In the midst of the off-season whirlwind that included the Joe Johnson jettison, Josh Smith trade rumors, and the Marvin Williams/Devin Harris swap, the Atlanta Hawks signed Lou Williams as a free agent after he left Philadelphia. The contract details were sketchy at first, but when the final deal settled at 4 years and $21.125 million, reaction was fairly quiet around the league. The reaction in this space? Utter joy. Williams is a hometown product who entered the league straight out of South Gwinnett High School in Snellville, GA, so this is a homecoming of sorts, but the bigger reason for excitement stems from his production level set against his monetary commitment going forward.
Lou Williams is a score-first, combo guard that produces the majority of his value through offense, and more specifically, putting the ball in the basket. He has elite quickness and can penetrate virtually at will, which has enabled him to get to the free throw line at an impressive rate to combat his sometimes shaky (in the 40% range) field goal percentage. Also, Williams has one of the best shot fakes in the game, and produces free throw attempts by using this “crafty” maneuver. The other outstanding tool of Williams’ game is his astronomically low turnover rate. For comparison, Williams turned the ball over on just 5.9% of his possessions last year, while Chris Paul turned it over on 7.5% of his possessions. Yes, this is “just” a comparison with the best point guard on the planet, but now we’ll put it into perspective by saying that Paul was the 2nd-best player in the league in this category, behind Williams. Undoubtedly, Williams’ excellence in this category gains some steam with his occasional unwillingness to pass the basketball, but between his careful ball-handling and ability to create free throws, he’s elite in this area, which contributes greatly to his overall efficiency on the offensive end.
Williams’ player efficiency rating (PER) has increased for the past four seasons, cresting in 2012 with a PER of 20.22, which was good for 13th in the NBA among all guards, and he would have ranked #8 among point guards and #5 among shooting guards. That is absolutely outstanding production, and if you can get it for $5 million a year in the current state of the NBA, that’s basically stealing money. While I realize it is simply one measure of an NBA player’s effectiveness in the midst of a sea of statistics, PER is a tool that the industry greatly values and it is looked upon by some as the best single measure of a player’s performance. With that said, if you were to look below Williams on the 2012 PER leaders, you would find Joe Johnson at 18.50.
I repeat, Joe Johnson had a lower PER than Lou Williams did last season.
Please do not take this use of statistical evidence as me stating that Joe Johnson is an inferior basketball player to Lou Williams. He simply is not. But with that said, Williams is making less than 25% of the salary of Joe Johnson for this season, and will likely score at a similar (or even higher) rate per 40 minutes than Johnson has produced over the last few seasons. In fact, this point brings me to my “bold” prediction about Lou Williams for the 2012-2013 season.
Lou Williams will lead the Atlanta Hawks in scoring rate (points per 40 minutes), and if he plays 30 minutes or more per game, he will lead the Atlanta Hawks in scoring.
As much as I would like to outright predict Williams as the leading scorer on the Hawks this season (sorry Josh), it is tied completely to playing time, and with Larry Drew at the helm, I’m not sure Williams will see the court enough in the midst of the back-court quagmire with Devin Harris, Jeff Teague, John Jenkins, and company.
In the midst of (mostly) glowing praise about Williams, there are a few shortcomings that need to be addressed in his game. First, his lack of a defined position can sometimes cause issues. For example, Williams is certainly not a traditional point guard in terms of offensive distribution, and while his size would indicate that he should play there, I can’t see too many scenarios where he would be the most effective option at initiating the offense on a team that features Harris and Teague. On the flip side, Williams is wildly undersized at the shooting guard spot as he’s “listed” at 6-foot-1 and 175 pounds, and could be even smaller than that with his incredibly wiry frame.
The fundamental issue with this lack of “position” surfaces on the defensive end. Williams is very quick, and while he’ll never be an elite defender at any spot, he’s shown himself capable of being reasonably effective against most point guards. Of course, as discussed earlier, he’s not at his best playing point guard on the offensive end, and this creates mismatches in a negative way. In Philadelphia, Williams played very effectively with Jrue Holiday at the point guard spot, as Holiday’s size (6’4) and physicality allowed him to defend opposing shooting guards with Williams focusing on the point guard spot. In Atlanta, Devin Harris seems like the better back-court mate for Williams based upon this same criteria, with Harris being significantly bigger than Teague. The issue here is that, simply put, Devin Harris isn’t nearly the defender that Jrue Holiday is. There’s really no scenario where Williams and Teague (the best two guards on the roster in my opinion) can guard the opposition effectively when there is a scoring threat at the 2-guard position.
With his defensive and size limitations, there is a defined ceiling for the two-way player that Williams can be. That said, if he were to simply replicate the production from Philadelphia last year, he would be the 3rd-best player on the Hawks roster this season (behind Smith and Horford), and when you can attain that sort of player for $5 million a year, that is undoubtedly a shrewd front office move. I’m slightly skeptical on the fit with Harris/Teague in the backcourt, but if Larry Drew is willing to play Williams the minutes that he will command, he will produce value.
With a gun to my head, I would estimate that Williams will probably see 25-30 minutes per game of game action, average between 14-18 points, around 4 assists, and 3 rebounds a game with a solid true shooting percentage and a wildly low turnover rate. If Drew decides to anoint Williams as his primary shooting guard and provide the subsequent 32-35 minutes a night, he could legitimately average 20 points a night, and lead the team in scoring. At any rate, the Williams signing was undoubtedly my 2nd-favorite move of the off-season, and the hometown kid should arrive with solid production when deployed correctly.