Ty Lawson was having a nice career until the summer of 2015. He won a national championship at North Carolina before being selected in the first round of the 2009 draft. In the second half of his rookie year, he was promoted to the starting spot and he eventually became a near All-Star on some Nuggets teams that made the playoffs and generally overachieved. He was a great success story.
That was before the DUIs, a missed practice, a 2015 draft-day video featuring a hookah and a veiled trade request and more damaged his reputation. A year and a couple of unsuccessful stints with the Rockets and the Pacers later, he's hardly done enough to restore his standing around the league. He had to settle for a one-year non-guaranteed deal with the Kings after being passed over by every other team in free agency.
That is a precipitous fall for someone who was among the best at his position only a year before. Before things went south, Lawson notched a 15-point, 10-assist season with Denver. That's why Houston decided to ignore the red flags and traded for him amid controversies. It’s also why Lawson took the unprecedented step of making the last season of his contract non-guaranteed, facilitating the much-needed change of scenery.
Needless to say, things didn't work out as he hoped. Instead of earning $13 million this year, Lawson could get nothing.
It's impossible to talk about Lawson's fall from grace without touching on his off-court issues. That's likely why he decided to get ahead of the discussion and address them himself. In an interview with The Undefeated's Marc J. Spears, he said he doesn't believe he has a drinking problem:
"Things happened in the media because I drank and drove," he said. "But I’m not a person out here like everyone thinks that I’m drunk all day. No, I don’t do that. A lot of my friends, we go out and celebrate. But I’m not that person in the morning getting drunk before practice. I think there is a big misconception about what everybody thinks."
Lawson also said he stayed out of trouble last season and has been working on regaining his form in the summer. This is true by all accounts. A year of good behavior is not going to erase every concern front offices could have about his past issues, but his reputation can't possibly be any worse than it was when the Rockets traded a first-round pick for him last summer.
So if he's honest about his off-court struggles and has been actively trying to leave them in the past, why is he on a make-good deal with one of the most dysfunctional franchises in the NBA? Because the one thing no team will look past is a lack of production.
Lawson was one of the worst rotation players in the league last season. That's not an exaggeration.
Lawson was one of just seven guards who played over 1,000 minutes and averaged fewer than 15 points and 10 assists per 100 possessions while posting a True Shooting percentage below .500. If those parameters seem arbitrary, his per game numbers of six points and three assists on 39 percent shooting do a good enough job of illustrating his ineffectiveness. No one was surprised when he was waived by the disillusioned Rockets and played poorly for the Pacers in a much smaller role.
Lawson's extreme ineffectiveness last season wasn't solely his fault. He was a bad match next to a ball-dominant shooting guard like James Harden. The coach was fired early in the season and the Rockets' locker room was reportedly a disaster, which is the last thing someone in desperate need of structure needed. Lawson was also competing with Patrick Beverley, whose game was a cleaner fit alongside Harden. There was always a sense that he was a mistake away from losing minutes.
At the same time, there are ways a smaller role should have benefited Lawson. He should have been able to cut down on turnovers, yet that didn't really happen. He got more wide open catch-and-shoot three-pointers, but his outside shooting didn't improve. He's never going to be a great defender, but he didn't really use the extra energy he was saving on offense to become a ball-pressuring pest on the other end.
The most damning part of Lawson's poor 2015-16 season was that he showed an inability and/or lack of desire to adapt. It revealed that he has to dominate the ball as a dual threat in the pick-and-roll and in transition to be effective. He's not good enough to play a smaller role, nor does he have any interest in being a caretaker or secondary playmaker. He needs a coach that will give him the keys to the offense.
It's not surprising, then, that no team offered him a guaranteed spot. No coach is going to tailor his attack around a soon-to-be 29-year-old point guard who relied heavily on his quickness to be effective in the past. The position is deeper than its been in years, which means getting decent play from a backup is not as hard to find as it used to be. Other options don't come with the off-court concerns Lawson brings.
Even the desperate Kings, who made a gamble on a mercurial system point guard last season when they signed Rajon Rondo, were ready to make a firm commitment. To get the most out of DeMarcus Cousins, Dave Joerger should play at a relatively slow pace and run a significant part of their offense through the star big man. Lawson doesn't seem like a great fit for that style of play, though there's no harm in making sure considering the cost.
This is Lawson's reality now. In all likelihood, he will make it past camp on talent alone. Lawson is competing with Darren Collison (who is facing domestic violence charges) and Garret Temple. If he in fact has some of his burst back, he should be one of the 15 players that will be around on opening night.
His future in the league, however, won't be assured even if he makes the Kings’ opening-night roster. He will have to prove not only that he can stay out of trouble off the court, but also contribute in a role that might not be the one he's most comfortable playing.
Not long ago, Lawson was a franchise leader who had proven his worth and could demand the ball on offense. Those days are over now. If he can't make an adjustment or prove that he's truly back to being the player he once was, his once-promising career will end sooner than anyone expected.