Ty Lawson’s 53-game tenure with the Houston Rockets was largely a failed experiment, as the Washington Post’s Neil Greenberg prognosticated in July. The prediction came full circle when the franchise bought out his contract Tuesday before the league’s waiver deadline.
“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 over the hump,” Lawson told ESPN.com in September.
Houston, reeling after dropping two straight and barely holding the eighth seed in the Western Conference playoff picture, not only didn’t get over any hump, it floundered so acutely that Coach Kevin McHale was fired 11 games into the season.
Lawson, a 5-foot-11 point guard, averaged his fewest minutes (22.2) since his rookie season, contributing a career-low 13 points, 7.5 assists and 3.7 rebounds per 100 possessions. What’s more, Lawson dropped to a career-low 48 true shooting percentage and accounted for a career-high turnover percentage of 20.3. Among all point guards qualified for ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus leaderboard — a metric that estimates a player’s on-court impact on team performance — the 28-year-old ranked dead last, making the Rockets 5.95 points worse when he was on court.
As Greenberg noted, a hefty portion of the Rockets’ offense is run through James Harden, whose 32.6 usage rate ranks third in the league. Entering his seventh season in the NBA, Lawson’s career average in usage was 20.9 percent; this season it plummeted to 14.9, meaning that he wasn’t being heavily utilized even when he was plugged into the on-court rotation.
The league is saturated with talent at the point guard position, perhaps at an unprecedented level. Early last month, NBA.com’s Sekou Smith claimed five of the top 10 players in the running for Most Valuable Player were point guards. However, while there’s noticeable, sizable talent at the position, there are still teams looking for a ball-dominant guard to patch a void.
Nearly all of Frank Vogel’s offense is funneled through George Hill, Paul George and Monta Ellis, whom each average more than 66 touches and play more than 34 minutes per contest. However, when they aren’t on the court the team is reliant on Rodney Stuckey, a combo guard, and Joe Young, a rookie, to helm the offense.
When either is on the floor, Indiana’s offensive and defensive ratings are worse. Sure, both play with the reserves, but both also rank lower than 60th among point guards in RPM, so it isn’t like they’re excelling in spite of whom they’re paired with.
As the floor general for Vogel’s second unit, Lawson would allow players like C.J. Miles, and Stuckey to play where they’re most effective: away from the ball, sidling the perimeter for catch-and-shoot opportunities or attacking the rim.
Much of what the Pacers look for offensively is a result of incessant screen setting. The team has scored 507 points this season off screens, the second most of any team. There isn’t much available data for individual screen setting, but it’s likely that a pick set by Lawson is among the least effective of any player in the league. Be that as it may, allowing Lawson to survey the floor while his teammates contort themselves around screens, criss-crossing in front of him would essentially be the system Lawson flourished in while with the Nuggets.
Miles, by the way, has 177 catch-and-shoot points this season, the most of anyone on the roster, yet is regularly tasked with governing the offense. Lawson can spread the floor, use his lateral quickness to open up currently unavailable passing lanes and find teammates cutting to the rim.
The Pacers are getting out into transition more this season than in any under Vogel. Lawson has vision on fast breaks and the speed to jumpstart a transition basket.
Lawson is admittedly an atrocious defender; his career splits indicate opponents’ offensive ratings are two points higher when he’s on the court. However, if there’s a team that can hide his porous defense, it’s the Pacers, who rank ninth in bench defensive rating.
Los Angeles Clippers
Austin Rivers broke his left hand early last month, and although it has been reported that he will soon return to the fold the Clippers haven’t had depth for years. Look no further than the fact the team has ranked outside the top 15 in bench offensive rating the last two seasons, and ranks 24th this year.
The Clippers’ second unit is essentially a squad of catch-and-shoot players; you don’t see Paul Pierce, Wesley Johnson, Jeff Green or Jamal Crawford effortlessly dialing up plays or wrapping passes into small windows. In fact, the team ranks first in the league points produced on isolation plays (574 points), scoring a league-leading 0.97 points per possession on those plays, largely because the only facilitator on the court with Blake Griffin gone is Chris Paul. When’s he’s off the court, the team’s offense resembles a game of pick-up basketball.
It was only 12 months ago that Lawson ranked third in the league in assists per contest (9.6). Allowing him the flexibility to use his mind-bending crossover and quick first step will open up opportunities for players along the wing and in the post.
The Clippers’ bench, mind you, ranks 15th in assists (seven per contest) and assist points created (16.7 per contest). Lawson would almost certainly elevate those numbers.
New York Knicks
Despite being the league’s most improved team this season, Kurt Rambis’s Knicks are currently the NBA’s embodiment of running around aimlessly in perpetuity.
As Rambis duly noted this week: “Nobody in this organization is okay with where we’re at.”
Jose Calderon, the team’s current starting point guard, is a serviceable option, but as the Wall Street Journal’s Chris Herring noted last month, he would be considerably more effective if taken away from the ball and allowed to spot-up around the perimeter. Calderon is one of two players on the roster connecting on better than 40 percent of his shots from beyond the arc but, as is the case for most players, is more efficient in catch-and-shoot situations.
The Knicks don’t have a player ranked inside the top 30 among point guards in RPM, which certainly makes the fact that the team ranks in the bottom six in assists and assist points created more understandable.
Lawson can help a capsized boat, darting around screens to find players along the perimeter or inside the paint. If infused into the starting rotation, Lawson would reunite with former teammate Carmelo Anthony, who once praised the point guard’s “ability to lead a team.” Adding a lightning rod to New York’s offense could only be an improvement.