On Sunday, the Nuggets agreed to trade beleaguered point guard Ty Lawson and a 2017 second-round pick to the Rockets for Kostas Papanikolaou, Nick Johnson, Pablo Prigioni and a protected 2016 first.
On first blush, this seems like a heist for Houston. Prigioni was likely to be waived on Monday regardless, Johnson was a 2014 second-rounder who showed glimpses but not much more and Papanikolaou is a surplus good on a team with Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas. Lawson was recently considered a fringe NBA All-Star option at one of the two most important positions in the loaded West.
Then you remember that Lawson is in rehab after a second DUI in six months. And you remember that Lawson was a bit of a locker room disaster all season, clashing repeatedly with Brian Shaw. And you realize that while Lawson is lightning quick and a good passer, he doesn't take many threes and hasn't shot so much as 37 percent from range since 2011. And you note that Lawson was the best player on a 30-win team last season.
Lawson is no panacea. Luckily, the Rockets don't need one because they have James Harden and Dwight Howard. Denver does need a major solution to its mediocrity and it believes that can be found in rookie Emmanuel Mudiay, who happens to play Lawson's position. And so, we have a smart match among trade partners.
What's interesting about this deal is what it says about the hopes and fears for both franchises.
Denver remains in a really weird spot. The Nuggets extended Wilson Chandler's contract in an effort to lock in a solid cheap veteran through the salary cap boom of 2016 and 2017. Word is Denver is trying to lock in Danilo Gallinari, as well. Those two with Lawson and Kenneth Faried formed the most recent core of the Nuggets, all four of them well-suited to a flexible, free style and entering their primes. The disastrous Shaw era, a spate of injuries, Faried's anti-development and Lawson's troubles ruined all of that, but Denver is still trying to keep it mostly in order.
Clearly, the Nuggets didn't want Lawson anywhere near Mudiay, who is young (he turned 19 in March) and impressionable. Mudiay is a bit like Lawson stylistically, though he's much, much bigger and not as quick. Based on Summer League, Mudiay is going to feast at getting to the rim off the pick-and-roll and making smart passes to set up teammates. He can mimic what Lawson did at his best, even if it takes time to catch the rhythm of the NBA.
The problem for this season, and Denver's problem the last two years, is that there are no great shooters. (Gallinari, for all his reputation, is a career .367 deep shooter. Chandler is a career .339.) What good is a Mudiay drive-and-kick if there's no one to knock down shots? Denver badly needs Gallinari to revert to form and Gary Harris to find his range. (Harris took more than five threes per 36 minutes as a rookie, but hit only 20 percent.)
Teams with rookie point guards don't win much, and Denver looks like a lock to be near the bottom of the West standings. The Lakers and Kings will likely usurp the Nuggets, and even Portland might stay above them. But this season will be one of discovery: namely Mudiay, Jusuf Nurkic and how they fit new coach Michael Malone's style.
In Sacramento, Malone stressed defense and post play. He was the coach to get DeMarcus Cousins back into the paint. He also allowed Isaiah Thomas to freelance with the ball at will, something Mudiay seems capable of doing. What Malone's system didn't do is create many good looks from beyond the arc or a high share of assists. (Neither did Shaw's triangular mess, for that matter.)
Mudiay and Nurkic fit the Malone motif. You can see Chandler and Gallinari thriving, too. After all, Malone is responsible for resuscitating Rudy Gay's career. The one veteran who doesn't fit is Faried, a poor defender who also doesn't have much offensive skill. Energy guys are great and necessary, but Faried's role is likely to be diminished if Malone's style holds and there's more emphasis on getting the ball into Nurkic. Faried could be the next Nugget to depart.
In Houston, Lawson comes in as the presumptive sixth man of Kevin McHale's dreams. A key deficiency of the stunningly-good Rockets last season was the lack of a second playmaker in the backcourt. Harden did everything on offense much of the season, and that role expanded even further in the playoffs.
With Josh Smith gone to L.A., there wasn't a single other high-usage player on the roster other than finish-and-fouled Dwight Howard. Lawson won't be an All-Star candidate coming off the bench or even starting next to a dominant Harden with Patrick Beverley around, but he'll be a much needed offensive release valve.
Lawson's also a good bit of insurance against another Beverley injury or Harden overuse. Harden played a league-leading 2,981 minutes in the regular season and another 600-plus in the playoffs. He's played roughly 3,000 combined NBA minutes in each of past three seasons, plus he competed for USA Basketball in the 2012 Olympics and 2014 World Cup. He plays a style that results in tons of fouls and not-too-infrequent falls to the floor. McHale tried to rest him more frequently last season to prevent injury and overuse, but to do so with that Rockets roster was almost to concede offensively.
With Lawson in the fold, Houston has someone else who can create offense, allowing Harden's load to lighten and his reserve tank to fill back up during the long slog of the NBA season. If Harden doesn't have it during any given game -- like in Game 5 against the Warriors -- there's a legitimate second option to run the offense. This is a big relief for Houston.
Provided, of course, that Lawson squelches his worst habits. (John Lucas is said to be lined up to aid Lawson on his journey. That's one great thing about getting traded to Houston: Luke is always there.) If Lawson can't overcome his off-court issues, the Rockets haven't really lost anything. The pick will fall somewhere in the 20s and they'll likely get a pick from Denver in the 30s the following year. Lawson is a nice enough gamble to trade down 10-15 spots and give up a tiny bit of frontcourt depth in Papanikolaou and a tiny bit of potential in Johnson.
This trade will let the Nuggets start fresh and the Rockets build on their incredibly strong foundation. It makes perfect sense for everyone involved.
SB Nation presents: The evolution of the point guard position, with Ty Lawson