LOS ANGELES – What do you call an NBA Sixth Man of the Year contender who might not be the best player on his bench? Seventh Man of the Year?
Fortunately for the surging Los Angeles Clippers, neither Lou Williams nor Montrezl Harrell have the time or inclination to bother with that question. They are in the redefining business, changing the optics of their team’s season and, on a broader scale, the way the NBA thinks about the mystical art of bench-warming.
Williams has the laid-back vibe of a 32-year-old veteran who has seen it all, gliding around the hardwood, flowing through defensive pressure with surgical cuts and putting up the preposterous (for a non-starter) figures of 24.5 points per game since the start of February. On Monday, as the Clippers won a fifth straight by trouncing the Boston Celtics, he became the highest bench scorer in NBA history, surpassing Dell Curry.
“It is like a class of our own,” Williams told USA TODAY Sports, when asked about the handful of NBA reserves capable of impacting a game as effectively as a starter. “It is like special teams in football. You have guys that just catch the ball, but also guys that change the game by running back all the way.
“I love this. If I was worried about going out there and trying to be somebody or take someone else’s position, that would be the wrong mindset.”
Williams is a close friend of multiple rappers who often has found himself name-checked in songs, a 6’1 guard who never messed with the idea of college and a player whose early NBA experiences were shaped by his close friendship with veteran mentor Allen Iverson in Philadelphia. He was feted as the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year in 2015 and 2018.
“A lot of people would love to have one game changer in that role,” Clippers head coach Doc Rivers told USA TODAY Sports. “We have two of them. To be able to do it you have to have that personality where you say ‘I am going to come in and just grab the moment.’
“Lou has accepted it. Trez (Harrell) was forced to accept it – and then accepted it. Most young guys want to start. We have guys who understand there are different ways of being great.”
If Williams uses a paintbrush, Harrell uses a sledgehammer, albeit a remarkably precise one, as an undersized center who wears down his opponents with a non-stop blast of visible energy and well-harnessed power.
Thunderous dunks, hard-earned “and-ones” and soul-destroying blocks are part of Harrell’s repertoire and each are accompanied by snarling screams. Opposing fans’ insults are returned with ripostes that might make Russell Westbrook blush and, like Williams, Harrell is adored by his teammates and the loyal Clippers fan base.
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A former national champion at Louisville, Harrell has career highs across the board this season, including 16.2 points and 6.7 rebounds per outing. Apologies to Derrick Rose, but if neither Harrell nor Williams win Sixth Man (Harrell is also up for Most Improved Player) it would be a travesty.
The Clippers pride themselves on being blue-collar and after trading Tobias Harris, they have actually gotten better. They’re still being talked about less than LeBron James and that other L.A. team down the corridor, but as the Lakers flounder the Clippers are playoff-bound, with a friendly schedule offering a realistic shot at a six seed.
Harrell’s nightly efforts fit perfectly with the working man ethos.
“In this city, the people who gravitate to this team are hard workers and they relate to us gritting and grinding,” Harrell, 25, told USA TODAY Sports. “And if I am out there yelling and screaming it is not anger, it is joy. I appreciate our fans and I appreciate that I don’t have to get up and go to a graveyard shift. I get to go into battle.”
At most NBA venues, there is a dip in the vibe when the first subs come in. At Clippers home games, it is a cue for Staples Center to light up. Williams’ arrival sparks a serenade of “Louuuuu” and when Harrell steps in, complete with a karate-style headband, it means something is about to happen, and it is probably going to be good.
The Clippers’ immediate future likely hinges on the team’s ability to recruit at least one elite free agent in the summer, Kawhi Leonard being the ultimate prize. The organization has set itself up to be a prime destination for a top player who is seeking a club that’s ready to win but doesn’t need to be the frontman for a circus.
Rivers has built a group – and Williams and Harrell are prime examples of this – that is proving a big sneaker deal isn’t a prerequisite for outstanding performance.
“Maybe we don’t have a lot of guys who fit the traditional criteria of a star,” Rivers said. “But we have a lot of guys who play like stars.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ columnist Martin Rogers on Twitter @RogersJourno