The prodigal son of MIT has done it again. Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey made magic happen on Sunday night when he gave up a figurative pu pu platter in return for Ty Lawson, one of the best playmaking point guards in the NBA.
The deal was similar to the notorious James Harden trade in that it came after most of the free agency action had already come to a halt and required basically nothing of value to be dealt by Houston. While that deal happened at the end of October — a mere three days before the season started — this wasn't quite as much of a WTF-moment since everyone knew that Morey had been vying to acquire Lawson since news of his second DUI broke to the public earlier this month.
While it may seem counterintuitive to deal young assets like Kostas Papanikolaou and Nick Johnson as well as a first round pick (lottery-protected) for a seemingly troubled offensive savant, anyone who follows Houston basketball knows that it's exactly the kind of deal Morey loves to make.
Morey has a history of buying low. After the Detroit Pistons waived Josh Smith in the middle of last season, Houston signed him to the vet minimum and he became a crucial part of their unlikely playoff run and comeback against the LA Clippers. No one knew if James Harden could be the offensive centerpiece of a team when Morey traded another crop of young talent (using that word loosely), and he has emerged as one of the best five players in the league. This could be another career turnaround story, ushered in by a GM who has made that sort of thing happen numerous times.
While Lawson doesn't come cheap — his contract is about $12 million this season and $13 million next season — the projected rise in the salary cap over the next two years should make that seem like a bargain. Hell, with Reggie Jackson making $16 million a year, it already seems like a bargain. With a core of Harden, Dwight Howard and Lawson locked up for the next two years (although Howard can opt out after this coming season), fans shouldn't sweat adding complementary pieces. Trevor Ariza, Corey Brewer and Houston's laundry list of power forward talent should suffice.
Lawson adds an interesting dynamic to Houston's offense. Over the past season it became plainly obvious that James Harden was the only true offensive creator the Rockets had. If they wanted to collapse a defense, free up shooters or have a chance at freeing up a big man in the pick and roll, it was because Harden had the ball in his hands and was making magic happen.
Lawson changes that.
One of his most effective plays during his time in Denver involved him leading the fast break with a trailing big-man like Kenneth Faried or J.J. Hickson. As the defense sunk back towards the paint, Lawson would cross his guy at the elbow, act like he was jumping for the layup and then sling the ball into the paint after the defensive big was already in the air. When it worked, Faried and Hickson were open in the lane for an easy layup or dunk. The only reason this particular pick-and-roll remained effective was because of Lawson's otherworldly ability to find the open man in mid-air combined with the threat of his soft touch around the basket.
With guys like Dwight Howard, Donatas Motiejunas and Clint Capela, we could be seeing a ton of pick and roll action from Lawson and as a Rockets fan that should excite you for two reasons:
First, this is a great way to generate offense when threes stop falling, which was a problem for Houston last year. Often times when they would have a bad shooting night, it seemed like there was no way to stop the offense from going AWOL, and having another guard that can handle the ball and create shots should mitigate that to a decent extent.
Second, this will free up James Harden on a significant number of offensive possessions, which means that when he does go to the hoop later in the game he should remain more explosive. It also means that Harden should have more energy to expend on defense over the course of the game, which is going to be absolutely necessary if he wants to maintain his status as one of the truly elite players in today's NBA.
The acquisition of Lawson likely means that point guard Patrick Beverley will be coming off of the bench for Houston next season. He doesn't seem particularly upset by this.
Trouble for the NBA me and @TyLawson3— Patrick Beverley (@patbev21) July 20, 2015
Beverley has always been viewed as more of a defensive specialist than an offensive creator so it will be interesting to see how having that instant defense off of the bench to slow down some of the elite Western Conference point guards like Chris Paul, Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook will work out.
The fact of the matter is this: the Rockets biggest issue over the past two years has been at point guard. Jeremy Lin was decent and Patrick Beverley is a quality player, but to expect either of them to be the starting point guard on an elite team, in the deepest conference, in the deepest division in the history of the NBA is a tad outlandish. Ty Lawson however, is the kind of player that will make other defenses work to contain Houston's scoring.
His 3-point percentage was a bit down last year at 34 percent, but that is largely due to the fact that the Nuggets offense struggled and when no one else on your team can create open looks, down years happen. He's a career 37 percent shooter from behind the arc, and that's a number the Rockets can work with. In Houston's Moreyball driven system of 3's and layups, he'll have to reign in his tendency to pull up for mid-range shots just above the lane, but that's easily fixed.
If Lawson can get his head straight — which it appears he's on his way to, given his court-ordered commitment to a rehab program for alcohol and reports that headcase-soothsayer John Lucas will work with him — then the Rockets may have just evolved into the team that everyone was worried they could become.
Houston now has a defensive anchor in Dwight Howard, an elite scorer in James Harden and Lawson, the playmaker that could be the final cog to make the whole team hum.