TORONTO — The Toronto Raptors had one of the league’s best benches in 2013-14, with midseason arrivals Patrick Patterson and Greivis Vasquez giving them a big boost on their way to their first playoff appearance in six years. But that didn’t stop general manager Masai Ujiri from acquiring the man who would go on to win the Kia Sixth Man Award.
That Lou Williams was acquired for basically nothing from the team that finished with the Eastern Conference’s best record makes the story all the more fascinating.
Williams had a tough stay in Atlanta, tearing his ACL 39 games into his first season there and trying to get back to full strength in his second year. But he flourished upon arriving in Toronto, where his instant offense helped the Raptors win their second straight division title
Williams earned 78 of a possible 130 first-place votes for the Sixth Man award, finishing ahead of the Celtics’ Isaiah Thomas and the Clippers’ Jamal Crawford.
All season, the Raptors were at their best with their reserves in the game. They outscored their opponents by 6.8 points per 100 possessions with Williams on the floor and were outscored by 0.5 with him on the bench. Williams didn’t start any games this season (even when DeMar DeRozan or Kyle Lowry were out), but he finished a lot, ranking third in the league in fourth-quarter minutes.
It’s important for a coach to feel comfortable when he goes to his bench. And Raptors coach Dwane Casey feels a lot more than just comfortable when he calls on his reserves, who consistently build on leads or turn deficits into leads.
“It’s huge,” Casey said. “When we get behind, we know that Lou is there, Patrick is there, our bench comes out and gives us a huge shot in the arm.”
It did last season too. But Williams brought added playmaking, which helped Toronto rank in the top three in offensive efficiency for the first time in franchise history. The Raptors were one of two teams that ranked in the top 10 last season and improved this season.
“When Lou comes in, we stretch the floor, get more up-tempo,” Casey said. “His ability to handle the ball, to go pick-and-rolls and be a semi-point guard is also a big benefit.”
The adversity he went through in Atlanta has Williams appreciating this award a lot more than he could have earlier in his career. He finished second for the award in 2011-12 behind current MVP candidate James Harden.
“It means tons more now,” he said, “to win it my first year in Toronto, to win it right after getting traded, and just to go through so much adversity. Timing is everything. So if I was ever going to win it, I think this was the perfect time for me.”
Williams doesn’t have all the athleticism he had before his knee injury, but he’s found a way to still be effective. He took almost 200 more 3-pointers this season than he had in any previous year.
“I learned so much about myself and how to be patient,” he said. “If you look at the first seven years of my career and look at me now, I think I’m a completely different player.”
He’s a crafty player, as evidenced by his league-leading 102 fouls drawn on jump shots.
“When you make shots, teams have to guard you honest,” he said. “And you start using that to your advantage, when guys want to reach in and be physical with you.”
Williams is the first Raptors player to win an individual end-of-season award since Vince Carter was named Rookie of the Year in 1999. A guard has won the Sixth Man award 10 of the last 11 seasons, with Lamar Odom (2010-11) being the only exception.