How Will Houston Rockets Make the Bold James Harden/Ty Lawson Experiment Work?

Jonathan Feigen@@Jonathan_FeigenFeatured ColumnistOctober 8, 2015

Houston Rockets head coach Kevin McHale, left, talks to his players, including James Harden (13), during a timeout in the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Phoenix Suns Friday, Jan. 23, 2015, in Phoenix.  The Rockets defeated the Suns 113-111. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

HOUSTON—James Harden has said all the right things about the addition of Ty Lawson to the Rockets offense. He said he wanted someone to take some of the playmaking load off his hands. He would like to get more catch-and-shoot looks. He welcomes the tweaks to the Rockets offense.

He must have meant it, too. He said the same things months before the Rockets traded for Lawson.

Since the Western Conference Finals ended with Harden unable to carry the Rockets any longer, a dozen Game 5 turnovers sending him to the offseason, he and the Rockets’ brass have reiterated the need for playmaking help.

Lawson’s off-court issues and the Nuggets’ rebuilding allowed the Rockets to get Lawson for a first-round pick and a handful of players who were not in the Rockets’ rotation and only one, Nick Johnson, even still on the Nuggets roster at the start of camp.

Brandon Dill/Associated Press

The addition of Lawson will take the ball from Harden’s hands, at least on occasion, just a season after Harden and the Rockets believed Harden deserved the MVP. To change that style almost sounds like breaking something just to have a chance to fix it.

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The Rockets insist, however, they will tinker with his touches, not retool them. Common sense says Harden will handle the ball whenever he wishes. It’s Harden’s time and Harden’s team. Lawson is there to help, not diminish, the Rockets star.

“I’d like him to get him two or three more catch-and-shoot 3s, open 3s, a game,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. “I’d like to see him have four or five play-off-catches, just boom, boom, quick action attack. And the rest of the stuff, he just plays naturally.”

That does not mean, however, there is not work to be done to meld the talents of the Rockets’ guards. The challenge will be to find the right balance between when Harden runs and finishes the offense.

It seemed telling that when the Rockets began their preseason schedule, they ran a pick-and-roll for Lawson, with Harden waiting on the wing. The play worked remarkably well, with Lawson getting in the lane and passing to the corner to Trevor Ariza. Ariza drove past a close out to draw the defense and found Harden open for a three.

The Rockets did not run their offense nearly as well through much of that first game in Memphis. A night later, when Lawson, Ariza, Terrence Jones and Dwight Howard sat out, Harden dominated the way he did when starters were out with him through most of last season.

The process of blending Lawson’s strengths with Harden’s really has not begun, though a three-game preseason road trip that ends against Golden State would seem to offer a chance to move in that direction. Lawson seemed unconcerned.

Brandon Dill/Associated Press

“A lot of people don’t know, but I like playing off the ball, too,” Lawson said. “Like down screens or I like when somebody’s closing out to me, instead of me being the main focus every time. When James has the ball, I can just space out (the floor) and be just ready. Give me a pass and I can attack too, have a second penetrator and find somebody else.”

That is the idea for Lawson and, on occasion, for Harden. As well as Harden played last season, leading the Rockets to their best season since 1997, the Western Conference Finals loss to the Warriors made it clear that they lacked more than just their injured starters.

“For us, especially when D-Mo (Donatas Motiejunas) went down and Pat (Beverley), we put so much emphasis on (Harden), having the ball so, so much,” McHale said. “With Ty, I think we can take the ball out of (Harden’s) hands, let him play off the catch, let him play a little more free, not having so much ball responsibilities. I think that will help him. I think he’s harder to guard like that.

“We talked about that. That was kind of our goal.”

There are only so many shots to go around, but the idea is not to have Harden do less of what he does best. The Rockets want him to have the opportunity to do other things, which they believe Lawson will make possible.


Jonathan Feigen covers the Houston Rockets for the Houston Chronicle and Bleacher Report. Follow Jonathan Feigen on Twitter @Jonathan_Feigen for more Rockets news and wisdom.

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