The Houston Rockets’ weekend trade for erstwhile Denver Nuggets point guard Ty Lawson looks like a classic case of general manager Daryl Morey exploiting the vagaries of player value. Lawson’s second DUI arrest in six months turned an already likely departure from Denver into a near-certainty, to the point where the Nuggets may have had to keep him simply to avoid selling off a talented 27-year-old for nothing. As ever, the Rockets figure out a way to add capable players without sacrificing too much in the way of long-term flexibility.
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A new bit of information makes the Lawson trade look like even more of a quality move for Morey and the Rockets. According to Grantland’s Zach Lowe, Lawson has agreed to turn 2016-17, the final season of his current contract, into a non-guaranteed salary, thereby allowing Houston to waive him after one season with no effect on the salary cap. Here’s why that matters:
In other words, Houston’s gamble on Lawson carries only one season of risk, because they can decide to waive him as late as one day after end of the NBA Finals without having to pay any of his 2016-17 salary of just over $13.2 million. If Lawson proves to be a fit in Houston, then the Rockets will have a dynamic point guard at a useful salary. If he doesn’t, then Morey will have a trade chip or valuable cap space plus a quality point guard option in incumbent starter Patrick Beverley, who certainly hasn’t taken the Lawson trade as an insult. The runner-up in the loaded Western Conference has a higher ceiling for next season and a strong fallback plan in case it all leads to a giant mess.
The benefit is not so clear for Lawson, but Steve Kyler of Basketball Insiders has an explanation of how it went down:
The unspoken fact of the agreement is that Lawson is very desperate. While it’s easy to read Houston’s move as a deal for one of the most productive point guards in the sport, those DUI arrests now define Lawson’s status much more than do his stats. He is now a player who has to prove his long-term viability, and to do so he needed to find a quality situation in which he could rebuild his reputation, just as he did with the Rockets. With the Nuggets ready to move forward with rookie Emmanuel Mudiay, Lawson could not enter the season without a defined role on any team. He had to gain some measure of control over his future.
The only way to find it, though, was to sacrifice his last remaining bit of security — an eight-figure guaranteed salary for the last season of his deal. It’s a reasonable gamble based on how much more money the still-young Lawson could make over the course of an extended career in the NBA, but it’s still worth clarifying just where he stands. If things don’t work out in Houston (or, you know, if Morey decides that Lawson is expendable in pursuit of greater free-agent rewards), then Lawson will enter unrestricted free agency on the heels of two high-profile DUI arrests and a questionably effective season with a title contender. What team would want him then?
I don’t mention these points to inspire pity for Lawson, who absolutely created his own problems. It’s just worth remembering that (1) he was really, really stupid and (2) the Rockets’ value-play is far from a can’t-miss proposition. Both player and team had to take considerable risks to finish this deal, but only the latter has a reasonable contingency plan.
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