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From Sixth Man to All-Star?

Lou Williams built a decade-long career by racking up points off the bench. Now he’s taken on a starring role and is leading a ragtag Clippers team back into the postseason conversation.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

“Goon Squad.”

The name came from behind the Clippers bench in the middle of an early December matchup with the Washington Wizards. Coaching associate and video scouting director Brian Adams, whom the team calls “BA,” spoke the moniker into existence as the Clippers’ bench crew fueled a one-point win over the Wizards. Every starter posted a negative plus-minus. Every bench player was a positive.

One reserve stood out above the rest: Lou Williams, who finished with 35 points.

“Goon Squad is just a bunch of guys who play as hard as they can when they come off the bench, bring that energy, that nasty to the game, that physical presence,” center Willie Reed told me. “Lou is the guy, though, the head of the snake.”

“He is a self-proclaimed leader of the Goon Squad,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said of Williams. “I joke with Lou now, ‘Lou’ and ‘Goon’ has never gone together, but somehow it fits.”

The nickname stuck, but Williams hasn’t stuck with the reserves. Injuries to the Clippers’ roster and a recent tear in which Williams has scored 30 points or more in seven of the past 11 games—including one game of 40 and another, against the Warriors, in which he had 50—have recently pushed the former Sixth Man of the Year into the starting lineup. Williams has started the past seven games, in which the Clippers are 6-1.

The recent scoring spree isn’t an aberration. The 31-year-old leads the Clippers in points per game, and 3-pointers attempted and made. Since December 30, he’s led the team in usage rate, too. He also has career highs in points, assists, 3-point percentage, and PER. And Williams is currently the best isolation scorer in the league.

The shots keep coming; the shots keep going in. For a natural scorer, his new role for the Clippers is the ultimate sweet spot. Williams has played for 20 percent of the league’s teams in his 13-year career. The list includes: the Sixers (seven seasons), Lakers (two), Hawks (two), Raptors (one), Rockets (23 games), and now Clippers (44 games). But only now is he getting an opportunity to shoot his shot as much as he wants to.

For the Clippers, who have turned their scrappy, hodgepodge roster into an identity, it’s worked. L.A. was expected to be contend for the top pick in the draft as recently as late November. Now it’s in eighth place in the West and trending upward.

“Lou has been a godsend for us,” Rivers said before the Clippers played the Nuggets on Wednesday. “What I like about Lou is that he was the best when we were at our worst. He’s just a really efficient player, more than I even knew.”

The Big Balls Dance is basketball lore. Dwight Howard imitated it just the other day. But it’s impossible to recreate the magic of Sam Cassell, with his long arms dangling and his hands turned upwards to cup his metaphorical, massive cojones, waddling after hitting a big shot. It was art.

Cassell hit a lot of big shots throughout his 15-year career, especially during a two-season stretch toward the end with the only relevant Clippers team before the Blake Griffin era. Now he’s getting to watch Williams do the same from the Clippers bench.

Cassell, now a Clippers assistant coach, has become Williams’s partner for Williams’s pregame shooting routine. His guy. It started when Williams arrived in L.A. over the summer, after he and six other players (three who stuck) were traded from Houston for Chris Paul. Cassell immediately approached Williams about working together.

“We have mutual respect,” Cassell said. “He knows my approach to the game of basketball, so it was easy. It was a perfect match.”

Cassell says he didn’t try to change Williams, or even coach him. Cassell asked Williams what his shooting routine was, Williams showed him, Cassell offered to work with him, and the rest was history (for 44 games, at least).

“We play similar roles,” Williams told me after Wednesday’s game against the Nuggets. “So his advice and his input has been important to me this year.”

Even though Cassell is Williams’s coach, he describes their relationship as more player-to-player than coach-to-player. Williams does his thing, and Cassell says he gives him small reminders from time to time. “If he’s not jumping on his shot, that he’s not speeding into his shot,” Cassell said. “That has been my job: to remind him.”

Williams also hasn’t needed much instruction on how to use his veteran presence in the locker room. “He’s been around. He’s been in the locker room with Allen Iverson, been in the locker room with Kobe,” 23-year-old Montrezl Harrell said of Williams. Just over a month ago, the Clippers were six games below .500; now they’re one game above. “He kept us in the right space when we were going through the tough time starting the season,” Harrell said.

A large crowd has a way of telling you how a fan base feels about a certain player.

At Staples Center, where the Clippers draw a bottom-10 rate, Williams has reached cult status. His pregame introductory cheer now rivals that of Griffin. Every time Williams catches the ball or readies to shoot, a crescendoing “Louuuuuuuu” emanates from the seats. Every time the ball swishes through the hoop, “Like I’m Lou Will,” from Drake’s “6 Man” blares over the loudspeaker.

The irony, of course, is that Williams—a career bench player who served as the sixth man for Drake’s Raptors—is playing better than ever as a starter. Despite the annual trade-deadline whispers building around him, Williams has become a dark horse pick for a spot in the All-Star Game.

Even when the Clippers get some of their usual starters (including guard Austin Rivers) back healthy, Doc Rivers said he won’t play them over Williams if this scoring stretch continues. The Goon Squad, meanwhile, would still gladly welcome him back.

“Of course, of course,” Harrell said with a laugh.

But ultimately, Harrell said, it may not matter.

“Whether you use him off the bench or start him,” he continued, “Lou has the offensive gift.”