Since free agency began on July 1, I have been pondering about specific moves or signings the Houston Rockets could make in an attempt to add the elusive secondary ball-handler they coveted. On July 19, the team made a low-risk high-reward move with the trade for former Denver Nuggets' point guard, Ty Lawson.
The Nuggets shipped the talented Lawson along with an unprotected second round pick in 2017, and received Kostas Papanikolau, Joey Dorsey, Nick Johnson, Pablo Prigioni, and a protected first round pick in 2016. With Ty Lawson's recent off-court issues, his stock plummeted and both teams came away with a great haul under the circumstances.
The trade vaults both the Rockets and the Nuggets into a specific category. For the Nuggets, this puts them in a position where they can concentrate fully on the rebuilding process and surrounding Emmanuel Mudiay, Jusuf Nurkic and Gary Harris with other young, skilled prospects. As for the Rockets, they come away with a player who (if he can get his head straight) will contribute to a championship contender and have an opportunity to make a significant impact on a deep playoff run. With this potentially rewarding outlook in mind, let's discuss how and what Ty Lawson will contribute to the Houston Rockets.
According to NBA.com/Stats, Ty Lawson shot 43.6% from the field last season and 43.1% in the 2013-2014 season.From three-point range, Lawson shot 34.1% in the 2014-2015 season and 35.6% in the season before that. Here is his shot-chart from the past two years, first from 2013-2014:
And here's last year:
The past two seasons under Brian Shaw, Ty Lawson was the primary decision maker. He had the ball for most of Denver's offensive possessions with the sole responsibility of facilitating and distributing the basketball.
He's an average shooter at best, not necessarily excelling from a certain spot or area in the half-court. Over his career, he improved when driving from the left side. He'll take a screen from a big and use either his right or left hand to weave inside the lane and finish with a mid-range jumper, floater inside the paint, or nifty layup around the rim.
The biggest concern for the Rockets will be his three-point shooting. He hasn't shot a high volume from the corners and isn't efficient from a specific spot, although he does shoot best from the left-wing.
Measuring at 5'11 (6 feet with shoes), Ty Lawson does struggle shooting the basketball in certain situations. He's been good as a spot-up shooter, mainly because he has his feet set, shoulder's square, and enough time for release. When coming off the dribble, he struggles with his shot as it creates tension and a problematic trajectory towards the basket.
Here's an example of Ty Lawson attempting a three-point field goal coming off the dribble. Pay special attention to his feet position and the release point.
Ty Lawson is a right-handed player, thus he will shoot from the right side of the body. Let's go through the video step-by-step and discuss his shooting mechanics.
When shooting off the dribble, players usually do not dip the basketball. The "dip" gives shooters additional power, a reinforcement to shorter players who need extra strength to get a high-arcing shot up over defenders. The longer the player dips the ball, meaning bringing the ball down towards the waist, the slower the shot-attempt becomes. Therefore, when attempting a three as a ball-handler, the player already has the ball below their waste which mitigates any need for the dip.
With that in mind, Lawson actually has a slower off the dribble three-point shot than most other NBA players. His newest teammate, James Harden, has a quicker off the dribble dip and release in comparison (lightning quick). Such a hiccup for Lawson allows defenders to recover and disrupt his focus and concentration.
Also a problem with Lawson's off the dribble mechanics is his footwork. When attempting a pull-up jumper, players want to make sure that their feet are pointed directly towards the basket; squared and aligned. In the above example, his feet are aimed toward the basket and he attempts the "sweep and sway." This technique requires the shooter to sweep their feet forward; moving up and landing on both feet. While sweeping, the shooter will also simultaneously sway; move (shoulders) back and relax. This technique gives shooters the proper balance to shoot the basketball, as well as keep the rhythm of the release smooth and steady.
In the case of Ty Lawson, once he goes in the air and releases the jumper, he kicks his right foot out and doesn't sweep in unison with his shoulders (sway). He doesn't properly bring down his left foot, disrupting the motion of the basketball. His shoulders also don't sway all the way back, creating more tension on his upper body and neck to provide the necessary strength and power to get a shot up -- creating a low-arcing three-point attempt.
Now before we move on, it should be known that Lawson connected on 35.3% of these pull-up threes last season and his shot is usually consistent. But, in an offense that will give him the freedom to attempt threes like these, it's important to point out some of the inconsistencies (slow-release and follow-through) that could create problems.
As I mentioned before, Ty Lawson is actually an above-average spot-up shooter from three-point range. His percentage from deep has decreased since his rookie season, but his mechanics on spot-up attempts give me optimism that he'll be efficient with the Rockets.
Here's an example of Ty Lawson attempting a spot-up three. It comes in transition, where Lawson can properly step into the jumper.
The preferred technique for shooting the basketball from coaches is the catch, dip, and release. In the example above, in comparison to the previous off the dribble attempt, Ty Lawson catches the ball and steps into the three. He develops a rhythm, allowing him to focus and get his body in proper position. Poetry in motion.
Ty Lawson catches the ball with his right hand and squares his feet towards the rim. He dips the ball down while posturing his body to gain power from the lower half. He takes the basketball down to his waist (perfect placement) and begins the gathering phase. His eyes key in on the hoop and his off hand is placed on the side of the ball to guide the it towards the intended path. He squares his arm and shoulders, keeping the ball firm to deny the disruption of any force or rotation. He jumps up high and releases the basketball, extending his arms to maintain a fluid movement of the basketball. While letting go of the ball, Lawson is simultaneously kicking and sweeping his feet forward. He is at equilibrium with the force of gravity, the apex of his jump, and the release of the basketball. His shoulders somewhat move back as the ball leaves his hand, and Ty Lawson lands balanced and squared (just as he started). The tension is minimal as his shoulders do not fully relax, but for the most part his extension and release provide an effortless and smooth jumper.
Hopefully this gives you a chronological understanding of how spot-up shooting works, and what Lawson should realistically provide given the opportunities in a half-court and transition setting. We'll have to see where Coach McHale places him offensively to effectively and efficiently utilize his spot-up three-point shooting.
The absolute main reason the Rockets traded for Ty Lawson was because the team needed a secondary playmaker to alleviate the responsibilities on offense for James Harden. In Lawson, Houston gets a perimeter playmaker who can run the offense and collapse the defense. A huge addition for an offense that was very stagnant in the postseason and required Harden to consistently utilize his elite isolation decision making and prowess to put points on the board.
There are many ways Ty Lawson will helps the Rockets offensively. I won't be able to go through every single offensive set, play, or movement, but I'll do my best to showcase some areas where he'll provide a definitive upgrade.
Attacking off the dribble
Ty Lawson possesses the incredible ability of finding open lanes and seams in opposing teams' defenses to take advantage of and score. Depending on the certain scheme or adjustment by the defense, Ty Lawson can turn the speed on and beat the primary and/or help defender off the dribble, as well as pass out of a double team.
His skill-set includes an array of hesitation dribbles and a volatile first step that creates high-percentage opportunities for himself or others. Although small, he makes up for lack-of-size with a ridiculous combination of strength and quickness.
The following example displays Lawson's ability to attack off the dribble in the half-court. He probes the defense, then uses proper balance and footwork to get past his defenders and finish around the rim.
As he comes around the screen, the help defender takes away the driving lane and allows Klay Thompson to recover. Lawson recognizes the deterrent and slows down. He employs a great hesitation move, patiently baiting the defender and heightening his reflexes once the lane opens. The combination of quick feet and ball-handling skills allows Lawson to make effective use of hesitation and in-and-out dribbles. He can freeze defenses, force the wrong decision, and exploit problems that ensue.
A quick first step is also very important for any playmaker. Half the battle is won when the playmaker or defender gets into position first; making a decisive, intelligent move is critical in any one-on-one match-up. Lawson owns one of the league's quickest first steps. Once he gets past his defender, the help-side defender must rotate over and other defenders go on high alert. This is the basis of penetration and creation, a vital proponent of the Rockets free-flow offense.
Houston will allow Lawson to gravitate towards his strengths, and will surely provide him with ample opportunity to take advantage of a solid screen to attack his defender downhill. Once panic emerges from the defense, he's smart enough to make the best possible decision, whether that be a cross-court pass (for which he has the vision and accuracy) or to aggressively attack the basket.
A schematic set that will surely highlight Ty Lawson's mastery with the basketball and further elongate the impact of others, is the 1/5 pick-and-roll.
Here's an example of Lawson running the 1/5 pick-and-roll with Denver last season. The Nuggets had a lineup with three shooters,Ty Lawson, and Kenneth Faried on the floor together. Lawson gets the screen from Faried, and is immediately contained by both Tony Parker and Tim Duncan. He uses a hesitation dribble to get Parker off balance and passes off to Faried who gets the lay-in. Notice how the other three defenders did not rotate on that possession. With three shooters (two in the corners, one on the wing), the Spurs were hesitant in giving up the three-point attempt. Lawson realized that and threaded the needle to Faried who faced no rim protector on his journey to the rim.
In reference to the above example, if a player does decide to rotate and stop Lawson around the rim, he has great ability as a passer to find the shooter in the weak-side corner -- a staple of the Rockets' drive-and-kick offense.
This is the player the Rockets will get in Ty Lawson. A secondary ball-handler and shot-creator who can mitigate Harden's offensive load in the half-court. He can create off the dribble, draw in the defense, and take away the option of over-loading one side over the other, as was the issue in the Western Conference Finals series versus the Golden State Warriors where Bogut and Thompson would shift to Harden's side. The weak-side was left with two defenders responsible for three shooters, however without another playmaker on the floor the Warriors were free to take away the cross-court pass as well as force the ball out of Harden's hands. This led to turnovers and more fast-break opportunities for a Golden State team ready to wreak havoc in the open floor.
The 1/2 Pick-and-Roll
As I've talked about in some of my previous posts, the Rockets love to employ the 1/2 pick-and-roll in late-game and late-clock situations to take advantage of individual match-ups. With the addition of Ty Lawson, a point guard, the Rockets will now have two high-IQ ball handlers capable of running this offensive play and creating for themselves and others.
The 1/2 pick-and-roll consists of the point guard (1) and the shooting guard (2). In the Rockets offensive system, the 1 handles the basketball while the 2 comes to set the screen. Now there are a plethora of options that can occur as a result. The first being the defenders switch, allowing James Harden (2) to be matched up with a smaller defender. Another option is the team hedging the ball-handler (1), forcing a somewhat difficult pass to an open James Harden. Consequently, if the defense rotates over, Harden can move the ball to the corner for an open three. One more option would be the defenders staying with their man, and having the ball-handler pass it off or create for himself. Let's take a look at some examples discuss how the Rockets can take advantage of Lawson's skill-set in these situations.
This first example illustrates the defensive adjustment of switching off the 1/2 pick-and-roll. Jeremy Lin brings the ball up against a smaller point guard, and the Pacers immediately decide to switch as Paul George comes out to contain Lin's attack. James Harden gets the favorable match-up the Rockets wanted; one-on-one with a smaller player on the left wing. Harden can now probe the defense himself, and decided whether to attack off the dribble, post-up the smaller player, or get in position for a 1-4 flat set (one isolation player and four shooters spread around three-point line).
In this example (not shown), James Harden drives right and gets fouled on a reach in. Paul George is worried about Jeremy Lin's ability to penetrate and shoot, and is stuck in no-mans land; forced to take the foul to prevent an easy layup. A player of Ty Lawson's skill set should be even more bothersome for opponents, for he can catch-and-shoot as well as attack off the dribble as the secondary ball-handler.
The following two examples highlight the consequences of not switching or hedging on the Rockets version of the 1/2 pick-and-roll.
In this example, pay special attention to Deshaun Stevenson (No. 92). He plays the role of a shutdown corner, never leaving James Harden's hip. Jeremy Lin's defender goes over the screen by Harden, and since James' defender did not help, Lin is free to penetrate deep inside. He draws the defender from the corner, and as a result gives up an open three-point attempt to the shooter. Now imagine Lawson in Lin's position. His quick first step and use of dribble moves will give Harden time and space to establish position to receive the basketball, or blow past his defender and create more high percentage opportunities for teammates.
As for this example, the Chicago Bulls game-planned for this Rockets set Harden's defender sticks to his hip, and Kirk Hinrich tries to make it as difficult as possible for Lin to go around Harden's screen. He forces him away from the screen, but a slight hesitation dribble and quick first step allows Lin to get inside the paint and score past the weak-side and strong-side defenders. Both Noah and Boozer are reluctant to leave their assignments to defend the layup, and the use of Harden as a decoy works out for the Rockets.
With Ty Lawson in the fold, teams will take away the driving lane. Houston will have two to three other shooters on the floor alongside Harden and Lawson when they run similar sequences. Teams will now have to pick their poison between allowing Lawson to penetrate inside and create offense or giving Harden power to operate on the left side of the floor and get the outcome he wants.
HORNS, Transition, ETC.
The HORNS offense is a popular basketball set that many teams create high percentage opportunities from. It's usual design is to have the point guard bring up the ball to the top of the key with both bigs in the high-post areas (free-throw line extended). The two remaining wings take position in opposite corners, spacing the half-court for the ball-handler to take full advantage of.
The Rockets like to run HORNS, particularly to find high-percentage opportunities in the weak-side corner and around the rim. In most cases this past season, the Rockets had Patrick Beverley initiate HORNS. We'll take a look at an example, and then discuss how Ty Lawson can impact the set next season.
Pau Gasol does not mitigate the roll threat from Dwight Howard, and stays back to prevent the alley oop to Dwight Howard. Patrick Beverley sees the crease in the lane and finishes with a nifty floater over Gasol.
With Lawson as the HORNS point guard, teams will now have to decide whether to hedge hard at Lawson and force the ball out of his hands or chip Dwight Howard as he rolls to the rim and prevent a devastating alley oop slam.
Not only will Lawson have his way attacking the basket in the half-court through sets like HORNS, but also in transition where his elite change of pace skills will produce high PPP (points per possession) numbers.
When running full steam ahead, Lawson is very elusive and shifts his waist to gain the advantage over the retreating defenders. The best part about his low center of gravity is his ability to stop on a dime and toss up a mid-range jumper, a shot that's a very efficient option in his arsenal. And, to top it all off, he's always been an impressive decision-maker, boasting an assist-to-turnover ration of around 4:1.
When playing in a fast-paced and quick-decision-making offense like the Rockets', players must be adept to make the smart pass and attempt the high-percentage shot. Lawson's game clearly translates to the Rockets style of play, and rest be assured that Kevin McHale will take advantage of Ty's dexterity to produce a versatile and powerful offensive team that will keep defenses off-balanced and on their heels for 48 minutes.
We'll quickly touch upon his defense and how he'll be used on that end with the Rockets. As a 6 foot tall (barely) point guard, Lawson doesn't have adequate size to defend most of the elite point guards in the Western Conference, many of whom are long and athletic. He'll struggle at times to contest opposing players shots, allowing players with a quick or high release to get high percentage looks from deep or around the rim.
His biggest problem comes when opposing teams run his man off of ball screens and weak-side action. His size doesn't do him any favors when getting through screens, and his length isn't sufficient to disrupt the movement of the shooter. Even when ball-handlers come off a simple ball screen, they often run past him and abandon any threat of a recovery.
Let's look at an example here. Damian Lillard gets a ball screen from Robin Lopez and Lawson goes underneath the pick. As Rockets' fans know, it doesn't take long for Lillard to release a deep three-pointer. Here he gets an opening, in large part to Lawson contesting the jumper once Lillard has reached the climax of his jump, and drills a three-pointer. Lawson's small wingspan prolongs the contest, and he isn't able to recoup in time.
As for positives on defense, Ty Lawson does get his hands into passing lanes as he's averaged 1.2 steals per game for his career. He also has a very strong upper and lower body, allowing him to hound point guards and play a pit-bull style (preferably versus guards of similar height).
He has elite speed in the open floor and this correlates with his lateral-quickness, however Ty relies heavily on this in situations involving screens. He'll likely be placed on a spot-up shooter or wing, assigned with the responsibility of playing the passing lanes and gambling on calculated risks. For example, in the game from the example above, Lawson was switched onto Batum for the remainder of the game.
It's not far-fetched that he'll struggle with Houston defensively, especially on the perimeter. Opposing teams will attack him on pick-and-roll and off ball screens. The coaching staff will need to brainstorm certain contingencies to hide his defensive weaknesses, similar to Harden (at times).
I believe they'll play more two point guard line-ups, a unit Coach McHale enjoys throwing out against both smaller and bigger line-ups. This is why I approve of the trade. Not only for the other reasons like the cost, non-guaranteed deal for 2016-2017 season, etc, but mainly because the Rockets have added versatility to their roster. Rather than adding forwards to play a more positionless style of basketball, the Rockets have added athleticism and players who fit the Rockets style of play. They can now throw out various lineups depending on the opposing team, while simultaneously masking their perimeter defense woes.
For the first time in a while, a Houston Rockets team will have a roster full of players with a certain role and niche. Instead of plugging in players and having them take on massive responsibility, they'll be given a specific task and entrusted to execute that for the time they're on the court.
The addition of Ty Lawson gives the team flexibility; the option to adapt to certain styles and authority to impose their will on opponents. It remains to be seen when Lawson will get on the court, but he's assuredly a low-risk, high-reward player. Someone who puts the Rockets in the upper echelon of the Western Conference.
As Daryl Morey said in his conference call, "When you're trying to be the best team out of 30, you've got to take risks all over the place." We'll see whether this risk will pay off for the Rockets. Nevertheless, Houston finally has the point guard upgrade they needed. It's now time for the coaching staff, the players, and Lawson himself to mesh together and prepare for their journey to the 2015-2016 NBA Championship.