley and Williams know how the NBA works by now. To get moved is to live and breathe. It’s a part of the job. This change of scenery wasn’t needed or ordained. It simply was. But both have fallen on fertile ground in L.A. — a popular market with a team that intends to contend and, despite losing its star player, still has the complementary pieces to do so.