NBA Saturday: Lawson May Make Rockets Top-Tier Team

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On July 19, the Denver Nuggets traded point guard Ty Lawson to the Houston Rockets. Along with Lawson, the Nuggets sent Houston a 2017 second-round pick in exchange for Kostas Papanikolaou, Pablo Prigioni (who was subsequently waived), Joey Dorsey (bought out), Nick Johnson and a lottery-protected 2016 first-round draft pick.

Lawson, age 27, has been in the NBA for six seasons and has established himself as one of the league’s best playmakers and a solid overall point guard. Lawson has career averages of 14.2 points, 6.6 assists and 2.9 rebounds per game and was ranked third in assists per game last season, outpaced only by Chris Paul and John Wall.

However, Lawson has struggled with off-court issues, including, among other things, a history of alcohol abuse that dates back to his time at the University of North Carolina (Lawson pleaded guilty to underage drinking and driving in 2008). Lawson was arrested twice this year for suspicion of driving under the influence – first in January and again in July. Lawson recently went through and completed a court-ordered 30-day rehab program and is actively working to overcome this ongoing problem. Alcohol addiction is a very serious issue and basketball should be an afterthought for Lawson until he is able to take control of the situation.

With that said, if Lawson is focused and can take control of his off-court issues, he could make a major impact for the Rockets this upcoming season. When recently asked about playing for the Rockets, Lawson talked about being a key piece in helping the Rockets compete for a championship.

“Oh yeah, for sure,” Lawson told Fox 26 Houston. “I was like, before I even came to the team, I was talking to James Harden. I was like, ‘Man get me over there.’ I’ll be that piece to get [you] over the hump. It’s definitely a breath of fresh air.

“It’s a huge chance. [The Rockets] went to the Western Conference Finals [last season] and could have won, but you just needed a couple of extra pieces. So I’m excited to be playing in a situation where I know I have a chance to win.”

Lawson is right; this a big time opportunity for both him and the Rockets. A lot of things will need to come together for Houston, but the addition of Lawson could take the Rockets from arguably a second-tier Western Conference team and put them into the upper-echelon with the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs.

The first thing most people mention when talking about Houston adding Lawson is how he potentially fits next to superstar shooting guard James Harden. As all NBA fans know, Harden handles the basketball quite a bit for the Rockets and is their de facto point guard. Harden has a strong handle, attacks the rim relentlessly with his herky-jerky Euro step and is great at kicking the ball out to teammates for open jump-shots. This strategy works quite well for the Rockets, especially with Harden playing next to Patrick Beverley, who is a relatively low usage point guard that has found success as a defender and spot-up shooter from three-point range. The same dynamic applied with Jason Terry, who took over for Beverley in March when he tore a ligament in his left wrist, which required season ending surgery. Terry is a low usage combo guard who is well-suited to play off the ball as a spot-up shooter considering he is ranked third in NBA history in made three-pointers.

However, Lawson is far from a low usage point guard. For the 2014-15 season, Lawson ranked 20th overall in Nylon Calculus’ True Usage statistic (which is an estimate of the percentage of offensive possessions on which a player contributes to the end result while he is on the floor) with a 50.4 True Usage percentage. Harden registered a 53.7 True Usage percentage, which ranks 10th overall among all NBA players – behind other high usage players like Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, John Wall and Chris Paul. With Lawson and Harden both accustomed to playing lead guard, there are concerns as to how effectively they will play with one another.

It’s true to a certain extent that both Harden and Lawson need the ball in their hands to be effective. However, both players rank near the top of the league in drives to the rim per game, according to SportVu, and both are great at finding teammates open on the perimeter for open jumpers. Having two lead guards who can attack the rim relentlessly to either score at the rim or create open three-point attempts should work quite well in Daryl Morey’s analytically driven offensive scheme. The Rockets make it a point to take the majority of its shots either at the rim of from beyond-the-arc, cutting out less efficient shots like mid-range jumpers. But the Rockets relied on Harden almost exclusively to create open perimeter jumpers for teammates, which required Harden to play heavy minutes.

The Rockets’ offensive efficiency fell off a cliff when Harden was on the sideline, dropping from 107.7 points per 100 possessions to 93.7. This isn’t too surprising since the Rockets didn’t have many playmakers last season and were so dependent on Harden to create spot-up opportunities. This is where having Lawson could really pay off. Lawson led the league in assist opportunities per game last season and had a 27.5 Assist Usage percentage, which was the fifth highest rating in the league. Lawson is a skilled and willing passer (much like Harden) and should be able to somewhat maintain Houston’s offensive efficiency when Harden rests.

In addition, neither Lawson nor Harden’s individual games should suffer individually too much. Harden was relied on way too heavily last season to generate points and scoring opportunities for Houston. Because of this, teams sent double-teams at Harden early and often, forcing him to take 7.6 pull up jump-shots per game, which was the ninth highest amount in the league last season. While Harden shot 46.4 percent on these particular shots (a good mark in comparison to other high volume shooters), he stands to improve his offensive efficiency by taking set shots from passes from Lawson, who should draw a lot of defensive attention. Of course, taking the ball out of Harden’s hands too much is a bad idea, but adding more playmaking to Houston’s offense makes it harder for opposing defenses to come up with effective defensive strategies.

While Lawson isn’t a great spot-up shooter (Beverley had a better spot-up three-point percentage than Lawson last season), he’s solid, and like Harden should have the green light to fire from distance in Houston. With so much attention drawn by Harden, Lawson should be in line for some easy looks from the perimeter this upcoming season. This is important since Lawson’s offensive efficiency numbers and shooting percentages have dipped virtually each season as the Nuggets increasingly relied on his ability to both score and create scoring opportunities for teammates. With more weapons and a MVP-caliber teammate in Harden, Lawson won’t be targeted by opposing defenses as he was in Denver and he can be more selective with his shooting.

In addition, Harden and Beverley have already developed specific plays that Lawson should be able to utilize as well. For example, Harden often times set ball screens for Beverley, which usually created enough space for Beverley to either attack the rim or get an open look for a three-pointer. It will be interesting to see how defenders choose to defend this type of play when Lawson is the ball-handler considering the fact that Lawson is a much better all-around offensive player than Beverley. The same improved pick-and-roll action should apply with Dwight Howard as well. When Howard dives to the rim, defenses tend to send multiple defenders to prevent him from getting an easy shot at the or near the basket. This is what makes adding Lawson so important. The Rockets now have someone, other than Harden, who is a multi-threat with the ball in his hands. Defenses can no longer hone in on just Harden or Howard, and now have to make tough decisions on who to cheat off of.

Harden is understandably optimistic about the pairing and had good things to say about Lawson and how he will fit in Houston.

“Ty is definitely going to help us,” Harden said during a break in the Kroger Unplug and Play James Harden Basketball ProCamp in The Woodlands on Saturday. “He gives us that quickness, that speed, playmaking ability, something that we were missing, especially deep in the playoffs. We’re going to welcome him with open arms. We’re happy to have him.”

By adding Lawson, the Rockets have also improved their transition game. Lawson led the Nuggets to 57 wins in the 2012-13 season, playing at the league’s second-fastest pace. Last season, the Rockets played at the league’s second-fastest pace as well, which is necessary since the Rockets lacked playmakers on offense and their half-court game got stagnant at times. At age 27, Lawson is in his athletic prime and should be able to keep up Houston’s fast-paced offensive attack. While Lawson won’t have the altitude advantage that he had in Denver, he still is one of the league’s fastest guards and has experience running a fast-paced team.

Where things are less promising is on the defensive side of the court. Lawson is just 5’11 and has never been much of a defensive player. Putting him next to Harden could be problematic since Harden has never been much of a defender, though he did show improvement last season. However, the Rockets had the league’s sixth-best defense last season, despite playing Terry and Prigioni next to Harden almost exclusively after losing Beverley. If there is anything the Rockets could absorb, it’s a slight drop off on defense, especially with Beverley coming back healthy and likely playing more than 20 minutes a game and Howard hopefully 100 percent healthy.

If the Lawson-Harden combo doesn’t work out, then Rockets head coach Kevin McHale can restore Beverley as the starting point guard, allowing Lawson to lead Houston’s second unit. Some would argue this is what McHale should do from the start since Lawson and Harden’s respective playmaking abilities may overlap one another, diminishing their ability to individually make an impact on the court. This is where McHale will need to actively monitor how Harden and Lawson are playing together and adjust accordingly while stagger minutes. Whether Lawson starts or not, McHale should rotate his backcourt in such a way that either Lawson or Harden is essentially always on the court. The good news for Houston is that it seems Lawson and McHale have already developed a good relationship with one another.

“It means a lot, they believe that much in my game,” said Lawson, who added he’s excited to play for McHale. “It means a lot that he feels that way about me.”

Before trading for Lawson, the Rockets seemed to be a step behind some of the powerhouse teams in the Western Conference. The Warriors, Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies are all as good, if not better than last season. By giving away supplemental pieces for a point guard that can play at near All-Star levels, the Rockets are optimizing their championship window, though the move comes with obvious risks.

Despite being a nice addition on paper, Lawson can’t help the Rockets if he can’t regain control of his life and overcome the obstacles in his way. A person’s health and well-being comes before something like basketball and Lawson should not return to the court until he is truly ready to do so.

Hopefully Lawson can regain that control and remind us all of just how effective he can be when focused and in control. If he can, Houston has a shot to make some real noise in the stacked Western Conference.