When the Denver Nuggets traded their starting point guard of four-plus seasons last July, the general reaction among fans and pundits alike was that it was time for Ty Lawson to go, but that the Nuggets could have gotten more in trade for a player who had just produced over 15 points per game and finished third in the NBA in assists per outing.
The "time for Ty Lawson to go" part of the reaction was due to two things. First, when the Nuggets lucked into rookie point guard Emmanuel Mudiay with the seventh overall selection in the 2015 NBA Draft, the writing was on the wall for a Lawson departure (Lawson himself was caught on camera saying "I'm going to Sacramento" as soon as Mudiay was drafted). Simply put, the Nuggets organization didn't want the immature (at the time) 27 year old Lawson contaminating the 19 year old Mudiay who, despite being eight years Lawson's junior, has already shown himself to be much more mature than his predecessor. And second, Nuggets fans had had enough with Lawson's own actions off the court, which included two DUI arrests within six months and multiple other incidents ranging from borderline criminal to just plain stupid, as detailed by my colleague Jeffrey Morton just days before Lawson was traded to the Houston Rockets for a package of journeymen players and a protected first round draft pick.
24 and 23 games into the Rockets' and Nuggets' 2015-16 seasons, respectively, the Nuggets are looking a little smarter since trading Lawson. With Lawson on board, Houston has turned a 56-win team into a struggling 12-12 squad that's already fired its head coach - Hall of Famer Kevin McHale - and Lawson is producing career lows in virtually every statistical category, including points, field goal percentage (34.2%) and minutes per game. Meanwhile, while our Nuggets are on pace to win the same 30-ish games that they've won the prior two seasons, the entire culture of their locker room has changed ... thanks in no small part to Mudiay's infectious enthusiasm and likable personality.
When the Rockets acquired the oft-troubled Lawson over the summer they knew the risks involved, hence why they gave up so little to acquire a speedy and talented point guard. But despite Houston winning seven of their last 10 games, "the Lawson experiment" to date has been a failure in Houston. Coming off a Western Conference Finals appearance last season, the Rockets thought that Lawson could be the catalyst for an NBA Finals run in 2016. Instead, just over a quarter of the way through the 2015-16 campaign Lawson may be on the trading block again.
At just 28 years old, the swift and sudden demise of Lawson's game is particularly sad. When a 22 year old Lawson arrived in Denver in 2009 as the 18th overall selection in that summer's NBA Draft, it was almost immediately apparent that the Nuggets made a hell of a pick at 18. Playing behind veteran point guard Chauncey Billups, Lawson contributed solidly off the bench as a rookie in head coach George Karl's fast-paced offense, connecting on over 50% of his field goal attempts (unheard of for an undersized rookie guard) and being the perfect change-of-pace player the Nuggets needed off the bench. The following season, during which Billups would be traded to the New York Knicks alongside star player Carmelo Anthony after 50 games, Lawson stepped into the starting point guard role and immediately produced, helping guide the Nuggets to the playoffs despite having just 30 or so games to work five new teammates into the offense. And we all know what happened the following season as Lawson started for Karl in 71 games and helped lead the team to an NBA franchise best 57 wins and the franchise's 10th consecutive playoff appearance.
But Karl's firing after that memorable 2012-13 season may have adversely affected Lawson the most, perhaps because - like Lawson - Karl himself was a point guard at the University of North Carolina and served as a father figure of sorts for Lawson. Because even though Lawson had his best statistical season ever under rookie head coach Brian Shaw during the 2013-14 season, Lawson's off court behavior began to unravel. And when we look back at the tumultuous on-court play exhibited by Shaw's Nuggets, one doesn't have to use their imagination to realize Lawson probably hurt the Nuggets' cause more than he helped it. Hence why the Nuggets' 10 straight playoff appearances ended with the thud of 36-win season in 2013-14.
The 2015-16 Nuggets first encountered their former point guard on the opening night of the season, when the Nuggets shocked the Rockets in Houston with a 105-85 victory in a game that saw Lawson connect on just three of 10 field goal attempts and finish with a +/- of -16 compared to Mudiay's NBA debut with 17 points on six of 13 shooting and nine assists (we'll try to ignore his 11 turnovers for now). Lawson would get his shot at redemption just a few weeks later in Denver, but rather than step up to the moment Lawson cowered and missed all seven of his field goal attempts in a nine-point Rockets loss. That's when we knew something had gone really awry for Lawson and his Rockets, as just a few games later versus the Portland Trail Blazers Lawson was reduced to a reserve role ... and he responded to getting benched with a one-for-eight shooting night.
With the Rockets arriving in Denver on Monday night for their second and final matchup against the Nuggets on the Pepsi Center floor this season, Lawson's return serves as a reminder of how critical and yet fragile chemistry is in the NBA. Just ask the Los Angeles Clippers and their head coach / GM Doc Rivers about chemistry as he desperately tries to get Lance Stephenson and Josh Smith to mix with his veteran roster. The Nuggets franchise itself has been down the "talent over character" road before, trying throughout the 2000s to add talented-but-troubled players like Allen Iverson and J.R. Smith to the roster and being rewarded with headaches and first round playoff losses.
Like most Nuggets fans, when Lawson was traded last July I was disappointed that they didn't fetch more in return. Especially after hearing the pre-draft rumors of Lawson possibly being reunited with Karl in Sacramento in exchange for the Kings' sixth overall selection.
But even if Lawson turns his game - and possibly the Rockets season - around in the near future, the Nuggets are in a better place without him. When it comes to the departure of Ty Lawson, the old adage of addition by subtraction rings true.