Ty Lawson’s failure with Houston Rockets is his own fault

After less than a full season the Ty Lawson experiment is finally over in Houston.

The floor general exits the Houston Rockets having failed to fit in and having his worst season in the NBA. But, his departure left a lot of questions hanging as to what went wrong.

Just as Houston Chronicle’s Jonathan Feigen and The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Ty Lawson’s buyout agreement with the Houston Rockets last Monday, many were left wondering about the move.

Most writers reflected on Ty Lawson’s short time in Houston and tried to figure out why is it that Lawson and the Rockets just couldn’t make it work.

A Talented Player

Daryl Morey’s trade for the former Denver Nuggets point guard was considered by many to be a coup. Morey gave up four players outside the team’s rotation plus a draft pick for a perennial all-star in Lawson.

For people unfamiliar with Ty Lawson’s work before arriving in Houston you have to understand, he is that good. Lawson is not a worthless player, or a loser by any means.

In Denver he successfully led his team to the playoffs on many occasions posting strong numbers. Despite the fact he never made it past the first round of the playoffs, he helped achieve a very respectable top three seed in the 2012-2013 season with 57 wins. And that was on a team featuring the likes of Kosta Koufos (in the starting lineup) JaVale McGee and Jordan Hamilton. Lawson led them all in points (16.7) and assists (6.9) and trailed only Andre Iguodala in steals (1.47 against 1.74 for Iggy).

While those were very strong numbers in the teams most competitive season, they weren’t his best individual averages. Lawson had a career high of 17.6 points in 2013-2014 and an extraordinary 9.6 assists per game last season.

Which is why at the time of the trade many predicted the move would have Houston possibly challenging the Warriors for the top spot in the Western Conference. That obviously didn’t happen as Ty Lawson was but a shadow of the player he once was and the Rockets failed to match last season’s excellence.

As we go forward in the article keep in mind Lawson’s averages as outlined above. Let’s start by analyzing the most employed excuses as to why the pairing of the Houston Rockets and Ty Lawson didn’t work.

Troubling Arguments

In general, the lazy man’s argument as to why Ty Lawson wasn’t working out in Houston is that James Harden is too much of a ball dominant player and they both need the ball in their hands to be effective. That was the recurring argument used in exhaustion by anyone writing about Lawson in the last six months.

Still, let’s delve into some of the other explanations as to why the former UNC product failed in H-town:

  • His off-court incidents such as his alcohol abuse and DWI prevented him from succeeding.
  • Breaking of the team’s on court chemistry with guard Patrick Beverley.
  • Lawson does not provide defensive stability, so the Rockets were better suited with Beverley starting alongside Harden.

At first glance all of those arguments seem valid and in fact make sense. The problem is it’s hard to accept the answer is that simple especially when we’re talking about high level players in the best basketball league on the planet.

It’s also painful to concede that even if all those arguments add up there wasn’t anything else the players or the staff could do to adapt or find answers.

And as a matter of fact the Rockets did try to find solutions for Lawson’s play:

I’ve watched about every Houston Rockets game this season which makes me believe that there is no one to blame here but the player himself. Ty Lawson’s failure shouldn’t be the burden of anything or anyone else: not the rotation, nor Harden’s domination of the ball.

Let’s dig deeper into that.

Finding Answers

I dispute the fact that Ty Lawson wasn’t a good fit for the Rockets from the start. The fact that no offensive point guard could work with James Harden is as big a fallacy as I’ve seen. That is absolutely untrue.

For example, take a look at Zach Lowe’s argument just after Lawson’s signing:

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.

But the best answer to deny that, I believe, is called Jeremy Lin.

While Jeremy Lin was rightfully criticized for his time with the Rockets, when we use Lin’s numbers, averages, usage percentages, splits from Lin’s seasons in Clutch City it’s obvious he was a much stronger backcourt pairing with Harden than his counterpart Ty Lawson.

Now, if they are both offensive oriented players, then why is that?

The first thing that got my attention is Net Rating which measures the difference between a team’s offensive and defensive rating when the player is on court. With the Rockets Lawson had a negative Net Rating of minus -8.1!

In contrast, Jeremy Lin had a positive +2.4 Net Rating in the 2012-2013 season with the Rockets.

Let’s review their time of possession and for that we only have data from the 2013-2014 season when Lin came off the bench for the Rockets. We’ll take it:

In 28.9 minutes of playing time Jeremy Lin had 3.7 minutes of possession whereas Lawson had 3.2 minutes over 22.2 minutes of playing time.

But what about his defensive game? Even if the comparison with Lin might lead us to different discussions, there’s nothing that we could say about the defensive aspect that wouldn’t point us in favor of choosing Beverley, right?

Well, that wasn’t exactly the case last season as the Houston Rockets were actually better when Patrick Beverley sat. The Rockets posted a minus -4.2 points per 100 possessions when he was on court last season.

That’s also not to say that Beverley’s usage in the last two seasons were lower than 17 percent.

So the issue is not offense, nor is the issue tied to chemistry or defensive preferences.

Now, if you are to buy into my line of thinking as presented it still doesn’t answer the great question: Why did Ty Lawson struggle so much with the Houston Rockets?

When Numbers Can’t Explain

Listen, numbers are great and metrics offers us possibilities and ways to better understand the reasons a team or a player is struggling, and the keys for improvement.

But there are no metrics that can explain Lawson’s 0 points in 34 minutes against the Denver Nuggets on November 13th. Or even his measly 1 point in 20 minutes versus the Suns on February 19th.

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Ty Lawson’s lack of confidence, not statistics, helps us understand his season. More than once we’ve seen him passing on wide open shots, hiding in the corner or not going for the easy layup.

As soon as the point guard’s field goal average started to drop and his shots stopped falling with the same accuracy as his last season in Denver, Lawson started doubting himself.

Could that be because Lawson never had to take the backseat? Throughout his professional career he was always the top dog, so finding himself (deservedly) buried on the bench likely caused serious effects to his game and confidence.

The bottom of the barrel however was reserved for the obvious disastrous matches versus his former Nuggets. His totals against his former team were embarrassing:  2 points in 47 minutes on a 1-for-12 field goal average and saw Emmanuel Mudiay absolutely dominate him.

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There is no doubt in my mind: Ty Lawson lost his mental battle, just couldn’t make it work and ended up giving up the Houston Rockets.

From there until the inevitable buyout he winged it.

At the end of the day it seems playing for the Houston Rockets who have a winning now stance caused him to feel the pressure to succeed The bumps and misfortunes of the 2015-2016 season in H-Town might’ve been too much for  Ty Lawson’s currently fragile mentality to handle.

Let’s just hope for the sake of his career that he finds himself once more with the Pacers.

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