The Potential of Lawson Exceeds the Risk
Signing Ty Lawson comes as a surprise, given the timing of it, but it shouldn't. He fills a need, the potential upside overwhelms the risk, and Larry Bird has shown the courage it takes to make this kind of decision before.
Bird nearly added Lawson to the Pacers' roster in 2009, during the draft. He once told me Lawson was his second choice behind Tyler Hansbrough with the 13th pick. They had paired to lead North Carolina to the NCAA championship earlier that year, earning All-America recognition in the process. Bird said he told former Tar Heels coach Dean Smith before the draft, "I'm not sure who I'm taking yet, but I'm taking one of your guys."
Now he has taken advantage of another opportunity to sign Lawson, and at a bargain rate. When I sat down with Bird five weeks ago, before the trade deadline, I asked him what he thought the Pacers' needs were. "I don't want to get into that," he said, "but you watch us everyday, you know what our needs are."
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The only thing that came to mind was a "true" point guard who could excel in an uptempo system. Bird isn't down on George Hill or Monta Ellis, but they're both hybrids rather than classic distributors. Lawson will be the fastest player on the team and its best playmaker. There's no hybrid about him, as Houston proved during its failed experiment of trying to pair him with James Harden.
He'll almost certainly have to adjust to playing off the bench, but he's in no position to argue that. His style likely would clash with that of Ellis, who also needs the ball to be effective. He could play with the ever-adaptable George Hill, but it's difficult to envision Ellis being dropped from the starting lineup no matter how well Lawson plays. Lawson, however, should be able to play with Rodney Stuckey, another hybrid guard.
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If the chemistry works, the Pacers have made a significant upgrade to their depth. Just two seasons ago, Lawson was a legitimate candidate for the Western Conference All-Star team. He was averaging 10.1 assists for Denver at the break, tied for first in the NBA, and finished the season averaging 9.6 assists and 2.5 turnovers – a nearly 4-to-1 ratio. He also averaged 15.2 points, lower than his three previous seasons with the Nuggets.
He'll be eligible for the playoffs should the Pacers make it, and has a history of performing well in the postseason. He had eight steals in North Carolina's NCAA championship game win over Michigan State in 2009, and averaged 21.3 points and eight assists in his most recent playoff series with Denver.
He should be a respectable 3-point shooter as well. He's a career 37 percent 3-point shooter, and once hit his first 10 3-point attempts in a game, setting an NBA record. His percentage has steadily declined throughout his career, however, although it's probably not fair to put much emphasis on his 33 percent rate in Houston, where he was making a major adjustment to a new system and new role.
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The elephant in the room, of course, is Lawson's off-court issues. He was charged with driving after drinking during the summer after his sophomore year in college, although he wasn't over the legal limit. He had been stopped for playing loud music in his car, and was discovered to have a suspended license as well. That might or might not have influenced Bird's decision not to draft him at a time when the Pacers were trying to resurrect their image. Other teams were leery, too, as he wound up the 18th pick in the 2009 draft.
He also was suspended for five games this season as a result of two instances of driving while intoxicated, in January and July of last year. He was court-ordered into a 30-day program for alcoholics over the summer. He said later he didn't consider himself to have a drinking problem, but had gained perspective from the experience and looked forward to a fresh start in Houston.
Still, he's a risk worth taking for the Pacers. He doesn't have a reputation for being a problem in the locker room, he should be highly motivated to rehab his NBA career, and at 28 he should be in his prime physically.
The catch is, he has to have the ball in his hands. He played effectively that way in Denver but was wildly ineffective when not allowed to play that way in Houston, where he averaged 5.8 points on 39 percent shooting before he was waived.
Houston thought Lawson would be the perfect backcourt partner for Harden, who dominates the ball in its offense. It didn't work from the outset, and coach Kevin McHale was fired 11 games into the season. McHale's resplacement, J.B. Bickerstaff, moved Lawson to the second unit in an attempt to play to his strengths. Lawson didn't complain, but still didn't excel. He and the Rockets, however, were still trying to make it work after the trade deadline, when they didn't unload him.
"With the ball in my hands, I think I'll be all right," he said then in an interview with the Houston Chronicle. "That's it. I tried to fit in, see where I could play my game. I tried to change my game to just be a spot shooter. I know who I am. I know how my game is, how I am effective."
It never worked, though. He hit just 5-of-22 shots over his final eight games with the Rockets, with seven assists and eight turnovers.
To hear team members in Houston tell it, he's capable of regenerating his career and becoming the player he had been in Denver. Houston's season has been an overall disappointment, and Lawson was part of the fallout.
"It's difficult, but it's not Ty's fault that we are where we are right now," Bickerstaff told the Chronicle after Lawson was waived.
"The hard part was, I don't think he was ever able to catch a rhythm. His season was kind of broken and he never was able to fully figure out what we were doing and how he could be successful."
Lawson's signing is sure to conjure memories of Andrew Bynum, on whom Bird took a shot two seasons ago. Bynum, too, was a proven veteran who could provide a major upgrade to the bench, but had some baggage. It didn't work out as hoped, as he played just two games before his knees made it impossible for him to continue, but contrary to the opinion of some outsiders he did no harm in the locker room and didn't have a negative impact on anyone else's play. He wasn't with the team for long, and spent far more time with the training staff than the players during that brief period. The Pacers won both games in which he played, and he played well in them.
A better comparison might be Evan Turner, acquired at the trade deadline two seasons ago for Danny Granger. Turner had been the second pick in the draft and a starter in Philadelphia, but didn't adjust to playing in brief bursts off the bench and didn't contribute as much as hoped. He did contribute, though, more than most people remember. He played well when he played 25 minutes or more, and was not a locker room distraction as outsiders thought. Although a non-factor in the playoffs, he contributed far more than Granger could have at the time. Besides, Lavoy Allen, a supplement to that deal, has turned out to be a valuable backup for the Pacers.
Part of what makes the acquisition of Lawson such a low-risk move is that Chase Budinger can be replaced within the roster. The cast of backup wings was overloaded all along, and Solomon Hill and Glenn Robinson III can fill it. So, especially, can C.J. Miles when he returns from his calf injury.
Budinger, a six-year veteran when the Pacers traded Damjan Rudez to Minnesota for him over the summer, showed great promise in the intrasquad scrimmages before training camp. Paul George and George Hill separately told me he had been the most pleasant surprise of anyone in those games. He never really found a groove in the regular season, though, averaging just 4.5 points and hitting 30 percent of his three-point shots. He has enough history in the league, and is healthy enough after two seasons of rehabbing his knee, that he should be able to find a home somewhere – perhaps even Houston, where he averaged 9.4 points over his first three NBA seasons.
So, Lawson gets a second fresh start. He could become a major contributor with the reserves, and should provide insurance if there's an injury in the backcourt. Bird has stated he wants to make the playoffs this year, and Lawson should aid that cause. And, as with Bynum and Turner, the downside is minimal if it doesn't work out.
For now, the Pacers can only hope Houston guard Pat Beverley's statement turns out to be prophetic.
"It's definitely sad to see," Beverley said when Lawson was waived. "I'm confident he will get with another team and get his thing going back again. I'm not worried about that."
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Ty Lawson Career Highlights
Check out these highlights of some of the best plays by new Pacers point guard Ty Lawson over the course of his seven-year NBA career.