Jordan Clarkson played in 79 games for the Lakers last season and started all of them. He was their most consistent performer, following an outstanding rookie season in 2014-15 which saw him earn first-team All-Rookie honors. Clarkson labored under the same adverse conditions which hindered the growth of the team’s young players, but he kept his mouth shut and gave 110% effort playing in the shadow of the Kobe Bryant farewell tour and the drama surrounding D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle and Byron Scott.
The Lakers and Clarkson reaffirmed their commitment to one another over the summer by signing a new contract that will pay him more than $12 million annually. Thus, it was a surprise to see him relegated to the second unit when preseason started. Most observers assumed this was a temporary experiment, but after five preseason games Lou Williams was still starting and Clarkson was still coming off the bench. More importantly, Clarkson, who averaged a team-high 32 minutes a game last season, averaged only 21 minutes in the preseason through five games while Williams averaged 23 minutes per contest.
If the Lakers are looking for someone to start at shooting guard other than Clarkson, it would be a mistake to make Lou Williams that person.
The Lakers are Williams’ fourth team in eleven NBA seasons. In seven of those years he did not start a single game, and in two others he started fewer than ten games. The exceptions to Williams’ long career as a reserve were last year’s terrible Lakers’ team when he started 35 times while the team finished with only 17 wins; and in the 2009-10 season, when Williams started 38 games for the lowly Philadelphia 76ers who finished with a dismal 27-55 record.
Williams’ statistics were better early in his career and peaked during the 2009-10 season. In the six years since then, he has averaged 40% shooting from the field and 34% from three-point range, both of which are below average especially for someone with a reputation as a shooter who offers his team little else other than his scoring.
Once he joined the Lakers, most nights he was around four of ten from the field, or worse, and if he scored in double figures it was because he got to the free throw line a lot, which is something he is good at doing. Every eight or ten games he will catch fire for a half and he will be unstoppable. This preseason is a good example, where in all but one game he shot poorly, but for one-half of one game he could not miss and finished with 25 points. Whenever he goes off like that it is easy to get excited, thinking that perhaps he can do it on a regular basis, but it has never been able to sustain it.
Williams has a role on the Lakers as someone who can bring energy off the bench and occasionally have a very big scoring night. But he does not have the skills or consistency to be a starter. His high volume, low percentage shooting is not the biggest issue. His biggest flaw is that he is arguably the team’s worst defender, and try as Walton may, that is not likely to change in Williams’ twelfth season in the league. Part of the problem is that as a 6’1” shooting guard, he is several inches shorter than the average NBA player at his position.
If Williams does not start, who could take his place? Assuming Walton wants Clarkson coming off the bench, the candidates to replace Williams in the starting lineup are Nick Young, Anthony Brown, and Marcelo Huertas. There was some thought previously that Brandon Ingram could play the two but from what he has shown so far he is not ready to be an NBA starter and certainly not in the backcourt.
At first blush, the thought of Young, Brown or Huertas as a starter is frightening. But upon further reflection, an argument could be made for any of them to assume that position given what they offer and their fit with the other starters.
Few expected Young to be on the team this year. Yet even his biggest critics must concede he has played well so far on both ends of the court. Since Randle’s outside shot has not improved over the summer as fans had hoped, and Mozgov is not going to score much other than at the rim, it cannot hurt to have another shooter in the lineup especially if Young can manage to play as he has performed so far. He is half a foot taller than Williams, which can’t hurt on defense and on the boards. Williams and Young should not play in a line-up together for obvious reasons, so if Williams is not going to start and Walton wants to find time for Young, as incredible a turnaround as it would be, perhaps the position should fall to him.
Brown entered preseason having to prove he could consistently hit outside shots. He had one strong game, followed by a poor one, and has not been heard from since. If the Lakers were wise they would find significant minutes for Brown in the preseason, but they are running out of time. If nothing else, Brown is one of the team’s best perimeter defenders and with Russell’s defense still suspect, Brown’s defensive skills might be a valuable addition to the starting line-up and perhaps his shooting will catch up once he knows he is not going to be benched for a month every time he misses a shot. One has to wonder how Brown would have developed if the Lakers had given him consistent playing time last year and this past month, had they been as patient with him as they were with Russell and Randle.
Huertas would be a surprising choice, but based on how the team moves the ball when he is in the line-up, it may be worth teaming him with Russell. Huertas could be the playmaker while Russell does what he does best, which is score. This preseason has shown again what Byron Scott discovered late last season, that the Lakers are a different and often better offensive team with Huertas pushing the pace and setting up his teammates for easier shots.
Everyone expected Clarkson to be a starter this year but except for the last game when Williams was rested, Clarkson has come off the bench and Walton may like it that way. If it is going to continue, Williams should not be the starter as he is a defensive liability and is inefficient and inconsistent on offense. There is a reason he has been a career reserve, albeit a valuable one at times. The starting position should go to Young, Brown or Huertas, none of whom is ideal, but each brings something to the team that makes him a better candidate to start than Williams.