Which Fallen NBA Point Guard Has Best Shot at Redemption in 2015-16?

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistJuly 28, 2015

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Stardom is a fluid concept in the NBA. It is seldom forever. Retaining the label becomes harder, for most, with age. When it's lost, it's difficult to regain. When a player's initial path toward it is derailed, carving out another one can prove impossible.

Next season, three high-profile point guards will try to get their careers back on track to varying degrees, and they will do so by starting over.

Ty Lawson, long the fringe star, must look to rebuild his reputation after being traded from the Denver Nuggets to the Houston Rockets.

Rajon Rondo, a four-time All-Star (three appearances), will continue searching for a way back into the superstar circle as a member of the Sacramento Kings.

Deron Williams, once mentioned in the same breath as Chris Paul, is taking his paling celebrity to the Dallas Mavericks with the hope of putting substantive distance between himself and the drastic decline he endured while playing with the Brooklyn Nets.

If there were ever a time for Rondo and Williams to recapture their place among the league's best point guards and for Lawson to reinvent his individual standing, it's next season. New teams make for blank slates, and each of these three needs the mulligan his change of scenery offers.

Ty Lawson

HOUSTON, TX - MARCH 19:   Ty Lawson #3 of the Denver Nuggets looks to pass between Patrick Beverley and Terrence Jones #6 of the Houston Rockets during their game at the Toyota Center on March 19, 2015 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly ackno
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Unlike Rondo and Williams, Lawson's redemption campaign will have little to do with his injury history, physical abilities or stylistic fit in today's NBA.

The Nuggets only traded him after he was arrested for driving under the influence two times in the span of six months, and even then, despite a rumor-mill firestorm that persisted through last season, they did so with a heavy heart.

As general manager Tim Connelly told reporters of Lawson's departure, per the Denver Post's Christopher Dempsey:

You always wish you had done more. Ty's dealing with some demons right now that I'm certain he's going to overcome. Even though he's not here, we're fully supportive of him. I'll maintain a close relationship with Ty. The convergence of fame and wealth is never an easy concoction. We tried as best possible to make an environment that could be conducive to success for Ty and the team. We had a lot of well-documented issues, and it's a failure on all ends, but I'm hopeful both parties are on to bigger and better things.

Perception of Lawson is indeed at an all-time low. The Nuggets wouldn't have accepted what amounts to salary-cap scraps and a lottery-protected first-rounder in 2017 if not for his fast-fading reputation.

In addition to the arrests, Lawson was caught on video smoking hookah and reacting to Denver's selection of fellow point guard Emmanuel Mudiay, plainly stating, "I told you. I'm going to Sacramento, bro."

There was also a bizarre Instagram incident in which Lawson expressed a desire to play for the Mavericks while responding to a fan's comment. And, after the trade, Nuggets president Josh Kroenke admitted to Yahoo Sports' Marc J. Spears that Lawson's off-court lifestyle had been a problem for years.

It would be naive to insist Lawson's path back to prominence is easier just because his recent struggles aren't injury-related. But there's some level of comfort in knowing he has checked into a rehab facility, per the Denver Post's Jesse Paul.

Despite the absence of an unquestioned superstar label, Lawson has star-level intrigue.
Despite the absence of an unquestioned superstar label, Lawson has star-level intrigue.Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

Although he has never made an All-Star appearance or earned All-NBA honors, Lawson has carried the on-court cachet of a star with those distinctions for some time. He's a defensive liability at 5'11", and his low-volume three-point shooting compromises the significance of his 36.9 percent career clip from beyond the arc. But he's nonetheless an offensive live wire.

Just two other players maintained averages of at least 20 points and 13.5 assists per 100 possessions last season: Chris Paul and John Wall. Lawson also assisted on 43 percent of Denver's made buckets when in the game, the league's fourth-best mark, behind only Wall (46.3), Russell Westbrook (47) and Paul (47.4).

What Lawson lacks in size and strength (195 lbs), he makes up for in speed and coordination. He changes directions off the dribble really well and does a nice job of keeping plays alive when in motion.

No player is better at breaking down opposing defenses and attacking the paint. Lawson ranked second in total drives last season, trailing only Tyreke Evans.

When there isn't a clear path to the basket, he creates one, mostly by feigning a change in direction with his head: 

That ability to get into the lane at will is a boon for Lawson's passing game. The mere threat of his speed and aptitude for zigzagging around waiting defenders is enough to draw double- and triple-teams that create slashing opportunities for his teammates:

This is playmaking the Rockets desperately need. James Harden operated as their point shooting forward last season, shouldering the primary facilitating and scoring responsibilities. Lawson is now that second shot-creator and distributor they don't have, one who, on paper, makes a 12th-ranked offense that much scarier.

But Lawson won't enjoy the same ball-dominating freedom he had in Denver. Harden is at his best on the ball, and the Rockets won't displace him from his comfort zone for anyone—not even a starting-level point guard.

Unless Lawson is charged with leading the second unit, last year's 20.6 usage rate, his lowest since 2010-11, could fall even further. And regardless of whether he starts or comes off the pine, he'll still have to function beside Harden in some capacity, and that demands he play away from the action.

Spot-up shooters are required luxuries when accommodating Harden's drive-and-kick forays into the paint, as well as the pick-and-rolls he runs with Dwight Howard. Lawson has flashed the range necessary to thrive as a catch-and-shoot gunner on occasion, but he put in just 34.1 percent of his long balls last season and has never averaged more than 3.3 three-point attempts per game.

Most of his baskets also tend to go unassisted. Fewer than 23 percent of his made field goals came off assists in 2014-15, and his 35.6 percent conversion rate on standstill shots won't instill fear into rival defenders.

Those unimpressive catch-and-shoot percentages should climb organically. Lawson will get more open looks when playing opposite a scoring threat such as Harden, and uncontested opportunities are inherently easier to hit.

Lawson's numbers in Houston won't be what they were in Denver, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.
Lawson's numbers in Houston won't be what they were in Denver, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

Still, Lawson's role is about to change. With that change will come an adjustment period.

Climbing into the superstar picture is almost assuredly out of the question. If Lawson was going to make that jump, he would have made it in Denver as the No. 1 option. Even matching his output in Houston, where he will at times play third fiddle to Harden and Howard, will be difficult, if not absolutely impossible.

And that's a status dip he might need.

Peak Lawson barely cracked the top 10 on the point guard totem pole. There's more he'll be able to do as an intermittent afterthought, and playing with higher-profile teammates will make the transition easier—an afterthought in its own right.

Rajon Rondo

Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

A few years ago, Rondo's name was routinely linked to the best point guard debate. Now, his name is all he has.

Circumstances beyond his control have no doubt fueled Rondo's decline. He's missed at least 13 games in each of the last five seasons, and the Boston Celtics went from an aging contender to a full-fledged rebuilding project between the 2012-13 and 2013-14 crusades.

But last season did more damage to his reputation than any injury or front-office decision. He posted a below-average player efficiency rating (13.5) for the first time since he was a rookie, couldn't buy a basket at the free-throw line and failed to capitalize on a trade to the Mavericks.

Dallas actually dismissed Rondo midway through its first-round playoff series against Houston. That's a terrible look for a present-day superstar, let alone a player who hasn't sniffed superstardom since Ray Allen was donning Celtics green.

On top of that, Rondo's shaky jumper makes him an iffy fit for any modern-day offense. So while he may find Kings head coach George Karl easier to play for than Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, his sub-40 shooting percentages outside three feet of the basket aren't going anywhere. 

That's problematic for a Kings team with plenty of spacing warts up front. DeMarcus Cousins has nice range for a center, but he'll invariably be asked to line up at power forward for those all-too-frequent stretches when Karl has to play him with Kosta Koufos or rookie Willie Cauley-Stein.

Rondo is also a non-threat without the ball in his hands, making him an offensive liability by default. As Omer Khan wrote for Sactown Royalty:

It is true that Rondo has limited value in motion-based offensive sets. He's not particularly good as a shooter and isn't always decisive in his movement off the ball. You could really see Rondo struggle in Rick Carlisle's offense; his natural ability as a playmaker was neutered because he simply did not have the time on the ball to dissect a defense as he was accustomed to. He also never truly meshed with Monta Ellis; both preferred the ball in their hands, and neither is much of a threat to spot up and space the floor.

It helps that the Kings don't project to move the ball with frenetic volume, as the Mavericks did. But Cousins still needs his touches in the post, and Rudy Gay must be allowed to attack off the dribble. When they do that with Rondo in tow, the Kings are essentially down a player.

Defenses can slink off Rondo to double Cousins or cut off Gay's dribble drives without fear of retribution. Rondo has shot better than 30 percent from deep just twice in his career, and he found nylon on a not-even-a-little-bit-scary 34 percent of his spot-up opportunities last season.

Surrounding him with at least three—preferably four—shooters and then letting him drive-and-kick all night is easily the Kings' best bet. A five-man combination of Marco Belinelli, Cousins, Gay, Ben McLemore and Rondo would provide enough spacing while allowing the latter to spend most of his time on the ball.

And for all Rondo's wrinkles, good things can still happen when he attacks:

Incessant pick-and-rolls will further cover up Rondo's shooting deficiencies. He's still not a threat to score consistently in those situations, but he has a way of collapsing the defense anyway, usually to the benefit of a trailing big man.

Imagining Cousins as Chandler in sets such as these takes little to no effort:

Finding potential in Rondo's presence has never been the issue, though. Putting his upside into practice is the problem.

Even the Celtics struggled to maximize the possibilities with him running point. Not since 2011-12 has his team's offense fared better with him on the floor. And there's nothing that suggests Sacramento will be the next organization to figure him out.

Matt Moore of CBS Sports added:

Listen, the Kings might be better next season. The talent has improved, and if their record improves along with it, the narrative around the team will as well. But the teams that win consistently—teams like the Spurs, Heat and the Mavericks (despite their issues this summer)—have been built around solid plans, cohesive front offices and consistent approaches.

The Kings, instead, are like the teenager taking a driver's test. If they knock over all the pylons but somehow manage to barely pass the test anyway, do you really want them on the road?

After landing in Sacramento on a one-year deal, it's beyond unlikely Rondo ruffles any feathers. He has to know the knocks against him at this point, making his fit within the locker room a nonissue. Expect him to behave.

It's everything else, from Rondo's new teammates to the Kings' inability to stick with one direction, that's concerning.

Deron Williams

LM Otero/Associated Press

If there's a team capable of getting Williams to turn back the clock, it's the Mavericks.

Carlisle's offensive system can extract production out of any point guard with a semblance of an outside touch. The Mavericks space the floor, milk pick-and-rolls to no end and run with modest pace—not too fast, not too slow.

Williams didn't even rank in the 41st percentile of pick-and-roll efficiency among ball-handlers last season, but that came within Brooklyn's ill-constructed, paint-packed offense. Dallas has more shooters, which makes Williams' job far easier.

Contrary to Rondo, Williams can also work off the ball. He drilled at least 36.6 percent of his three-balls in each of the last three seasons and drained a scintillating 42.2 percent of his catch-and-shoot treys for 2014-15.

Inserting Williams into Dallas' offensive model won't be a problem. If there's anything to worry about, it's his health, along with the natural progression of time.

More than Williams battling injuries or a years-long rut, he's fighting against age.
More than Williams battling injuries or a years-long rut, he's fighting against age.LM Otero/Associated Press/Associated Press

Williams has missed at least 11 games in three of the last four campaigns and is now 31 years old. Even if he never developed the recurring ankle issues that plagued him in Brooklyn, he would still be at the tail end of his prime.

But he does have a history of ankle injuries. And he's working off a season in which he registered the second-lowest PER of his career. The odds of a return to superstardom aren't just stacked against him; they're virtually nonexistent.

Point guard is a deep position, and the Western Conference's floor-general corps is especially brutal. Maybe Williams is better off in Dallas than he was in Brooklyn. Maybe he's much better off.

Thirty-somethings three years removed from playing at an All-Star level just don't return to full form. For Williams, redemption will look more like achieving glorified role-player status on a playoff-bound team.

The One Who Stands Out

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - APRIL 1:  Ty Lawson #3 of the Denver Nuggets drives to the basket against the Utah Jazz on April 1, 2015 at EnergySolutions Arena in Salt Lake City, Utah. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and o
Melissa Majchrzak/Getty Images

Lawson is in the best position of these three, and it's not particularly close.

Aside from being the youngest (27), he's the only one who isn't hurting for more production. And while his role in Houston will diminish by design, he's also the only one playing for a contender.

The Mavericks aren't contending for a title after missing out on DeAndre Jordan in free agency. The Kings in all likelihood won't even be contending for a playoff spot. The Rockets made the Western Conference Finals last season and have only improved the roster.

Yes, all three of Lawson, Rondo and Williams could redeem themselves relative to what's happened recently and/or over the last few seasons. And no, the Rockets don't offer Lawson a chance to earn superstar credentials.

They are, however, giving him a shot at something the Kings cannot offer Rondo and the Mavericks cannot offer Williams: the chance to start anew while chasing a championship.

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com unless otherwise cited.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @danfavale. 


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