How James Harden may have helped Lou Williams become a Rocket

James Harden and the Rockets’ bench cheer on Lou Williams. (AP)
James Harden and the Rockets’ bench cheer on Lou Williams. (AP)

Two weeks before the NBA trade deadline, a rival player called Lou Williams. The Houston Rockets’ James Harden watched Williams flourish this season, helping lead the perennial All-Star’s hometown Los Angeles Lakers to a strong start, and he had an idea to pitch.

“When James called, he asked me if I was interested in playing with them,” Williams told The Vertical. “I told him that I loved the Lakers, but James and them have a group that fit my personality, fit how I play. He said he was going to make it happen.”

Williams then laughed, sitting on the edge of a visiting court following a recent practice. “I’ve heard that before, so I didn’t really put stock into it,” Williams told The Vertical. “I guess James did put the word in, and the team made it happen.”

Harden had planted the seed, and Williams now laughs at how everything worked out. Houston had an MVP frontrunner in Harden and the third seed in the Western Conference, but the franchise identified the need for another creator to handle the ball and shoot.

The challenge of acquiring Williams appeared to become more difficult during trade-deadline week. The Lakers, who had since collapsed after a 10-10 start, began a major transition in the front office two days before the deadline, hiring Magic Johnson and later player agent Rob Pelinka to replace Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak as president of basketball operations and general manager, respectively. Houston, Utah and Washington reached out to Johnson about a deal, with Williams’ agent, Wallace Prather, helping to facilitate negotiations.

Williams came to the Lakers on a three-year deal in 2015 as the franchise entered Kobe Bryant’s final season, and his play (18.6 points per game with the Lakers this season) allowed the front office to seek a first-round pick in trade talks. As the Sixth Man of the Year candidate was completing a workout in his old high school gym on a Tuesday evening in Atlanta, he received the phone call about the trade to the Rockets.

Lou Williams goes to the basket against New Orleans on March 17. (AP)
Lou Williams goes to the basket against New Orleans on March 17. (AP)

“It wasn’t awkward for me with the changes going on in L.A. because I’ve understood the business,” Williams told The Vertical. “I remember the first day I joined the Rockets, I came into the breakfast room and [coach] Mike [D’Antoni] asked me if I would be able to play tonight if they needed me to, and I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘All right, be yourself.’ He said don’t think about anything, just play. That’s all I needed to hear.

“With the year that Eric [Gordon] is having – this season me and him being one and two in the Sixth Man running – and now we’re on the same team … man, it’s probably safe to say that the trophy has to go through Houston. The league probably has to give us two of them. I think it’s huge to have me and Eric with the way we play. The culture here, the type of players that they want, I believe over time it’s going to pay big dividends for us.”

So far, Williams has given D’Antoni some punch off the bench. He’s averaged 14.5 points in 13 games, including 30 points and seven assists last week against the Lakers. For the season, Williams is averaging 17.8 points

“We needed one more guy that could create, and Lou is perfect,” D’Antoni told The Vertical. “Lou is a professional scorer. In case someone is off, if someone is injured, Lou brings another 15 to 20 points. We still need to incorporate everything. You can never have enough shooters and playmakers, and he does both.”

For D’Antoni’s system, the Rockets now have an array of shooters in Williams, Gordon and Ryan Anderson, a 3-and-D wing in Trevor Ariza and a strong backcourt defender in Patrick Beverley. In the frontcourt, Clint Capela provides rim-protection and a lob threat on Harden’s repeated drives to the basket, and Nene, Montrezl Harrell and Sam Dekker have offered productive minutes.

At 49-22, the Rockets have positioned themselves to make a deep run in the Western Conference playoffs. D’Antoni is making a case to be the NBA Coach of the Year, but as he told The Vertical, “All you do as a coach is trust your players to make the right play and play their game.” For everyone on the roster, the motto is the same.

Williams, 30, views Clippers reserve Jamal Crawford as an intriguing career template. Both rely on craftiness, range and a unique ability to score with minimal lift, which can foster career longevity. Crawford, 37, has long envisioned playing into his 40s.

“Until the wheels fall off for us,” Williams told The Vertical. “I already have 12 [seasons] in the can. Forty for me probably would be a little farfetched, because of being in my 12th season, being 30. Forty would be, what, 22 seasons?

“I don’t know if I got 22 seasons in me, but God willing, I’ll get close.”

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