Before the Houston Rockets can celebrate the pilfering of a potential difference-maker at point guard, they have to first hope Ty Lawson can resolve whatever personal problems have contributed to him receiving two DUIs in the past seven months.
The Rockets wouldn’t have been able to poach a talent like Lawson from the Denver Nuggets for a first-round pick and four non-consequential players if he hadn’t sabotaged his value with several questionable off-court decisions. And it will be imperative for Lawson to leave that baggage behind in Denver for the deal to be a success.
Lawson has tried to address his struggles with alcohol by entering an intensive, 30-day luxury rehab facility in Malibu, Calif. But this calendar year has been filled with several other self-inflicted embarrassments that forced the Nuggets to rid themselves of the 27-year-old native of Clinton, Md.: He failed to return from Las Vegas in time for the Nuggets’ first practice after the all-star break. He responded to a fan’s Instagram comment about joining the Mavericks by stating, “I wish.” And, he reacted to Denver taking point guard Emmanuel Mudiay by posting a video of him smoking a hookah and telling friends, “Told you. I’m going to Sacramento, bro.”
The Kings seemed like a logical landing spot for Lawson since it would have reunited him with Coach George Karl — his first coach in Denver — but Karl isn’t making decisions for Sacramento and it instead opted to sign Rajon Rondo in free agency.
Denver possibly could have waited a few months for the negative publicity surrounding Lawson to die down but Nuggets General Manager Tim Connelly clearly had no interest in letting Lawson hang around to get anywhere near Mudiay, the future of the franchise. Two days after publicly stating that the organization stood “firmly behind” Lawson, Connelly shoved him onto the Rockets for Kostas Papanikolaou, Pablo Prigioni, Joey Dorsey, Nick Johnson and a lottery-protected 2016 first-round pick.
In his eight years in Houston, General Manager Daryl Morey has taken his share of gambles — from trading for Ron Artest to signing Trevor Ariza to a huge free-agent deal in 2009 to giving huge back-end deals to Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik to making a blockbuster deal with Oklahoma City for the right to turn a former sixth-man-of the year in James Harden into a franchise cornerstone.
Not every Morey risk has yielded a reward — experiments for Artest and Ariza (the first time) lasted one year and drafting Royce White was a complete mess — but the Harden deal paid off handsomely in creating a star who could attract Dwight Howard to seek refuge from the Los Angeles Lakers. Taking a chance on Lawson is worth it for a Rockets team that wants to play at a feverish pace and needs to spare Harden from overuse. And, in a move that shows he’s willing to bet on himself amidst his struggles, Lawson elected to make the final season of his contract non-guaranteed in 2016-17.
Morey has aggressively sought to find a third big-time complement to Harden and Howard since last offseason, when the Rockets nearly convinced Chris Bosh to come back home to his native Texas and were among the handful of teams allowed to woo Carmelo Anthony. After losing Chandler Parsons, he still scraped together a contender by bringing back Ariza for a second stint, dealing for Corey Brewer and swooping in to save Josh Smith after he was dumped by Detroit.
This summer but has been relatively quiet for Houston aside from a sit-down with LaMarcus Aldridge, re-signing point guard Patrick Beverly and Brewer and letting Smith leave for the Los Angeles Clippers. The lack of bombast has resulted in the Rockets — despite finishing with the league’s third-best record and reaching the conference finals — being overlooked while San Antonio, Golden State, the Clippers, Oklahoma City and Memphis are often mentioned among the teams favored to claim the Western Conference.
Lawson has never made an all-star team but has finished third in assists in each of the past two seasons. This year, he averaged a career-high 9.6 assists to go along with 15.2 points but was wildly inconsistent and contributed to Brian Shaw getting canned during a tumultuous season. His lack of maturity was a problem before his latest DUI. Denver native and former Nugget Chauncey Billups said in a radio interview earlier this month, “Ty can’t be the leader of your basketball team.” After the hookah incident, Lawson wrote on Twitter, “The whole world has a misconception about me ……”
Lawson would be a distant third in Houston’s hierarchy behind Harden and Howard and will be placed in a role — possibly, even as a sixth man — that absolves him of the responsibilities he was unable to handle with the Nuggets. And in getting a speedy playmaker, Morey addressed a glaring need for a team that relied on Harden to compensate for whatever was lacking during an injury-ravaged campaign.
Harden finished runner-up in MVP voting last season as the Rockets’ primary scorer and distributor. The addition of Lawson removes some of the burden of having to facilitate so much for others, a move Harden said he would “definitely” support this offseason. Lawson has grown accustomed to dominating the action the past two seasons under Shaw but is also capable of playing off the ball after being part of a two-point guard set with Raymond Felton and later Andre Miller under Karl in Denver.
The Rockets came within three wins of the NBA Finals with 37-year-old Jason Terry playing point guard while Beverly was sidelined the entire postseason with a wrist injury. Beverly was the defensive pest the Rockets needed to counter the league’s dynamic athletic points but Lawson is a significant talent upgrade over what Houston had. How Lawson fits, however, takes a backseat to how he confronts the troubles that have landed him in rehab. John Lucas, a former NBA player and coach who battled with substance abuse and resides in Houston, is reportedly willing to counsel Lawson on maintaining sobriety.
Granted the change of scenery he has long sought and the chance to be on a playoff team once again, Lawson now has to stay clean and leave those other distractions behind. Lawson’s health has to be his first priority. The Rockets can boast about getting quality at a considerably marked-down price and how Lawson keeps them relevant in the West once the more important aspect of his well-being is covered.