LOS ANGELES — Any list of players including names like James Harden, Russell Westbrook and DeMarcus Cousins figures to be a prestigious one.
Such company might not be where most would expect to find the name Lou Williams, but the former Los Angeles Lakers guard’s usage rate put him in the top-20 in the statistic so far this season, ahead of names like LeBron James and barely behind John Wall.
With Williams (and the team-high 30 percent of possessions he used for the Lakers while on the floor) shipped off at the trade deadline, the team has to redistribute the amount of possessions he could ably soak up for the team’s bench each game on the fly.
“We've got to pick it up now that he's gone, and I think that's not going to be a problem for us,” Lakers rookie Ivica Zubac told Silver Screen and Roll. “We're going to try to make up for him, but everybody has to do it. No player can do it by himself.
Lakers head coach Luke Walton agrees that the team will need to make changes by committee to fill the void left in their familiar bench unit by the Williams trade.
"The playbook definitely changes. We still want to play the same style, same tempo, them being an energy group and kind of picking it up for us, but they're going to have to do it much more as a collective group now,” said Walton
“[Jordan Clarkson] has to be much more of a playmaker,” Walton continued. “Larry [Nance, Jr. ] and Zu [Ivica Zubac] have to be more aggressive at making things happen, because a lot of it before was coming out of a double-team and then playmaking. That's not always out there now, and it's good for them to get that chance and opportunity."
It’s early, but so far Clarkson has taken on the bulk of Williams’ primary playmaking role off of the bench, and it’s helped him rediscover some of the floor vision he showed as a rookie.
In the two games since Williams was traded, Clarkson has assisted on 20 percent of the Lakers’ baskets while he is on the floor (up from 12.9 percent on the season), while simultaneously cutting down on his turnover percentage (from 11.1 to 10.7 percent).
"I like being in that position, trying to make plays for my teammates. Being aggressive and doing what I do,” Clarkson said of his new role. “[Walton] told me that my job is to go out there and play-make for my teammates as well as being aggressive, so I'm just trying to find that balance with the second unit and keep continuing to grow into that leadership role for the bench.”
He’s looked quite comfortable operating pick-and-rolls again in the place of Williams, finding Zubac without hesitation in the clip below:
Clarkson isn’t the only Lakers player sharing the ball more, a change for the seventh-most frequently isolating team in the league this season, according to NBA.com. The Lakers have run isolations on 8.3 percent of their possessions this season, while Williams isolated for 10 percent of his own offense.
When he wasn’t isolating, he was taking over the offense as the main pick-and-roll initiator, as 45.1 percent of his offense came from that type of play.
To be fair to Williams, he was efficient at both, ranking in the 94th percentile in terms of efficiency as a pick-and-roll initiator, and in the 86th percentile in isolations, but with him gone the Lakers’ offense has taken a more democratic approach.
The Lakers rank 19th in the NBA this season in passes per game, averaging 292.4, slightly short of Walton’s goal of at least 300 per game. In the two games since Williams was traded, the Lakers have realized Walton’s vision and then some, averaging 314.5 passes per game (which would rank eighth in the league this season).
The zest with which they now move the ball was still on display in even a largely listless loss to the San Antonio Spurs Sunday:
The defeat did, however, provide a nice demonstration of the dangers of overpassing. The Lakers turned the ball over 18 times against the Spurs, two more giveaways than they had assists (16).
Even the best ball movement intentions can sometimes lead to mistakes, as several quick-hitting reads being undone by one bad one shows on the possession below:
No matter what Hoosiers taught anyone, more passing does not necessarily equal better offense, as ably illustrated by the league-leader in passes per game, the Philadelphia 76ers (353.5) ranking dead-last in offensive efficiency, scoring 100 points per 100 possessions.
Still, if executed with purpose and vision, prolific passing can help an offense, as the Spurs (who rank sixth in the league with 319.1 passes per game) put on full display as the picked apart the Lakers for 37 assists Sunday.
Prior to the game Walton specifically cited the Spurs as “a team that I think young teams like ourselves should try to build towards,” an assertion Clarkson echoed.
"Those guys have been together for a while, and that's something we're working toward,” Clarkson said of his hometown team. “With time it's going to happen, but we've got to all put forth the effort to want to to get better, to come out here and compete and really get better so we can get to that level."
In an effort to (pardon the pun) spur that type of growth, Zubac said the Lakers have put further emphasis in picking up the pace, sharing the ball and spacing the floor in the wake of Williams’ departure, and that the team is excited to test out their newfound limits.
“That's what every player wants,” Zubac said. “Every player wants to be more involved, and so I'm excited and I think I'm going to use those opportunities well.”
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats per NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com. Harrison Faigen is co-host of the Locked on Lakers podcast (subscribe here), and you can follow him on Twitter at @hmfaigen.