What went wrong for the Houston Rockets in 2016? – Part 8

I wrote back on August 3 that Ty Lawson was the biggest key to the Houston Rockets’ 2015-2016 season.  Lawson, of course, was a complete and unmitigated disaster, going on to average just 5.8 points and 3.4 assists on 39% shooting in 53 very forgettable games.  He was the biggest flop that I can remember during my time following this team, and that includes the Rockets careers of Scottie Maurice Pippen and Kelvin T. Cato (the latter of Slim Thug and ESG’s graceful request for the return of our communal currency).

[As an aside, because I haven’t really touched on this much yet, also from that not-so-prescient August 3 piece: “Harden is pretty likely to be about as good again, and Howard is pretty likely to have better health, if even only slightly.  (If he only plays half a season again, they already won 56 games withstanding that output).”  Harden pretty much was just as good, except he regressed defensively, and Dwight was healthy…except that may have been a bad thing for everyone involved.  Oops.]

Back to Lawson.  This piece also could have aptly been titled ‘Can James Harden co-exist with a ball dominant point guard i.e. would it be completely insane to give Mike Conley a max?’ but I’m trying to push this ‘what went wrong?’ series to like ten pieces because such a duration would only be fitting for such a disastrous season.  I theorized earlier in the year, in accordance with what appeared to be the prevailing conventional wisdom at the time, that it might be wise to pair Harden with another shooting guard (i.e.: Bradley Beal) because the Lawson experience definitively proved that Harden could not co-exist with an actual point guard.  This was before Lawson went on to post an on-off offensive rating difference of -21.9(!!!!) for the Indiana Pacers in the postseason, demonstrating that rather than providing anything of value regarding Harden and intra-team dynamics, Lawson’s stint was only useful in establishing that he probably just isn’t very good anymore.

I don’t need to recite Lawson’s statistics.  He was bad all around.  What I was interested in was how his performance, and in turn the team’s, adjusted in response to different dynamics.

To begin, Harden’s usage was 34.2 with Lawson on-court.  Lawson’s was 14.0 with Harden-on court.  And with both players on-court, Harden’s points per possession was 1.10.  The team overall was at 1.038 PPP, at 42.4% shooting overall, and 33.7% on 3’s.

By comparison, with Lawson off-court, and Harden on-court, Harden’s usage was 33.1.  Harden’s PPP was 1.13, the team overall was at 1.127 PPP, on 46.1% shooting overall, and 35.6% on 3’s.

My motivations here are likely intuitive.  I wanted to see if Harden’s usage declined with Lawson on-court (it actually went up), and how the team, and Harden himself, fared comparatively.  As the numbers demonstrate, both Harden and the team were better with Harden on and Lawson off.

With Lawson on-court and Harden off-court, Lawson had a usage of 15.9.  (And Dwight’s usage with Lawson on-court and Harden off-court climbed to 24.9.)  The team had a PPP of 1.011, shot 43.7% overall, and 32.3% on 3’s.

When Lawson was on-court, the Rockets had an offensive rating of 102.1.  With Lawson off-court, they had an offensive rating of 111.0.  The Pacers had an offensive rating of 102.5 with Lawson on-court, and an offensive rating of 104.9 with him off-court.  In the playoffs, as noted above, the Pacers were 87.3 with Lawson on-court, and 109.2 with him off-court for a difference of -21.9.

Here’s what’s odd though: Lawson was a member of some productive lineups with the Rockets.  The quintet of Lawson/Harden/Ariza/Howard/Thornton played 80 minutes together and was a +6.2.  The quintet of Lawson/Harden/Ariza/Capela/Thornton played 63 minutes together, and was a +14.3.  And the unit of Lawson/Harden/Capela/Brewer/Ariza, in 26 minutes together, was a whopping +38.6.

Here are Lawson’s bad lineups: Lawson/Harden/Ariza/Howard/Jones played 71 minutes and were a -6.4.  Lawson/Harden/Ariza/Capela/Jones in 59 minutes were a -10.  Lawson/Brewer/Capela/Thornton/Jones in 43 minutes were a catastrophic -28.8.  And Lawson/Harden/Capela/Brewer/Jones, in 28 minutes, were an abysmal -30.0.  The one common thread?  Terrence Jones was a member of all of Lawson’s worst lineups and not part of a single one of his best lineups.  I noted back in Part 2 that Terrence Jones was a huge problem this season.

Lastly, NBA.com doesn’t include Ty Lawson’s statistics for touches and possessions with the Rockets for some reason, but that information might have proved useful.  Harden, not surprisingly, led the team at 4.47 seconds per touch, and 3.8 dribbles per touch.  I would have liked to have seen the difference between Lawson and say, Beverley, in these categories to see how much the former was involved in the offense.

First, while the eye test and the “body language test” might have indicated otherwise, you can’t really draw any conclusions regarding Harden’s future on the basis of Lawson’s numbers/splits with Houston.  He was so bad with Indiana that its pretty likely, or at least likely enough to prove non-determinative, that Harden wasn’t the issue.  The lineup numbers are what fascinate me.  Lawson and Harden were actually part of some pretty productive units together.  And it seems possible that sharing the court so much with Terrence Jones really killed Lawson’s net rating overall.

This screencast above was from the fourth game of the year and one which I actually already posted at the time hypothesizing that the team, and Lawson, had turned the corner.  Lawson had 14 points and 11 assists that night, keeping the Thunder defense off James Harden–as you see above–in helping Houston to its first win of the season.  I thought this was how things would go on to be like for the remainder of the year.

For whatever reason, it didn’t work out.  Lawson had some nice flashes, particularly after his return from suspension, but for the most part, he’d just stand around and look lost.  It’s possible the withdrawal effects from Lawson’s alcoholism took a greater toll than we anticipated.  We don’t know.

But while they lost a valuable draft pick in the process, I don’t fault Daryl Morey one bit for making this trade. He swung for the fences and it just didn’t work out.  I’ll take a risk on a guy that seemed to be the perfect fit any day.  I can live with the consequences.

About the author: Rahat Huq is a lawyer in real life and the founder and editor-in-chief of Red94.net.

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