In basketball, as in life, healthy relationships are defined by longevity, stability and mutual respect. People with marriages that span across many decades stand steadfastly behind these tenets as the inextricable fabric of their happiness.
But other marriages gradually disintegrate into oblivion, burdened by ever-swelling resentment and destructive behavior that eventually force a mutual agreement to part ways.
There was a time I thought that Ty Lawson and the Denver Nuggets were destined for long-term happiness, defined by the characteristics of the healthy relationship described above. In fact, entering the 2014-2015 season that situation seemed far more likely than any other alternative.
The Nuggets had publicly handed the keys over to Lawson, challenging him to become the leader and face of their franchise. Lawson, in response, said and did all of the right things to indicate he was ready to embrace that challenge, and appeared willing to take on that role for the long term. It felt like a relationship that had the potential to be idyllic by NBA standards.
But that potentially picturesque bond rapidly deteriorated into a volatile chasm with the intensity of an adulterous spouse exposed. Over the course of 10 months, Lawson went from being an integral part of the Nuggets’ future, to being a poisonous and perilous presence, and one in which the front office ultimately felt obligated to exile.
That divorce became official on Sunday night when the Nuggets sent Lawson and a future second-round draft pick to the Houston Rockets in exchange for Kostas Papanikolaou, Pablo Prigioni, Nick Johnson, Joey Dorsey and a 2016 protected first-round pick.
On the surface, it feels like the Rockets came out significantly ahead in this deal, and there are admittedly scenarios in which this may end up being the case. But this is a trade that can’t be measured by comparing the pieces involved in the exchange.
The Nuggets are undoubtedly losing the best player in this trade. That cannot be argued. Papanikolaou and Johnson have the potential to be building blocks in their rebuilding process, but there’s no universe in which this deal is equal when measured simply by the tangible aspects of the players involved.
This deal has everything to do with signaling the beginning of a new culture, the formation of a new identity.
Despite what the media may have made you believe over the last week, there weren’t teams banging down the Nuggets door inquiring about Lawson in a trade. His value had officially cratered following his latest misadventure in Los Angeles, and the Nuggets were forced to figure out a way to unload the two years remaining on his contract by whatever means were available to them.
In the process, they added a few modest assets, while also getting rid of nearly $22 million in salary when accounting for what’s guaranteed to the players coming to Denver versus what would’ve been owed to Lawson. That number could dip to around $17 million if the Nuggets decide to keep Papanikolaou’s non-guaranteed contract, and I’d much rather see them keep him on at least through this upcoming season to see how he fits into the Nuggets’ system:
Prigioni is guaranteed only $440K of his deal if waived by Monday. Denver will trade or waive him in next 24 hours, sources tell Yahoo.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojVerticalNBA) July 20, 2015
The decision to move Lawson was clearly motivated by several factors. First, and most importantly, the marriage had clearly reached an irreconcilable point, and his presence was no longer welcome on this team. Secondly, the Nuggets saved a good deal of money, as I just pointed out, that they can put towards players that fit the mold of the culture they’re trying to establish. Third, Lawson realistically had no trade value, and for the Nuggets to get a first-round pick in next year’s draft, albeit a protected one, adds to their already intriguing draft prospects:
Update Nuggets potential 1st RND picks next season:
NYK: pick swap
MEM: protected 1-5, 15-30
Port: protected 1-14
HOU: protected 1-14 (Woj)
— Nate Timmons (@NateTimmonsBSN) July 20, 2015
Again, this trade was not about getting equal value in return. Those who are hung up on the fact that this didn’t happen are missing the more important point. The Nuggets are aggressively initiating a culture change, a move away from a culture embodied by Lawson’s irresponsible and toxic behavior, and geared towards the values brought forth by Emmanuel Mudiay, Wilson Chandler, Jameer Nelson and Will Barton. These are the guys the Nuggets, and Michael Malone, are counting on to usher in a culture the Nuggets and their fans can be proud of.
So while the Nuggets may get worse before they get better, an admittedly scary thought, Lawson’s departure officially marks the start of a new chapter.
I, for one, am excited to see what the rest of the book has in store.