May 27, 2015 – The final buzzer only confirmed what the Rockets knew way back when they lost Game 3 in Houston – no team has ever come back from an 0-3 deficit in the NBA Playoffs and won the series. However, that wasn’t the real story that night. The real story was about the man buried at the end of the bench drenched in sweat. The real story was James Harden’s horrific performance.
Harden finished with a horrendous 16-point performance in which he shot 2-11 from the field. He also had a headline grabbing 12 turnovers which broke an NBA Playoff record. There was also another interesting stat that managed to go under the radar; Harden played 43 minutes that night. In fact, he averaged a grueling 39.6 minutes a game throughout the entire Western Conference Finals.
Dec 17, 2014; Denver, CO, USA; Houston Rockets guardJames Harden
(13) on the bench during the game against the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Center. The Rockets won 115-111 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports
So what, right? It’s the playoffs. Everybody plays heavy minutes in the playoffs. Well, conversely Golden State’s Steph Curry averaged a much more manageable 36.8 minutes in the series. Part of the reason for this discrepancy were the circumstances. Harden was playing without backcourt partner Patrick Beverley and as a result had to play an insane amount of minutes to make up for it. However, this wasn’t just a problem exclusive to the postseason. Harden averaged 36.8 MPG in the regular season which was enough to crack 2nd most in the NBA and 1st in minutes overall the entire season. It’s amazing he managed to still play himself for 2nd in the MVP race.
And it wasn’t just the minutes. James Harden was literally was responsible for most of the offense for Houston the entire season. If it wasn’t a result of Harden scoring or passing directly, it had to do with the amount of attention Harden required and the spacing that creates. When plays broke down, the ball was in Harden’s hands more often than not.
It didn’t help that Golden State had to luxury of throwing double teams whenever they so pleased because of the lack of backcourt help Harden had. It wasn’t just Golden State that abused this hedging/double teaming strategy on James Harden. Teams like Golden State, LA (Clippers), and San Antonio used various mixes of these strategies on Harden all year and it evidently worked because these also happen to be the teams that have had the most success against Houston all season. Harden also played some of his worst games of his otherwise great season against them.
James Harden quite simply carried too heavy of a workload last season. He’s even expressed himself interest in adding backcourt depth to the team. “Yeah definitely, that’s one of the conversations that me and Daryl (Morey) are going to have” – Harden on the prospect of adding backcourt depth during Rockets’ exit interviews.
Nov 16, 2013; Houston, TX, USA; Denver Nuggets guardTy Lawson
(3) drives to the basket past Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) during the second half at Toyota Center. The Rockets won 122-111. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
This is where Ty Lawson comes in.
While the Houston Rockets have shown ability to play defense at an elite level, their offense still leaves more to be desired (ranked 6th in the league). A big reason for this is the playmaking (ranked 9th in the league in assists). A large amount of the playmaking burden is put squarely on Harden’s shoulders and while he’s more than capable of carrying this load, a balanced offense in today’s NBA consists of more than one player creating offense at an elite level (preferably a perimeter player or a versatile enough big man).
Lawson is great for doing just that. He ranked 3rd in assists last year averaging 9.6 a game and he created the 7th most points in the NBA last year as a player! His ability to drive, kick, and find big men cutting the the rim while driving is simply incredible. You can definitely see where he would compliment great PnR big men like Terrence Jones and Dwight Howard well as he worked so well with Kenneth Faried and Timofey Mozgov in Denver. He’s also able to find shooters on the perimeter at an elite level (ranked 3rd in the league in assisted 3’s – Harden was 1st). This bodes well as the Rockets take and make more 3’s than any other team in the NBA.
Above all of Lawson’s desirable qualities, Lawson brings spacing. As stated earlier, defenses literally created their schemes around James Harden as it became so predictable that the offense was running solely through him. It becomes increasingly difficult to double team Harden and hedge on PnRs because the threat of an open Ty Lawson is something any respectable NBA coach simply won’t have on their conscience. This throws defenses off-balance and creates so much space for James Harden to do work.
Previously, Harden almost always had the best opposing perimeter defender planted on him with the 2nd-best not trailing far behind for help. With Patrick Beverley in the starting lineup, players could afford to sag off of him and keep hands in Harden’s passing lanes. You can’t exactly sag off a guy like Ty Lawson and even if you do, an open Lawson will always be 1-2 passes away from Harden who is (with all due respect) more likely to knock down the open jumper or make the extra cut than Patrick Beverley,
Mar 15, 2015; New Orleans, LA, USA; Denver Nuggets guard Ty Lawson (3) shoots over New Orleans Pelicans guardEric Gordon
(10) during the second half of a game at the Smoothie King Center. The Nuggets defeated the Pelicans 118-111 in double overtime. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Lawson also gives Kevin McHale more flexibility to rest Harden. The Rockets are terrible when Harden goes to the bench. During the regular season, the Rockets held a 107.7 offensive rating when Harden was on the floor and a measly 93.7 when Harden sat. In the Western Conference Finals, the Warriors outscored Houston by 36 points in the 41 minutes Harden was on the bench. McHale now has the flexibility to stagger Lawson’s minutes so he’s on the floor when Harden sits so there’s always a dominant guard and playmaker on the floor at all times to ensure the offense runs smoothly.
Lawson is also fantastic at taking care of the basketball. He can bring the ball up the court with ease and make quick decisions off the dribble without making a carelesss turnover. He’s one of the best in that aspect and has a stellar assist to turnover ratio of 3.84/1. In comparison, Chris Paul had an assist to turnover ration of 4.43/1 last season, Steph Curry had one of 2.84/1 and James Harden had 1.75/1.
One can easily make the argument that Ty Lawson is better at taking care of the ball and limiting turnovers than James Harden and clearly more so than Patrick Beverley. This takes even more pressure off of James Harden as he doesn’t have to carry the burden of always bringing the ball up the floor as well as taxing his body through his physical play or drives to the basket. This also limits the amount of turnovers the Rockets have as a team overall as last season they ranked among the worst at taking care of the basketball (28th in the league in turnovers at nearly 16 a game).
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Lawson is just simply a great fit. He’s fast and loves to get out in the open court and this meshes well with what the Rockets like to do (2nd in the league in pace). He can shoot the 3-ball respectively (36.9% from behind the arc for his career). He’s played in an up-and-down/high PnR system like this before as well under George Karl in 2012-13. He’s not being exposed to anything new.
It’s just hard to imagine a situation where this doesn’t work out for the Rockets. Despite Lawson’s off the court issues, there’s VERY LOW risk involved as no rotation players were given away in the trade and Lawson has even made the last year of his deal non-guaranteed! If he doesn’t work out this year, the Rockets can simply not pick up his option for next year and save an excess of $12 million next season.
Overall a brilliant move by GM Daryl Morey and it’s going to be exciting to see a final product (If all goes well) Houston Rockets team next season face off against this bloodbath of a Western Conference.
Stick with us here at House of Houston for all your Rockets offseason coverage.