Can Lou Williams Be a Difference-Maker for the Houston Rockets?
By the time the NBA All-Star break concludes, we generally know the teams that are pretenders and the teams that are contenders.
Sure, teams such as the New Orleans Pelicans and Denver Nuggets are vying for the 8 seed in the West, but with an eventual matchup with the Golden State Warriors being the reward, well, we can consider them non-threats for the NBA Finals. To be exact, our algorithm sees those teams winning the Finals less than 0.2% of the time.
But for a team like the Houston Rockets, who have a 40-18 record through the break and the third-highest nERD in the NBA, any improvement is crucial.
How far does bringing in shooting guard Lou Williams from the Los Angeles Lakers, in exchange for Corey Brewer and a first-round pick, move the needle for the third-best team in the NBA by our metrics?
Let's break it down.
With a nERD of 65.6, the Rockets grade out as a team that should win 65.6% of their games during the season. And entering the break, they owned a 5.1% chance to win the NBA Finals, fifth-highest in the NBA but significantly behind fellow Western Conference stalwarts Golden State (36.7%) and San Antonio (19.8%).
They boast the second-best offensive rating in the NBA (114.5) behind the Warriors' 116.8, and their defensive rating of 108.0 is a tad better than the NBA average of 108.6. That's right. The Rockets are an above-average defense.
So, how does Williams, who is 80th among 100 shooting guards in defensive real plus-minus (and 2nd in offensive real plus-minus) help the team?
We already know that Williams is an efficient offensive player, per his offensive real plus-minus, but if we look at our individual nERD scores, we can see how many wins Williams would add to a team as a starter over a full season.
The answer is a whopping 5.0, 25th-best in the NBA.
How is he that valuable? Well, among qualified players, Williams ranks 9th in usage rate at 30.6%, and among the 71 players with usage rates north of 22%, he is 26th in effective field goal percentage (52.7%).
Of the 23 players with usage rates above 28%, only six rank ahead of Williams' effective field goal percentage: LeBron James (58.7%), Stephen Curry (58.2%), C.J. McCollum (55.2%), Isaiah Thomas (54.9%), Giannis Antetokounmpo (54.7%), and Kawhi Leonard (54.5%).
Even among the 96 players with usage rates of at least 20% this season, Williams ranks fifth in free throw rate. The combination of he and Harden could pressure the perimeter defenders of any team, and that could be crucial against the Warriors and Spurs, who each rank in the top 10 in free throws per field goal attempt against.
What It All Means
We can dance around how Williams will be integrated within the offense, but he has a three-point attempt rate (the percentage of field goals taken from behind the arc) of 43.1% on the only team with a rate above 40.0% (Houston attempts 45.9% of their field goals from deep).
If anything, seeing how Williams and Harden share the fourth-quarter load will be the more important question, but that's just speculation for now.
Simply put, adding one of the most efficient scorers to one of the most efficient offenses in the NBA is going to have plenty of positives. And if the Rockets can maintain a league-average defense, they can continue to post one of the best net ratings in the Association.
As far as their title hopes go, the impact is understandably modest, mainly because of the strength of the Warriors and Spurs within the same conference. The addition of Williams for the rest of the season bumps Houston's championship chances from 5.1% to 6.9%, per our projections associate, Sam Hauss.