Breaking Down How the James Harden-Ty Lawson Pairing Will Work for Rockets

Kelly Scaletta@@KellyScalettaFeatured ColumnistJuly 21, 2015

Houston Rockets' James Harden (13) pushes against Denver Nuggets' Ty Lawson in the first half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, Nov. 16, 2013, in Houston. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)
Pat Sullivan/Associated Press

Ty Lawson is heading to the Houston Rockets, and James Harden has to be happy with it.

The pairing of Lawson and Harden should push the Rockets back up to contender status, keeping up with the changes made by the Los Angeles Clippers and San Antonio Spurs.

The Rockets acquired Lawson for almost nothing, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports: Houston will send Kostas Papanikolaou, Pablo Prigioni, Joey Dorsey, Nick Johnson and a lottery-protected 2016 first-round draft pick to Denver, sources said. Along with Lawson, the Nuggets will send a 2017 second-round pick to Houston.

Allow me to go first-person on this for a moment. I have been on record as saying it was unrealistic for the Rockets to get Lawson. Clearly, I was wrong. I’ll own that. Feel free to mock and ridicule me in the comments section.

Houston Is a Fit for Lawson

Let’s address the elephant in the room: Lawson’s value fell after being arrested for a second DUI in less than a year. He is currently in an alcohol treatment program, and hopefully that will take, not just for the Rockets’ sake, but for Lawson’s.

There are a few reasons Houston is a perfect destination from Lawson’s end of things.

John Lucas, who has done tremendous work as a life coach, has a rehab center in Houston and a history of working with star athletes. He can help Lawson. Marc Stein of ESPN reported that Houston is already working on making that happen:

Marc Stein @TheSteinLine

ESPN sources say Rockets will ask Houston-based John Lucas to provide off-court counsel to Ty Lawson if Lawson (two DUIs in 2015) open to it

Houston also has a history of protecting its players. When Dwight Howard came to Space City amid a cloud of criticism regarding his departure from Los Angeles, the team and fans were quick to defend him. When the James Harden “defense” video went viral, Morey had his back. When Josh Smith got dumped by the Detroit Pistons last December, the Rockets helped him resurrect his career.

And according to Happy Walters, Lawson’s agent, via Calvin Watkins of ESPN, there’s a good relationship already between Lawson and some of Houston’s core players:

Yeah, theyre tight, Walters told ESPN of the relationship between Lawson and (James) Harden. He played with Corey [Brewer] in Denver. They know each other well. He knows Dwight [Howard] -- hes our client, Corey is our client. Ty has been in this league, and he knows what's up, and hes taking care of himself.

Everything here is predicated on Lawsons ability to bounce back from his off-court issues. Just in case things don’t work out, though, according to Grantland’s Zach Lowe, Lawson agreed to allow the Rockets to have a team option on the final year of his contract as a condition of his trade:

Zach Lowe @ZachLowe_NBA

One more tidbit: Sources say Lawson has agreed as condition of trade to make the final year of his contract -- 2016-17 -- non-guaranteed.

Zach Lowe @ZachLowe_NBA

That gives Houston the option of keeping Lawson at his current set salary for 16-17 if things work out, or letting him walk if they don't.

At worst, the Rockets gave up some players who aren’t in the rotation. At best, they got a player who can land them in the Finals with a very realistic chance of a title. That risk-reward scenario is easy math.

He Fits a Need

Don Ryan/Associated Press

Patrick Beverley was last year’s starter, and while he’s an unrelenting defender and decent spot-up shooter, he’s not up to snuff as a shot-creator, either for himself or others. He averaged 3.4 assists per game and, according to Basketball-Reference.com, only 1.3 unassisted field goals.

When last season ended, Watkins reported on James Harden’s desire for the offseason:

Harden said he has plans to speak with general manager Daryl Morey about either getting a point guard in free agency or using the ones currently on the roster to help with the ballhandling.

Yeah, definitely, that’s one of the conversations that me and Daryl are going to have, and the coaches, is one of the pieces we need to have,” Harden said. “That’s a later conversation, but we’ll be all right. We’re very confident in the group that we have and this summer we got to work hard and be ready for next year.

And Ty Lawson fits that bill better than Harden could have possibly hoped.

Look at the top playmakers, consisting of points and points generated by assist (from each player’s profile page at Basektball-Reference.com). These are the top 10 point producers from last season:

Harden was first, and Lawson was seventh. Since there is only one ball to go around, both players are likely to see some decline in their overall numbers this year. But both of them should also see an increase in their scoring efficiency, as the other will help prevent double-teams.

The Rockets were in major need of another shot-creator. Lawson is one of the 10 best in the league. That certainly fills the need.


He Fits the System

Lawson doesn’t just fit the need in Space City; he fits the system extremely well.

That’s mainly because he’s a driving point guard. In fact, according to NBA.com, among players with at least 30 games, Harden led the league with 14.3 team points per game off drives, and Lawson was second with 13.9.

Lawson doesn’t rely on speed and athleticism to get into the paint but uses craftiness, subtle changes of speed and excellent ball-handling skills to shift past defenders. And while he has a little more of a tendency to take mid-range shots than Houston likes, he’s very effective near the rim, as illustrated by his heat map from NBASavant.com:


What’s more important to Houston, though, is where he passes the ball. His real strength is that when he gets penetration, most of his assists either go to the roll man inside the restricted area or kick-outs to three-point shooters.

A look at his assist chart shows just how well he fits in with “Morey Ball,” which emphasizes those areas:


The Nuggets’ effective field-goal percentage off Lawson’s passes wasn’t fantastic, but that has a lot to do with his not having shooters to pass to. In fact, he led the NBA in assist opportunities per game, meaning no one set the table more than he did; his teammates just couldn’t clean their plates.

His passing did produce more efficient results, though. Based on its assist dashboard at NBA.com, Denver shot an effective field-goal percentage of 49.5 percent when Lawson passed the ball and 47.6 percent when someone else did. By comparison, Houston’s effective field-goal percentage off passes last season was 51.5 percent.

And while Harden had the ball in his hands most of the time for Houston, don’t confuse that with not being able to play off the ball. His effective field-goal percentage on catch-and-shoots was 59.6. Trevor Ariza’s was 54.1 percent.

As the roll man in the pick-and-roll, Dwight Howard scored 1.35 points per play, good for the 95th percentile. Terrence Jones was even better with 1.43 (99th percentile).

Where the Houston starters like to catch the ball and where Lawson prefers to pass it make a perfect fit.

He Fits with Harden

The fit with Harden and Lawson is impressive. Coach Nick from BBallBreakdown showed several ways the two can work together:

While Lawson’s uptempo style fits in well with the Rockets’ emphasis on transition points, it is his half-court abilities where they’ll see the most benefit. Lawson has a tremendous basketball IQ and almost always makes the right reads.

Ditto with Harden. Having two intelligent basketball players who can penetrate and are willing passers is gold in the NBA.

Lawson’s ability to feed the ball to his bigs in traffic is amazing. It’s easy to see him doing this with Donatas Motiejunas, Jones or Howard:

His ability to do that will create opportunities for perimeter players.

Witness this play:

Now imagine this is Harden catching the ball here:

Root Sports

How often do you see him having that much space to operate? He could either take the shot or drive the lane. The reverse situation can work, with Harden breaking down the lane and then Lawson getting all kinds of room to operate.

Lowe made that argument:

Sure, Lawson “needs” the ball, but that doesn’t mean he’s ineffective in a secondary role. He’ll touch it plenty; Harden sucks entire defenses toward him as he dribbles up high on the pick-and-roll, and if he spots Lawson’s defender tiptoeing into the paint, Harden can whip the ball to his new teammate. Give Lawson a head start like that, and you’re toast. Diversity is healthy, anyway. Houston badly needs a secondary creator so that Harden can play fewer minutes and do less heavy lifting when he’s on the floor. He can be a capable spot-up shooter, too.

Lawson and Harden are dangerous enough breaking down opponents by themselves. Giving them opportunities for secondary drives on already collapsing defenses should be exponentially lethal.

Even when Harden isn’t on the court, it’s great for Harden. Last season, the Rockets offense scored 14 fewer points per 100 possessions when he wasn’t on the court. Whether Lawson ultimately starts or comes off the bench, the rotation can be staggered so that one of them is almost always playing. Harden can actually rest when he rests.


I don’t want to suggest that there are no potential kinks. Lawson is a diminutive player, which will have consequences on defense, particularly since the Rockets like to switch. Lawson is going to struggle to guard anyone who isn’t a point guard.

And there is this risk with his off-court issues and the possibility it might not work out.

But the overall potential of this deal to work out well, the explosiveness of the new backcourt and the incredibly low price that Morey paid are easily worth the risk.

Stats for this article were obtained from Basketball-Reference.com, NBA.com and NBASavant.com.