Ty Lawson Ready to Launch in HoustonBart Young/NBAE via Getty Images
As Houston soared to the conference finals, exposing the thin Clippers, it was almost hard to explain how the Rockets were doing it. They of course had James Harden, one of the half-dozen best players in the league, but Harden never quite reached ludicrous speed as the Rockets snatched the Clippers’ soul.
They had Dwight Howard, once an MVP candidate, but Howard alone couldn’t prop up a defense that turned rickety in all three of Houston’s playoff series. The hellhound atop that defense, Patrick Beverley, was injured, leaving Jason Terry and Pablo Prigioni — senior citizens in the NBA — to chase some of the league’s greatest point guards. Their crunch-time playbook was a one-page doodle of Harden dribbling, in part because Donatas Motiejunas, a legit post-up threat who can sort of shoot free throws, was also injured. Houston jacked a ton of 3s, but it didn’t shoot them well, and teams clogged the lane by sagging off of everyone but Trevor Ariza.
And yet, there they were in the Final Four, going toe-to-toe with the Warriors at Oracle Arena. Houston didn’t have some of the big-picture indicators we’d associate with an elite team, but the Rockets were just freaking relentless. They played at a frantic, exhausting pace. Everywhere you looked, there was an athlete ready to catch a pass from Harden, pump fake, drive to the rim on a blow-by, and kick out to the next shooter in the chain. It almost didn’t matter that Houston wasn’t a great shooting team; all that attacking produced the best kinds of shots — free throws, layups, and corner 3s on which the Rockets shot a robust 39 percent in the regular season, per NBA.com.
Ty Lawson, who was acquired from the Nuggets on Sunday, fits right into a system that is both frenetic and mathematically sound. On the surface, he’s an average 3-point shooter who needs the ball and can’t defend; how could he coexist with Harden, who effectively plays point guard — and does so better than Lawson? That’s a fair question, and it’s possible Houston will bring Lawson off the bench once he gets his head right and serves whatever suspension the league levies. And it should go without saying that all of this basketball analysis is secondary. Anyone who allegedly drives drunk, repeatedly, is a public menace one more bad move away from killing someone. Stop it.
Beverley’s combination of shooting and elite defense is a better theoretical fit next to Harden, even though Harden decided to start trying again on the defensive end last season. But let’s not pretend Beverley is Kyle Korver. He has shot a lower percentage from deep for his career than Lawson. Beverley chucked at a higher volume, but you can bet Lawson will let it fly from deep as a Rocket.
Lawson and Harden are going to play a ton together regardless, and it should work well on offense — even as Harden retains undisputed alpha-dog status. Lawson led the league in drives per game in 2013-14 and finished third last season — four spots ahead of Harden, per SportVU tracking data.1 He is a roadrunner in transition for a fast-breaking team with speed at every position. For the low, low price of four fringe players and a lottery-protected first-round pick, the Rockets just combined two of the very best drive-and-kick players in the league. You thought Houston was exhausting to defend last season? The Rockets just souped up the engine.
Sure, Lawson “needs” the ball, but that doesn’t mean he’s ineffective in a secondary role. He’ll touch it plenty; Harden sucks entire defenses toward him as he dribbles up high on the pick-and-roll, and if he spots Lawson’s defender tiptoeing into the paint, Harden can whip the ball to his new teammate. Give Lawson a head start like that, and you’re toast. Diversity is healthy, anyway. Houston badly needs a secondary creator so that Harden can play fewer minutes and do less heavy lifting when he’s on the floor. He can be a capable spot-up shooter, too.
Houston’s offense died all season with Harden on the bench. Things got especially embarrassing in the conference finals, when Golden State outscored the Rockets by 36 points in the 41 minutes Harden rested, per NBA.com. The series was almost dead even with Harden on the court, and if Lawson commits, Houston should be able to at least survive when Harden sits. Lawson can carry second units even if he starts, provided Kevin McHale staggers minutes properly.
The driving and passing lanes won’t be as clean as Daryl Morey would like until Houston acquires a legitimate stretch power forward, but both Motiejunas and Terrence Jones are creeping toward the arc. And even if they never get there, both are capable of catching around the elbows and making plays off the dribble. The machine keeps moving. That Houston nabbed Lawson without surrendering any of Jones, Motiejunas, and Clint Capela is a freaking coup. Capela proved in the playoffs he’s ready to contribute as an über-athletic pick-and-roll dive guy, and Houston has quietly assembled a really nice group of 25-and-under players to complement its foundational stars.
There will be issues on defense, of course. Lawson is an undersize liability, and if Houston chooses to hide him at times on spot-up guys like J.J. Redick and Danny Green, Lawson will occasionally lose them as they scamper around the floor. If the Lawson-Harden combination proves untenable, that’s OK. Lawson can still play massive minutes off the bench, and $12 million for a super-sub will look less ridiculous assuming the cap soars toward $110 million over the next two years. Beverley’s four-year, $23 million is a steal even for a plus bench guy, and Houston will experiment with playing Beverley, Lawson, and Harden together against some backup units.
Houston didn’t play much small ball last season, but with Lawson, K.J. McDaniels, and Corey Brewer onboard, the Rockets have enough pieces to shift Ariza to power forward when they need to juice up the spacing. The Rockets are honestly pretty loaded at every position. Signing both Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell will take Houston right to the tax line, but the Rockets could easily get under it by the end of the season — if they even care.
Houston has punted on some potential cap space for next summer’s free-agency bonanza, but Lawson is better than any player the Rockets were likely to sign. As I wrote two weeks ago in wrapping free agency, next summer’s class is wildly overrated after Kevin Durant and Al Horford. There aren’t nearly enough All-Star–level players to absorb all the All-Star–level salary slots that will suddenly flow into the system as the cap jumps. It will be a great time to be Jeff Green.
And right now is exactly when you want to acquire Lawson — with two years left on an old-cap contract that will expire before he turns 30. [Update: Sources tell Grantland that, as a condition of the trade, Lawson agreed to modify his contract so that the $13.2 million he’s due in 2016-17 is now fully nonguaranteed. If things don’t go well, the Rockets could simply let him walk after this season.] Lawson’s drinking has never been a secret. It was a concern for teams when he came out of North Carolina, and Denver officials have long kept an eye on his nighttime behavior. It turned off suitors, including Boston, at the trade deadline, when Denver was demanding two first-round picks in exchange for Lawson, per several league sources.
A little guy who likes to party and relies a ton on speed is a huge risk once he passes his prime. Paying Lawson big on his next contract will be dicey unless he cleans up his act. Houston doesn’t have to worry about that, and in the meantime, the Rockets have John Lucas in their backyard to guide Lawson through the post-rehab phase of his life.
This is how you maximize a championship window, which can close in a snap as contracts get shorter and shorter.2 Howard already has a player option after next season, and he’ll clearly never be the same two-way destroyer he was during his peak in Orlando. Houston needs to go for it now, and the Rockets have given themselves an honest chance to compete with San Antonio, Golden State, and Oklahoma City atop the West. Oh my god, the West.
If they re-sign Howard, Jones, and Motiejunas, they’ll even be capped out in July of 2017, when the cap is expected to reach at least $108 million, but all of Houston’s guys should make for intriguing trade pieces should the Rockets seek an upgrade.
They’re giving up almost literally nothing here. Kostas Papanikolaou shot 35 percent last season. Joey Dorsey is not an NBA player, and Prigioni is hanging on at age 38. The Rockets will always have the memory of Prigioni’s glorious series of picked pockets in Game 7 against the Clippers, when he basically iced the L.A. collapse. It was never getting any better than that for Prigioni in Houston, and there would be no minutes for him on a team with both Lawson and Beverley. Farewell, you sweet sneak.
Nick Johnson has some potential, but he shot poorly in both Houston and the D-League, and he clashed with the Rockets coaching staff in Rio Grande, per several league sources. The 2016 first-round pick Houston flipped to Denver is lottery-protected, and if Houston picks in the mid-20s again, it won’t be much better than the unprotected 2017 second-rounder Denver sent along with Lawson.
The Nuggets aren’t going to be good this season, and unless they nail every move between now and October 2016, they will be underdogs to make the playoffs in 2016-17. That second-round pick might land somewhere around no. 40, and you know the Rockets will make the most of it.
It is not a random throw-in. The two teams haggled over that pick. It is a real cost for Denver and represents just how far Lawson’s trade value plummeted after his second arrest last week on suspicion of DUI. Denver could have drawn a line in the sand at that second-round pick, and I’m betting that Houston, despite what was undoubtedly some tough talk, would have eventually caved.
But maybe not. At this moment, Denver was not getting a better package for Lawson. It’s easy to read that and conclude that, duh, Denver picked the wrong moment to trade him. Lawson’s value will never be lower; Morey has made a classic stock market buy-low play and stolen Lawson. Denver overplayed its hand at the trade deadline, even knowing that Lawson was a ticking time bomb, and it is paying the price today.
All that is fair, but reality is more complicated. Denver couldn’t have known in February that Lawson would get into this much trouble, or that he’d post a video on Twitter in which he smoked a hookah and predicted a reunion with George Karl in Sacramento — a silly thing that nonetheless turned off potential trade partners.
Look around the league: Who exactly needs a starting point guard and cares enough about winning over the next two seasons to deal with Lawson? The Lakers were the only other team to express interest, but they can’t offer a first-round pick until 2020 at the earliest — and may not have even put a future first-rounder on the table, per league sources. They should be giving minutes and touches to D’Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson, anyway. The Nets have a need, but they just ducked under the tax, they’re poor on picks, and they are hoarding cap space for next summer. Dallas got Deron Williams on the cheap, and between Lamar Odom and Rajon Rondo, the Mavs might just about be done taking on dudes with heavy baggage. New York excised its own problem children last season and needs the cap room for another run in free agency. Karl loves Lawson, but he’s not calling the shots in Sacramento, and the Kings just dealt all their best stuff to Philly.
The Jazz could have gone all in for a short-term upgrade, but they believe in Dante Exum, and they don’t want Lawson around their young players right now.
Denver doesn’t, either. You can suggest that the Nuggets should have waited for Lawson to reestablish his value ahead of next season’s deadline, but they want to tidy up the locker room now around Emmanuel Mudiay, Jusuf Nurkic, Nikola Jokic, and the rest of their young guys. That’s why they overpaid Jameer Nelson, guaranteed Randy Foye’s deal, and sought out other high-character guys around the league. They decided it was best to cut bait with Lawson, and while that may not be the optimal decision in calculating terms, real life doesn’t always run on calculating terms. Spreadsheets can’t determine everything.
Losing that second-rounder hurts, but Denver has extra picks coming from Memphis and Portland,3 plus the right to swap picks with the Knicks in the next draft. It’s possible they won’t need to exercise those rights, since New York might finish with a better record — and a lower pick — than Denver does. They’ve also opened a ton of cap room for next summer, and they have just enough right now to possibly work out a contract extension with Danilo Gallinari.
Denver may have to overpay blah free agents next summer just to reach the mandatory team salary floor. This is going to be a long slog. Dealing Lawson for this return is disappointing, considering that the Nuggets mounted a PR campaign to get him into the All-Star Game just five months ago, but the paths to a better outcome were closed off — at least over the next few months — when news of Lawson’s arrest broke last week.
Right or wrong, the Nuggets viewed keeping Lawson as a risk they were no longer willing to take. For Houston, dealing for Lawson was a small risk it couldn’t pass up.