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Rockets search for their second playmaker

With Harden at the helm, the Rockets' known weakness has always been a second ball handler to create offense.

Scott Halleran/Getty Images

All offseason, every NBA pundit realized —and James Harden acknowledged — the Rockets' primary need was a "second creator," a guy who can take the ball out of Harden's hands and manufacture offense. Daryl Morey hoped Ty Lawson could provide some of that as another ball handler who can effectively run the pick and roll.

Lawson, though, has played timidly, showing glimpses of offensive aptitude, but never stringing together whole games let alone continuous games of solid play. Since Lawson has not shown enough, Morey brought Josh Smith back last week.

Lawson and Josh Smith are, in theory, the two biggest candidates for that "second creator" position, but what do the numbers say?

According to Usage Rate, the amount of possessions a player "uses" while he is on the court, Josh Smith is second on the Rockets, despite only playing six games this season. He has quickly reacquainted himself with the team and has made a significant impact immediately.

Surprisingly, the man in third place in the statistic is not Ty Lawson, it is Marcus Thornton. When you think about it, that makes sense considering Marcus Thornton shoots almost every time he touches the ball. Because of his specific skill set, he knows he has a specific role cut out for him. Plus, Thornton plays a good chunk of his minutes with Harden on the bench, which yields an even bigger, brighter green light.

Usage %
James Harden 32.6%
Josh Smith 24.8%
Marcus Thornton 23.8%
Ty Lawson 14.6%

*Since Smith's tenure with the Rockets this year is just six games, I used his numbers from last year's stint with Houston. In his six games this year with the Rockets, his usage percentage is up to 26.3%

Thornton has demonstrated he is more than capable of filling up the box sheet, but his inconsistency and defensive incompetence hinder his opportunity to play with Harden for long periods of time.

Lawson, on the other hand, often plays alongside Harden, which can force him to ball-watch helplessly in the corner while he is not involved in the action. Lawson has the 13th-highest usage percentage on the team, behind Corey Brewer and Jason Terry. The statistics say when Lawson and Harden are on the court, Lawson barely gets the ball.

He has proven to be effective with the ball in his hands, however, by scoring 60 percent of his points unassisted. That mark is the second highest on the team, trailing only Harden, obviously.

The sheer fact that Thornton is simply a complementary player whose role demands no more than 20 minutes per game removes him from the second creator race, leaving Josh Smith and Ty Lawson in contention.

Do the Rockets need to give more responsibility to Ty Lawson? Yes.

Lawson is a volume shooter from midrange, shooting 77 of his 253 field goal attempts from that zone, but only converting 33.4 percent of those shots. He is a decent finisher when attacking the rim, hitting 50 percent of shots within 5 feet of the hoop. He can get to the rim off the dribble, especially if he's taking advantage of a mismatch.

Lawson has generally struggled offensively with the Rockets, but it is clear that he has the ability to create for himself. What is even more impressive is his efficiency in creating for others. Once again, he sits in second place (behind Harden) in a key offensive creation category: assist percentage (AST%).

Assist %
James Harden 35.2%
Ty Lawson 23.8%
Josh Smith* 20.5%

*Smith's assist percentage of 20.5% is from last year. This year, he has recorded a similar 20.8%.

Lawson and Smith can both generate offense from their passing, but in very different ways. Smith operates from the elbow, throwing lobs to Dwight Howard or finding a cutting Trevor Ariza on the baseline. Ty Lawson throws nice pocket passes in the pick and roll and can run a fast break to perfection.

Another stat to measure the effectiveness of passing is the "Assist Points Created" measurement. James Harden creates 17 points per game through his assists, seventh in the league. The next Rocket on that list: Ty Lawson. Lawson creates 9.3 points off his assists in spite of his low usage rate.

Do the Rockets need to give more responsibility to Ty Lawson? Yes. But the way to do it is not to just give him the ball and tell him to go. J.B. Bickerstaff should implement more plays that involve more of Rockets' playmakers. Too much of what the Rockets do is isolation or half-assed pick and rolls late in the shot clock.

Now that Josh Smith is back, the Rockets have more flexibility to go small with Smith at center or big with Howard and Capela. That versatility goes a long way and Bickerstaff has to run plays to complement the personnel.

Since the Rockets do not have a conventional second option who can consistently get buckets, Bickerstaff needs to be creative with his half-court sets and get the ball in the hands of his main playmakers: James Harden, Ty Lawson, and Josh Smith.