The Houston Rockets will reportedly acquire Denver Nuggets point guard Ty Lawson for Nick Johnson, Pablo Prigioni, Kostas Papanikolaou, Joey Dorsey and a protected first-round pick.
Lawson is currently in rehab in Los Angeles after his second DUI arrest in 2015, but the Rockets didn’t give up much to get the best player in the deal, so if he can solve his personal problems the reward appears to be worth the risk. However, it is not clear Lawson is what the Rockets need to get to the next level.
The 27-year-old averaged 15.4 points, 3.2 rebounds, 9.7 assists and 1.2 steals per 36 minutes last season and fits the Rockets offensive system: he is quick to the rim and capable of hitting from beyond the three-point line (34.1 percent).
But the Rockets had that in point guards Patrick Beverley and James Terry, who hit 35.6 and 39 percent of their three-point shots, respectively, last season. And positional monikers aside, James Harden is the true point guard on the team.
In Houston’s offense, Harden has the ball a slightly smaller percentage of the time than an average “point guard”. Of the time they spend on the court, the league average for point guards is around 17% time of possession. Harden’s TOP is 16.4%, but that is both highest on the Rockets by a decent margin (Beverley is second at 13.2%, making Houston the only team in the league where the nominal point does not have the ball the most among their starters – the only other team which is close is Cleveland) and more than Steph Curry, a similarly shoot-first player. Harden also averages more touches than any other Rocket; only he, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade and Victor Oladipo lead their respective teams in touches as “non-point guards”.
It is not simply that Harden has the ball in his hands the most. Assist Usage is a metric which measures the percentage of possessions in which a player sets up a teammate for a shot or scoring opportunities. And in this metric, Harden is 18th in the NBA at 18.8%, ahead of Damian Lillard, Derrick Rose, Tony Parker, Brandon Knight and Darren Collison among others. By any measure, Harden is the engine that makes Houston’s extreme ‘MoreyBall’ threes-and-free throws style offense go. Not just in the sense that the offense is less effective without his scoring, but without his relentless, driving presense, the entire system dies on the vine.
Where the Rockets will need Lawson to excel is defending the other team’s point guard, a task for which Harden was ill-suited, but one in which Beverley performed admirably.
Beverley was often used to shutdown the oppositions point guard, and, according to Synergy Sports, he held all opponents to 0.78 points per play — fifth fewest among guards defending at least 500 possessions. Free agent Terry, who played over 1,600 minutes for the Rockets last year, allowed 0.75 points per play — third fewest among guards defending at least 500 possessions. Lawson allowed 0.89 points per play, higher than average.
Last year, Denver allowed opposing point guards to produce a 15.3 player efficiency rating, a metric developed by ESPN.com columnist John Hollinger that “sums up all a player’s positive accomplishments, subtracts the negative accomplishments, and returns a per-minute rating of a player’s performance.” Houston, on the other hand, allowed a 13.1 PER to point guards. Not all that difference can be attributed to Lawson, but the Nuggets were 3.3 points per 100 possessions better on defense when Lawson wasn’t on the court.
The Rockets were 5.2 points per 100 possessions better with Harden on the bench, so it would be a defensive nightmare to have both Harden and Lawson on the court together, which means Beverley could start with Lawson coming off the bench. But that still creates a defensive liability at the point, making me wonder if a change of scenery will be enough to help Lawson bring Houston one step closer to a championship.