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Lou Williams May Not Start, but He’s Ready to Help the Clippers Finish Their Championship Quest

Just two years ago, Williams rued being traded to the Clippers. Now, after consecutive Sixth Man of the Year Awards and the highest-scoring seasons of his 14-year NBA career, he’s helped make the would-be champion an alluring destination for Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.

Jonathan Bartlett

As surfers drift in the sparkling ocean just off the downtown strip in Waikiki, Lou Williams leans back in his chair and tells the story of how annoyed he was to become a Los Angeles Clipper two years ago. “I wasn’t necessarily excited to be here,” says Williams, 32, the multitalented Clippers guard who has won the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award three times in the past five seasons and who recently released a hip-hop album called Underground GOAT. A banyan tree with an imposing wingspan looms nearby, its ropey branches looking poised to clumsily award Williams an and-1 the way so many NBA players have been lured into doing over the years. Williams’s phone rings: It’s Clippers guard Patrick Beverley calling, impatient about whether Williams is ready to go catch a late lunch.

It seems enviable, in this moment, to be a Clipper, and not just because that means attending training camp in Hawaii. This summer, in good spirits after a pleasantly surprising 48-win season and a first-round playoff series in which they took the top-seeded Golden State Warriors to six games, the Clippers’ front office went radically, admirably all in on the team’s near future. In an NBA offseason defined by sweeping changes and compelling new rosters, the refurbishment of the Clippers was among the most surprising. Not only did they fulfill their prominent dream of inking NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, who grew up in Southern California, to a $103 million max free agent deal with a player option after two years, they closed that deal by pulling off another: the wholly unexpected trade of a whole haul of talent and draft picks to the Oklahoma City Thunder for forward Paul George.

Recent betting lines have given the Clippers the second-best leaguewide odds of winning the 2020 NBA title. (Number one right now: the Clippers’ rival and Staples Center cotenant, the Lakers, who also dealt a package of picks and young talent to the New Orleans Pelicans so that Anthony Davis could join LeBron James.) An annual survey of NBA general managers, meanwhile, had the Clippers in the top spot. It’s all a far cry from the recent past, when the team’s future seemed much less enticing. In June 2017, when Williams and Beverley were part of the blockbuster package from the Houston Rockets in exchange for Chris Paul, it was because L.A.’s superstar point guard, at odds with both his coach, Doc Rivers, and his franchise cornerstone teammate, big man Blake Griffin, had decided he wanted out. So it made sense that Williams was less than enthused to be the guy coming in. “I understood that, you know, the environment was somewhat toxic,” Williams says, “for lack of a better word.”

Williams’s beef wasn’t only with the Clippers, to be fair. It was his third time being traded in three years. He had enjoyed playing for Houston in the few months he spent there, and thought he and his two daughters might finally find some stability. He had recently moved everything out of the L.A. house he’d lived in while playing for the Lakers, just in time to find out he would now be coming back to the environs. He was traveling in China during the trade call, and he cried. He sent a breakup tweet about all of it. When he flew in for the introductory press conference, he was morose. “If you go back and look at the picture,” he says now, “I’m not a very happy camper. I’m standing there like it’s a mugshot or something.”

Doc Rivers, who does not exactly look enthralled himself in the snap, took notice, and asked if the two could sit down. Williams was already back at the airport, ready to get out of there, but he changed his flight and met up with Rivers the next day. “He was just like, ‘You know, you don’t look like you’re excited to be here,’” Williams says. “And I was like, ‘I’m not.’ So we both kind of put it on the table, and it was a great conversation.”

Standing on the basketball court at the University of Hawai’i-Manoa in Honolulu after a training camp session, Rivers, now entering his seventh season as Clippers head coach, remembers his meeting with Williams going down pretty much the same way: a “very honest conversation,” he says. Years of moving around, not always by choice, had left Williams raw and a little bit cynical. For his first seven seasons in the league, Williams had been with one team, the Sixers, and now he was about to play for his fifth team in the same timespan. He no longer had any reason to trust anything anyone said about his future with a franchise.

“And so I told him,” says Rivers, “well, we’re gonna have to earn that, both of us. Then, if we do, I told him, I’ll be trustworthy to you and you’ll be it to me. And it’s happened.” Two years later, Williams is a core part of this big-swinging franchise. He is a scorer who has helped his team make a huge splash. He may not typically start games, but he routinely is there to finish them. And in doing so, he has positioned the Clippers to be both nimble enough and attractive enough to bring in a pair of players whose presence has immediately vaulted the franchise to major contender status.

Dallas Mavericks v LA Clippers
Doc Rivers and Lou Williams
Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Williams was in Las Vegas for summer league, doing a little gambling, when a friend tapped him on the shoulder and showed him something on his phone: a social media post reporting that Leonard and Paul would be teaming up with the Clippers. “And I was looking at it,” Williams says, “and like anybody else in the NBA world, it was like, ‘Well, go to Woj’s page just to confirm it.’ So we went to his page and it was true. And then I guess it started hitting the TVs in the casino. And everybody was coming up to me like I hit the lottery or something. They were like, ‘Congratulations!’ I was like, ‘Thanks!’”

He would not have been out of line, though he may have been out of character, had he responded: You’re welcome. Any free agent’s pros-and-cons list about the Los Angeles Clippers this summer would have placed Williams squarely in the former column; in the short time since joining the Clippers he had quickly become one of the most stabilizing forces for a franchise that, in the wake of Paul’s departure and Griffin’s left-knee injury (and then departure) threatened to tip into chaos.

Before that chat with Rivers, Williams had averaged fewer than 13 points and three assists in his first 12 seasons since being drafted as a high school kid by the Sixers in 2005. In the two seasons since that summer 2017 meeting, though, he’s averaged more than 21 points and five assists and led one of the most productive bench units in the NBA. Alongside 25-year-old 6-foot-8 big man Montrezl Harrell, who was also part of the Paul trade, Williams is one half of the highest-scoring reserve twosome in league history. Last season, in the first round of the NBA playoffs, Williams scored 36 and 33 points and added 11 and 10 assists in two wins over the Warriors, one of which was a comeback from a 30-point third-quarter deficit. After Game 5, an impressed Kevin Durant praised Williams’s craftiness and passing, explaining: “You can’t just say, ‘I’m gonna stop Lou Williams tonight.’”

It’s not hard to see why. On the court, Williams cuts a unique silhouette. He is catlike, in more than one sense: He can be nimble and fleet of foot, slicing and dicing with a soothing precision, but he can also arch and squirm like he’s just been dropped into a bath, clawing his way toward the basket and drawing a foul from a bewildered opponent. A word cloud of the play-by-play calls of his highlights may well reveal that two of the most common descriptors of his baskets are “smooth” but also “off-balance.” At 6-foot-1 and 175 pounds, he’s not a conspicuous physical presence in street clothes, but when he gets the ball in his hands it’s hard to look away from him, even if it’s only at practice.

He radiates such similarly soothing energy off the court that when he was held up at gunpoint in 2011, the episode culminated in his buying the assailant some McDonald’s. He not only publicly dated two women for a time, but saw the polyamorous arrangement turn up in a Drake lyric (Sixth man like Lou Will / Two girls and they get along like Lou Will) and, later, in Drake gossip. That wasn’t the first time he was immortalized in song: Meek Mill, a friend from Williams’s Sixers days, titled a track “House Party” in reference to his capable hosting, and filmed the video at Williams’s Atlanta manse. Even in life, Williams has a way of both flying under the radar and being in the center of it all, just like the elite sixth man he is.

In establishing one of the league’s most competent second units, Williams also enabled Los Angeles, confident in its depth, to make the bold move of trading four draft picks and cherished lad Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to OKC. In an offseason defined by dramatic, sweeping change—Davis joining LeBron on the Lakers; Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant signing with Brooklyn; Russell Westbrook arriving in Houston via trade; not to mention the tectonic shifts that took place earlier, such as the Mavericks trading for Kristaps Porzingis to join Luka Doncic or the Warriors facing the permanent loss of Durant and the temporary absence of Klay Thompson—such bravado by the Clippers was practically prudent. George tells reporters after a practice that when he was younger, there was noteworthy collaboration in player movement—the Southern California native remembers when Gary Payton and Karl Malone joined the Lakers—differently than it does today. “Guys moved around,” he says, “but they was older, and later in their career.” Payton and Malone were 35 and 40 when they lost in the NBA Finals with the Lakers in 2004; George and Leonard are both still in their 20s.

As the Clippers fought their way to the eighth seed last season, players around the league took notice. Leonard, then on the Toronto Raptors, commented on Williams’s omission from the All-Star Game: “He deserved it,” he said. (Williams would agree.) At media day in late September, Leonard described last season’s Williams-led Clippers as like “a brotherhood on the floor together.” Now, speaking with reporters on the University of Hawai’i court, he again praises his new teammates’ contributions. “That’s what makes a great team: having a great bench,” says Leonard, who would know—you can’t win an NBA title without strong reserve players, and Leonard has won two of them. But he’s never been on a team with such a high-scoring one-two punch on the second unit. “Even with them coming off the bench,” he says, “they have great leadership.”

The three guys who arrived in the Paul trade two years ago are now the longest-tenured players on the roster, having outlasted players including Lob City mayor Griffin (injured in late 2017 and traded a month later to Detroit, less than a year after signing a five-year, $171 million Clippers contract); fragile fawn Danilo Gallinari and young Gilgeous-Alexander (dealt to the Thunder for George); and DeAndre Jordan (left in free agency). Watching warmups before a game in Honolulu between the Clippers and the Rockets, Clippers president Lawrence Frank says that Williams has acquired a level of respect that belies the number of years he’s been with the team.

“You know, when Lou speaks, everyone listens,” he says. “He has that Underground GOAT” air to him, Frank says, “and that swag.” Watching practice, Frank can see that everyone from the rookies to the All-Stars alike shares admiration for Williams. “You can just read the body language,” Frank says, “how much respect they have for Lou.”

Clippers owner Steve Ballmer was Microsoft’s 30th employee in 1980, and at one point spent 14 years as its CEO, retiring in 2014. So the relentless churn of professional sports has taken a little getting used to. “The old-timers are the guys who came in the Chris Paul trade,” marvels Ballmer, sitting at a preseason luncheon with reporters and ignoring the crab cakes before him, his eyes a hypnotic shade of White Walker ice blue. “And in a way, I guess I didn’t have that in my head, either, when I bought the team. Businesses have their folks around longer. It’s just not the nature of basketball.” There are no other parties seated inside the big, bright, white dining room at the Moana Surfrider hotel a few hours before the team heads to the university to play the Rockets, which is a good thing: If there were, Ballmer would totally be ruining their leisurely lunch.

Those various über-exuberant YouTube videos of Ballmer that float around, like the vintage one where he’s boogying with Bill Gates at the Windows 95 launch, or the recent one of him overwhelming a newly signed Kawhi Leonard this summer, are all … exactly what he’s like. (Beyond YouTube, he also fits this written portrait to the letter.) He holds court thunderously, pounding the table. He all-out pantomimes how it looks to, say, frantically row a boat. He emphasizes his points by repeating them in triplicate, noting his “desire to continue to advance, advance, advance!” and adding that “this year, we hope to advance a lot, a lot, a lot!”

He is almost unsettlingly avuncular, with the cartooniest, Detroitiest accent to be found this side of Ford Motor Company, where his father once worked. (He drives a Lincoln MKX in his honor.) He is a proud Costco shopper, he says, except that he gets stopped by so many Microsoft employees for selfies as he’s roaming the aisles that his wife now prefers he stay home for efficiency’s sake. When he talks about stopping in to Rivers’s office before games, he calls it a “chitty-chat.” But he’s also a billionaire, fifty-some-odd times over, and he didn’t get that way without having a must-win streak.

“From what I know of him, from experience, he’s really excited about this upcoming season,” says Williams. “Obviously he spent the money to put us in a position to be a highly competitive team and compete for a championship.” (Or, as Ballmer jokes: “We have put out a little more cost base than we have revenue, and I’m OK with that.”)

Ballmer bought the Clippers for two billion bucks in 2014 when Donald Sterling was forced to sell the team in disgrace, and the roster he acquired, with Griffin and Paul and Jordan, bears no resemblance to the one over which he now presides. “You could say I was born on third base as an owner,” he tells the group. “We had three All-NBA players when I bought the team. That never quite panned out the way we would have wished.” Even during the height of the Lob City era, the team never made it past the second round of the playoffs in a Western Conference that has been bitterly contested for years. Two seasons ago, when Griffin went down with a knee injury, the Clippers seemed like a team that might benefit from a cleansing rebuild. Instead, this past summer, they were the ones sending away draft picks and young prospects for one of the game’s signature stars and a shot at the now. “I don’t like the idea,” Ballmer says, “of this ‘step back to step forward.’”

So he didn’t take a step back, because he didn’t think he had to. “We have a very talented base of players that won 50 games last season,” Ballmer tells reporters.

“Was it 50?” someone at the table murmurs.

Ballmer lights up. “We only won 48,” he says, “then Beverley reminded me: ‘No! We won two playoff games! We won 50 games last year! Don’t cheat us!’” Ballmer is a guy who does voices, and his voice for Beverley, a gritty player who treats his teammates in pinball the way he treats his opponents on the court, is guttural and impassioned. (He adds that Beverley probably said this during contract negotiations; this summer, the player turned down the Kings to re-sign with the Clippers on a three-year, $40 million contract.) Having the highest-scoring bench combination in the league in Williams and Harrell played no small part in this confidence. “It’s a real luxury to know we have a solid bench,” Ballmer continues. “Bench is a funny word. You got a solid bench, but when it was closing time last year, I mean, Lou was always on the floor to close games also. So it’s just great to have that strong returning group.”

Los Angeles Clippers Introduce Kawhi Leonard & Paul George
Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, along with Lawrence Frank and Doc Rivers, listen to Clippers owner Steve Ballmer during a press conference
Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Growing up in Memphis and then Atlanta, Williams didn’t really care about the NBA. He was all about Memphis State, and one of his earliest favorites was Penny Hardaway. “I didn’t even know who Michael Jordan was when I was 7 or 8 years old,” Williams says, “and he was probably at the height of his career.” But “I knew who Shaq was because of LSU,” he says. “And then he went on to go play with Penny, and so it was just different.”

Following his father’s death when Williams was 8, he moved with his mother to Atlanta. His mom loved music, but all rap was banned in his house. When he was a tween he realized he could record his own voice over cassette tapes, and he started buying instrumentals—“99 cent, 59 cent, clearance rack, whatever I could get my hands on”— and recording himself on top of them. Usher was a foundational influence for him, because Usher was an artist whom Williams’s mom allowed, but as soon as Williams started accumulating a little chore money, the first album he bought was Snoop Dogg’s Tha Doggfather.

The first jersey he bought with his own money, meanwhile, was Shaun Livingston’s, whom he’d seen over the years at AAU tournaments and who made the jump directly from high school. “I just thought at that time it was like, 6-8 point guard, you know?” Williams says. “It was kind of rare, it was kind of rare. You had LeBron and you had him, and that was it.” He also had a Carmelo Anthony Syracuse jersey, he says, and an Atlanta Hawks Josh Smith that was a gift. Before long, Williams’s interests were all colliding. According to a 2018 Sports Illustrated piece on Williams by Lee Jenkins, who now works for the Clippers as the executive director of research and identity, Nike once arranged a meetup between Williams, a high school freshman phenom known to score 40, 50 points a game, and James before a Cavaliers-Hawks game, a get-together that led to friendships with Jermaine Dupri and Bow Wow.

Even though his interest in basketball had its roots in the college game, or perhaps because of that, Williams knew NCAA basketball was not for him. He gave a commitment to Georgia, but declared for the 2005 draft and was selected 45th overall by the Sixers. “I don’t have a lot of positive things to say about college basketball,” he says. “I just never really wrapped my head around the idea of waking up at five in the morning, working out, and going to class, having practice at six, and study hall. I just, I don’t think that was the route for me, personally.” He was thrilled to spend his rookie season alongside Allen Iverson in Philly before Iverson went to the Denver Nuggets, and the two remain in touch.

In 2009, Iverson returned to the Sixers and Williams broke his jaw late that fall. With his jaw wired shut, he passed time experimenting with straw-based meals, from the expected to the straight-up disgusting: “We got bored at the end, and we started blending anything,” he says; this included mac and cheese and cheeseburgers. “Mashed potatoes was my friend. Oreo shakes were a good one. But hamburgers?” He makes a face that suggests that hamburgers were not his friend. Williams got some starting minutes when he returned, but the role mostly went to the veteran Iverson, and by the end of that season Williams had started to excel at coming off the bench.

“I played too fast when I was young,” Williams says now, musing on the first stage of what he considers to be a three-part on-court career evolution. “I wish I would’ve watched more film and studied myself. But I did all of that stuff naturally.” Then, “from like, Year 7 to 12,” he says, “I kind of started slowing down, and started trying to figure out a different way to play.” It was midway through Year 8 when he tore his ACL while in Atlanta; to this day, he credits then-Hawks assistant Kenny Atkinson, who is now the head coach of the new-look Nets, with helping him rebuild and refine his game. “Like, that great separation he creates going to his left?” says Frank, giving an example of the results, “you know, I think it became so much more pronounced.”

Los Angeles Clippers v Detroit Pistons
Williams and Montrezl Harrell
Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Williams says his style has shifted further in the past few seasons; he now calls himself a “cerebral” player. With years of oppositional research under his belt, Williams has a good idea of how to find shots and draw fouls and conserve energy as he does both. And he has a worthy reserve partner in Harrell.

Standing in a hallway at the arena in Honolulu and wearing a vintage-looking necklace featuring a photo of his babies that was taken last year in Hawaii, the 25-year-old Harrell talks about all the time he spent playing alongside Williams this summer. “It was just a blessing, really,” he says, “to be around him a lot in the offseason.” In fact, the two had been teammates even before they were teammates: He and Harrell first played together in a summer league in Atlanta.

“I said, ‘Yo, I run a pro-am league,’” Williams recalls. “‘If you want to come play on my team, man, you’re more than welcome.’ And we built a rapport. … And next thing you know, we’re teammates and creating history, you know?”

Harrell was happier than Williams to come to the Clippers from Houston, even if he says the transaction initially caught him off guard. “I was just looking at it as another opportunity where I can go somewhere and prove myself,” he says. In Houston, “I was in one of those situations where I kind of played only on back-to-back nights.” These days, George tells the media he’s always been a fan of Harrell: “Honestly, he can do it all,” he says.

Recently, Rivers has floated the idea that Williams and Harrell might get starts from time to time, but their chemistry is such that it’s hard to imagine not keeping them together regardless of when they enter the game. The summer league runs, Harrell says, have led to “a connection that just carries over into our work space.” Last season with the Clippers, Harrell finished second in Sixth Man of the Year voting to Williams, who honored his teammate in his acceptance speech.

Those two playoff wins last spring over the Warriors, the ones that Beverley made sure to remind Ballmer about, were particularly fun because they were driven by epic Williams performances. He hit off-balance 3-pointers and air-walking floaters and a four-point play and a twirling layup that drew, from Marv Albert, this call: “Wild shot … it counts … and the foul!”

But teams need four wins to advance, and Golden State closed things out with a 50-point Game 6 Durant performance for the ages. After the game, Beverley and Williams sat on the stage in the press room, taking annoying questions at a trying time. When someone asked why the team had played better on the road than at home, Beverley scoffed into the mic and said, “Next question,” but an amiable Williams waved him off and answered. When the men were asked what more they could have done to slow down Durant, an exasperated Beverley began asking whether the reporter had ever played basketball, before Williams interrupted to say, good-naturedly: “I promise we tried.”

Both of them were delivering the same message. But while Beverley’s (completely understandable!) mood was I’m pissed, Williams’s came across like I’m blessed. In a profession where there’s an irresistible tendency to search out blame and come up with answers, Williams would rather assign praise, would rather ask questions like: Did you see that?

“There was nothing to blame,” he says now about losing the series to the Warriors and about the display Durant put on that last night. “It wasn’t for a lack of effort, or a bad game plan, or any of those things. It’s just, he was special. He turned into himself, and he was better than us that day. And you tilt your hat to him. So I think that was what I wanted to get across. Like, ‘Let’s put this in perspective.’ You know, because so often you try to find what went wrong, you know what I mean?”

Williams is always seeking perspective. He thinks one of his favorite players, Carmelo Anthony, still has “more left in the tank,” but he also understands why he’s not currently in the league, both from a team standpoint—the league “gets younger, and it gets younger, and it gets younger,” he says, sounding almost like Ballmer with the repetition—and from Anthony’s. “His route has been different than mine,” he says. “You know, he’s been the star player on a team. I’ve always been who I am, in my role.” That’s not to say Williams is complacent, though; he knows he’s part of a high-risk, high-reward effort by the Clippers to move forward by leaps and bounds. Ballmer may not believe in taking a step back to take a step forward, but in today’s NBA, the truth is that even a step forward won’t really do; this is now a league of lunges. And when it comes to their strategy, Williams and the team currently see eye-to-eye. Of Ballmer, Williams says, “He’s been positive for me.”

When the team re-signed Williams in 2018 for three years and $24 million, they promised not to trade him that season. “I think he had just been scarred,” says Frank of Williams’s first reluctant days as a Clipper. “It’s like, ‘Hey, what are your plans with me? I’m going to be a free agent. Like, what’s the story?’” This summer, the team agreed to guarantee the full $8 million of the final year of Williams’s contract in 2020-21, rather than the $1.5 million originally outlined. “Because of how we’ve done,” Frank says, “we guaranteed his last year a year in advance, which historically doesn’t get done. But we wanted to show just how much we appreciate him.”

On a Thursday night in Hawaii, as the Clippers lose to the Rockets, there are a lot of people in the building who appreciate Williams. “I love Lou,” says Daryl Morey, the Rockets general manager, standing in an arena hallway and ruing that contract math necessitated Williams’s involvement in the Paul trade. About 24 hours later, Morey will send the tweet that launches a semi-official Chinese-American conflict; there may be no greater example of how randomly and quickly things can change in the league. The sold-out crowd in the building gives its biggest cheers to Harden, who finishes with 37 points, and Williams, who nets 13 in 10 first-half minutes. (Harrell also draws oohs and ahhs, finishing with 17 points, six rebounds, three assists, and two blocked shots.) But there’s still plenty that remains unknown as the season begins: Leonard, George, and Westbrook are all watching from the bench.

Williams, for one, can’t wait to see what happens when they’re all playing. “On days where I’m off, I can just sit at home and watch some highly competitive games,” Williams says. “And on the flip side of that, I have to get my rest, because I’m going to be involved in a lot of those highly competitive games. So, it’s just a different time where there’s a lot of turnover. I don’t even know where half the NBA is right now.”

For many years, the same could be said about Williams himself. But lately, he’s been pretty easy to locate: right there at the heart of the Clippers organization, just about to check into the game, sure to impress whoever is watching, no matter what NBA team they may root for—or currently play for.

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