NBA AM: Can Ty Lawson Salvage His Career?


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It wasn’t long ago that Ty Lawson was regarded as one of the NBA’s best point guards.

After all, he was a big reason for the Denver Nuggets’ success several seasons ago. In the 2012-13 playoffs, he averaged 21.3 points, eight assists and 1.7 steals. In 2013-14, he led the Nuggets in points, assists and steals. His best season came in 2014-15, when he averaged a career-high 9.6 assists (ranking third in the NBA in assists per game and total assists).

Lawson seemed on his way to a very lucrative NBA career. That was, of course, before multiple DUI arrests and other off-court issues arose (including a domestic violence call). It became clear that Lawson needed help, and he entered an alcohol treatment facility.

He was then traded to the Houston Rockets in the 2015 offseason for a second-round pick, which showed how much his trade value had plummeted due to the red flags surrounding him. It was a low-risk, high-reward move for Houston since they didn’t have to give up much and Lawson agreed to remove the guarantee from his 2016-17 salary of $13.2 million to facilitate the trade.

The hope was that Lawson’s issues were behind him and that he’d return to form after showing so many flashes of brilliance in Denver. The Rockets had made the Western Conference Finals in the previous season and Lawson gave a talented team yet another key contributor.

But 11 games in, the Rockets fired head coach Kevin McHale because the team was struggling. Lawson didn’t look like a good fit with the Rockets, averaging career-lows in all major statistical categories (5.8 points, 3.4 assists and 1.7 rebounds). Even though he remained out of trouble publicly, he didn’t look like himself on the court and was struggling to become an integral part of the team.

Due to his struggles, the pairing with the Rockets just didn’t work out. Fifty-three games in, Lawson was waived. The Indiana Pacers, who were trying to bolster their roster for the postseason, signed the floor general to add depth behind starter George Hill.

He played 13 games for Indiana, but it was another short stint in which he didn’t really showcase his true talent. Lawson continued to look like a shell of himself, averaging 4.9 points, 4.4 assists and 2.4 rebounds with the Pacers. For the first time since his rookie season, he averaged single digits in points.

Now, Lawson is hoping to put last season behind him and is once again hoping a change of scenery will bring out his best basketball. Last week, after remaining unsigned for much of the offseason, Lawson agreed to join the Sacramento Kings on a one-year contract that is non-guaranteed. This stings for Lawson, especially when you remember that he voluntarily gave up his $13.2 million guaranteed 2016-17 salary for the upcoming season to join Houston last summer.

Some believe that this is Lawson’s final opportunity to play in the league. If he struggles in Sacramento or has any off-court issues, his NBA career could be over.

But those who know Lawson are remaining hopeful that this could be the bounce-back season the floor general needs to salvage his career.

“Ty has a chance to get back on track,” Anthony Wright, a friend and former teammate of Lawson’s, told Basketball insiders. “But he needs to keep the right company around him. On a one-year, non guaranteed deal, you can see he’s teetering on getting bounced out of the league. He has the talent, but will have to get his confidence and dog [attitude] back in him in order to stick.

“Playing with Ty in high school and against him growing up, it made me see how tough he was as a competitor. He was a pitbull, an explosive athlete and a great teammate. I’d like to see him battle through adversity a bit better though. Outside of his known off-court problems, I think his handling of adversity has attributed to his downfalls.”

Sacramento’s new head coach Dave Joerger is an underrated leader who has shown the ability to get the most out of players. He did a terrific job leading the Memphis Grizzlies to the playoffs last year, even though injury after injury depleted his roster. It’s also worth noting that Mike Conley played the best basketball of his career under Coach Joeger, which led to him signing the largest contract in the NBA history this summer (a five-year, $153 million deal).

And keep in mind, Rajon Rondo entered a similar situation with Sacramento last offseason after struggling with the Dallas Mavericks and being dismissed from the team in the playoffs. Rondo thrived on his one-year deal with the Kings and, this summer, he inked a two-year deal worth $28 million with the Chicago Bulls. That’s the kind of success story that Lawson is hoping to duplicate.

Lawson seems set up nicely to have a strong bounce-back season. As long as his struggles off the court are indeed a thing of the past, he should receive the opportunity to play significant minutes. In fact, he could even start for Sacramento due to the recent news that Darren Collison pled guilty to misdemeanor domestic battery from a May incident. Collison could receive jail time, and will surely be suspended either way.

This could be Lawson’s opportunity to become a starting point guard again. But even if that happens, he needs to take advantage of the opportunity and play more like he did in Denver two seasons ago. Fortunately, he has some nice offensive pieces around him such as dominant center DeMarcus Cousins, scoring swingman Rudy Gay, offseason addition Arron Afflalo and others. For a facilitating point guard like Lawson, that’s certainly helpful.

The last year – and signing a non-guaranteed deal  – had to be humbling for Lawson. When players come to the realization that they could be down to their last opportunity, reality typically starts to set in. He likely understands the sense of urgency, that he has to make this work and show the best version of himself on and off the court to keep alive the NBA career that just two years ago looked so promising.

Will Lawson be able to turn this into a great comeback story, or will he be labeled as a player whose NBA career went off track and ended sooner than expected?

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About Oliver Maroney

Oliver Maroney

Oliver Maroney is an NBA writer for Basketball Insiders. He is based in Portland and covers the league as a whole.