In the summer of 2015, the Houston Rockets were on the upswing and ready to proclaim themselves as a contender in the NBA for the next half-decade. After an incredible comeback from 3-1 down against the Los Angles Clippers in the Western Conference semifinals, the Rockets fell to the eventual champion Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals, 4-1.
To get an idea of the NBA landscape, let’s take a step back. The Warriors had won the title behind a fun young core and looked poised to be a tough opponent, but it bears mentioning that many pundits saw the first Warriors title as a bit of a fluke. Golden State had skated to the Finals while dodging the three best defensive point guards in the league in Jrue Holiday, Mike Conley, and Patrick Beverley, who all missed their respective series due to injuries. Furthermore, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love were hurt during the Finals, allowing the Warriors to cruise to their championship without much resistance. Essentially, the thought was that Steph Curry dominated because he was being guarded by Jason Terry and other backups and didn’t have to expend much effort on the defensive end since his assignment wasn’t usually a ball-dominant player.
With that information in mind, Daryl Morey swung for the fences by trading four non-rotation players and a protected first round pick to the Denver Nuggets for Ty Lawson. While Rockets fans had liked Kostas Papanikolaou and Pablo Prigioni, the former was too young to get many minutes with a contender and the latter was too old to continue playing meaningful minutes, especially with Lawson coming to take his playing time. Nick Johnson had shown some promise but clearly wasn’t in the plans, and Joey Dorsey’s second go-around with Houston had only gone slightly better than his first.
The reasoning made sense. Houston gave up very little for a player who was 27 and in the last year of his contract. If the situation worked out, the Rockets could re-sign Lawson by going over the cap and establish him as part of their core. But the hope was that he could make Steph Curry work in the inevitable WCF rematch.
Here’s what Lawson said to Adrian Wojnarowski before the season began:
“Steph Curry needed someone to go back at him. I thought Steph was just chillin’ on defense—and then going crazy on offense. He looked like he was just putting shots up and not working so much on the defensive end. He would just come down and hit three or four 3s. He can shoot when he’s got his legs under him.”
Unfortunately, Lawson didn’t last until the playoffs. The Rockets waived him in March.
To say that Ty Lawson’s time as a Houston Rocket was a disaster would be putting it mildly. He came in with the specter of a DUI charge and had been in rehab during the summer before the season. It’s speculation obviously, but it probably affected his play. The Lawson that the Rockets saw was nothing like the Lawson that had been a speed and scoring demon for the Denver Nuggets. Houston had a disaster season, and while not all of the blame lies with Lawson, a significant amount should.
He had averaged 15.2 points, 9.8 assists, and 3.1 rebounds per game in his last season in Denver. In 53 games with Houston, he averaged 5.8 points, 3.4 assists, and 1.7 rebounds a night. He shot below 39% from the field and steadily saw his minutes go to Beverley, whose tenacious aura stood in stark contrast to Lawson’s listlessness.
The 2015-16 Rockets were dysfunctional from the start, and just 11 games into the season the team fired head coach Kevin McHale. They promoted J.B. Bickerstaff to his first of three (!!!) interim head coaching jobs, and clawed their way to a 41-41 record. They had to win their final three games of the season just for the honor of getting demolished by a 73-win juggernaut in the first round. Infighting was pervasive, and the whispers and rumors about that have season have made the locker room seem like a real hellscape, with two factions forming behind the team’s too superstars.
A lot of the “What if?” posts on the SB Nation network this week have been about a bad moment and turning it good. “What if Team X won that one game instead of Team Y” or “What if Player Z had stayed healthy” are the sorts I’ve seen mostly. At their core, they are about taking a sad memory that set their franchise back a few years and turning the situation around in their favor. What interested me about the Ty Lawson hypothetical is the simple fact that the Rockets actually got better because the trade was such a disaster.
If Lawson had been able deliver the same quality of play to the Rockets as he had in Denver, Houston undoubtedly would have been a better team. Lawson was worth 7 wins in 2014-15 for Denver, per basketball-reference.com, and just 0.9 over the course of the 2015-16 season. If we generously state that a “good” Lawson gives the Rockets six more wins, Houston would have finished 47-35, goof for fifth place in the West. That already would have been a disappointment after the Rockets had grabbed the 2 seed the previous season and were expecting to win more games. Even if they got past the hobbled Los Angeles Clippers in the first round, they would have once again run into that Warriors team and probably bowed out, maybe in six games.
The Rockets got lucky. If there ever was a season to have a down year, it was 2015-16. Even if Houston had been significantly better and had won 63 games, they still would have been second-best behind the Warriors. And even if Houston found the fortitude to take down the defending champions, a focused and healthy LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love awaited them in the NBA Finals.
But a respectable season might have kept Houston stagnant in the long run. Kevin McHale would have stuck around for the duration of his contract. That means no Mike D’Antoni, who was the one to unlock James Harden’s true potential. Speaking of Harden, he was the player who took the most heat that season. Despite a spectacular year in which he averaged career highs in points, assists, and rebounds per game, Harden was left off all three All-NBA teams and had to spend the next season repairing his reputation. His MVP loss to Russell Westbrook has been picked apart to death, but the narrative behind Russ as the good guy and Harden as the bad guy picked up steam throughout the season and could be attributed to how he was perceived entering the year.
Speaking of Westbrook, he factors in here, too. With a good 2016, Dwight Howard might have signed a max extension. Ty Lawson might have returned on a big deal that would have tied up Houston’s books for the next four or five years. That means a trade for Chris Paul would have been impossible to execute without trading Lawson anyway. CP3 also wanted to play for D’Antoni and worked his way to Houston using his player option as leverage. Without that fun 2016-17 year under MDA, there’s no reason to think the Point God would have considered Houston at all. And of course, CP3 eventually turned into Westbrook, bringing Harden his friend and former teammate.
We know what actually happened: Houston hired MDA, brought in Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, let Howard walk, traded for Lou Williams, and became an exciting basketball team revolving around the singular talent of Harden. They parlayed that into a run of contention that continues to this day. Houston has an MVP season from Harden and a 65-win team that inspires its own “What if?” questions to this day. Despite the disaster season with Lawson, the Rockets came out ahead in the end.
Ty Lawson’s career in the NBA ended two years later after providing serviceable minutes for the Sacramento Kings and then appearing in five playoff games for a Washington Wizards team that picked him up for their playoff run. He was 30 years old. He is currently under contract with the Fujian Sturgeons of the Chinese Basketball Association.