The Houston Rockets’ acquisition of Ty Lawson was a move that was supposed to benefit both parties. For Lawson, it was a chance at a fresh start after his tenure with the Denver Nuggets was marred by off-the-court problems. For Houston, Lawson was another scorer and playmaker in the backcourt who could take pressure off do-it-all superstar James Harden.
Four games into the 2015-16 campaign, things haven’t quite gone as planned.
The Rockets are 1-3 so far this season, which is the fourth-worst record in the Western Conference. All three of the team’s losses have come by 20 points or more. While injuries and porous defense are key factors in Houston’s slow start, Harden and Lawson’s inability to find a rhythm together is a big part of the club’s struggles, as well.
According to NBA.com, the Houston Rockets are averaging 88.6 points per 100 possessions when Harden is on the court. That’s the fourth-worst offensive rating of any Rockets player. The three players behind The Beard (Chuck Hayes, Terrence Jones, Jason Terry) played 72 minutes combined while Harden logged a team-high 151 minutes thus far. In the 41 minutes Harden hasn’t been on the floor, the Rockets’ offensive rating improves to 102.7. That’s a pretty galling difference for a player who finished second in the NBA in scoring.
Harden hasn’t been much help at the other end either. The team is allowing 107.2 points per 100 possessions when he plays as opposed to 104.8 points when he doesn’t.
As for Lawson, his ability to create offense for himself and others has been mostly non-existent a week into the season. Houston’s offensive rating when Lawson is on the court is 90.3. When he’s on the bench, the number rises to 94.6. At the other end, Houston gives up 111.3 points per 100 possessions with Lawson on the floor and just 92.8 when they sub him out. By comparison, Houston has an offensive rating of 90.1 with Patrick Beverley (who Lawson beat out for the starting job) and are allowing 6.5 points less (104.8) when he’s on the floor.
In Lawson’s defense, he’s drawn Emmanuel Mudiay, Stephen Curry, Goran Dragic and Russell Westbrook in his first four contests with his new team. Still, the Harden-Lawson tandem is supposed to be the catalyst to Houston’s success, but on the court, the pair is responsible for two of the four worst net ratings (Lawson -21, Harden -19) of everyone on the roster.
So, what’s wrong with Houston’s dynamic duo?
According to Harden, Lawson’s problem prior to the club’s 110-105 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder was a lack of aggressiveness.
“I just tried to tell him, ‘be aggressive,’ ” Harden said. “Sometimes, he’s like too relaxed. ‘Attack. Do what you do. That’s why you’re here. You’re here to be aggressive, and you’re here to make plays for us. Never feel like you’re doing too much.'”
It would appear Lawson agrees.
“I didn’t want to step on their toes, make sure I didn’t mess up the system. But I feel like me not being as aggressive as I was was messing up the system. So, now I’m getting in the paint, just playing my game.”
To Harden’s point, Lawson had 10 field-goal attempts against the Thunder. In his previous three games, he had 21 combined. Lawson also dished almost as many assists against OKC (11) as he had all season (15). Lawson is also averaging 10.8 drives to the basket per game, which ranks sixth in the NBA. The hope is that, as he grows more comfortable with his surroundings, he’ll more closely resemble the dynamic offensive machine the team traded for during the summer.
Meanwhile, Harden’s troubles could be a combination of over-compensating for Lawson’s passiveness and some horrible luck shooting the basketball. While his 22.8 points per game are eighth-best in the league, he’s hitting just 30 percent from the field. Also, Harden leads the league with 44 three-point attempts, but his conversion rate from behind the arc is a putrid 15.9 percent. However, history suggests Harden, who shoots 44.2 percent from the field and 36.6 percent from three for his career, will eventually bounce back.
It may have been a bit presumptuous to think Harden and Lawson would be able to mesh instantly together. Having both been alpha dogs in the past, the duo needs time to work out the kinks and learn how to play off each other. The good news is there’s plenty of season left for both men to figure things out. The bad news is the Rockets are a win-now team trying to remain competitive in a tough Western Conference. As the losses mount, so will the pressure, and continued struggles together are only going to raise questions as to whether this experiment will ever work.