When he was 21 years old, and it was draft night, and he was selected by hard luck Minnesota, and then he was traded, Ty Lawson couldn’t process, nor could he understand what had just happened to change his professional situation. Truth be told, it was more about luck than it was about grace. Whether he was aware or not, Lawson was relieved of a giant burden. He would not have to play in Minnesota whose front office was reeling.
Early in the draft of 2009, the Blake Griffin #1 pick draft, the Minnesota Timberwolves selected two point guards (Jonny Flynn, Ricky Rubio) back to back in the first round, perverting all logic. The Wolves had another first round pick. They selected at eighteen Ty Lawson and traded him to Denver. Denver had plans for Lawson to apprentice behind Chauncey Billips.
After draft night, it was the best of times for Ty Lawson. A dream was realized after a NCAA championship and a Bob Cousey Award for the nation’s best point guard. He was in the NBA and on a team that had won 54 games and lost in the Conference Finals. They were Carmelo Anthony’s team, the 2009 Nuggets. Lawson would be taught by George Karl and Mr. Big Shot, Chauncey Billups. He was lucky. Ty Lawson just didn’t know how much .
He didn’t know to savor it, not take it for granted. He didn’t know that in eight years he would play for four teams, three teams in the span of twelve months. He didn’t know in the aftermath of his downfall he would be out the league. You cannot tell young people that their future can get rocky so be careful. They are young. They are foolish. They just won’t believe you.
Ty Lawson has just finished his season in China. He had a lot of NBA company. Jimmer Fredette was in China and so was Jared Sullinger. And Brandon Jennings. As a league, China embraces NBA players with a style of play that deincentivizes defense. No one guards anyone. So, Lawson’s 55 points in his last game was with an asterisk. It’s Chinese Basketball. But now that is over, Ty Lawson is looking for a job and the Washington Wizards are interested. They need a backup point guard to be the primary point guard every so often. John Wall has consistent knee issues. It could happen that Ty Lawson is in the playoffs in eight weeks after being in China for three months, after being called an alcoholic by NBA gossipers.
It’s the strange NBA slippery slope. The only rule is don’t fall off.
Six years ago, Ty Lawson was in the playoffs against the Lakers. The Lakers were up 3-2 in the series and Lawson was simply brilliant in Game 6 at Denver. He missed five shots on the way to 32 points and 5 out of 6 long range bombs. He added six assists and five rebounds and set the tone early, giving the Lakers a headache. A flu riddled Kobe Bryant matched Lawson but Lawson was better, was decisive, consistent, mature and devastating. He carried his team to a Game 7 matchup everyone knew the Nuggets weren’t going to win and in some small way that wasn’t really the point. Lawson delivering the Nuggets to the precipice of the Western Conference Semi-Finals the way Carmelo Anthony used to do. It was all about Lawson emerging as a star.
May of 2012 was Lawson’s third year in the league. He had been drafted eleven slots after Steph Curry despite winning the title for the TarHeels (Curry’s Davidson team didn’t qualify for the 2009 NCAA tournament). Scouts worried about Lawson’s size. Draft Express said this about him during the pre-draft workouts.
While blessed with great strength and quickness, Lawson is not a very good defender due to his tendency to gamble excessively on the defensive end. His lack of size and strength hurts him on this end where he desperately struggles to contest bigger guards shots. Outside shooting is another part of Lawson’s game that has been a concern over the years.
In the 2011-12 season, he played more minutes, made more field goals, dropped six dimes, was a 16 points per game point guard, and had no offensive weaknesses on any part of the floor though, he fully embraced Moreyball: 71% of his shots were at the rim or from distance.
But was his 32 point game one of those law of average predictable occurrences, nice in the moment, but nothing to pencil in for the future because you can’t trust what doesn’t happen often. Was Lawson’s Game 6 performance the announcement that stardom had arrived? Or, would it create Ty Lawson expectations he could never live up to?
In Staples, on a Saturday night, in Game 7, Ty Lawson had an offensive rating of 123, with his 24 points and 6 assists and shooting 57%. His defensive rating was 122, always the Lawson weak spot. On the road, unless he was going to drop 50, he couldn’t carry the Nuggets by himself. Teammate Danilo Gallinari was worthless, missing 9 out of 10 shots. Gallinari’s usage rate in Game 7 was the same as Lawson’s. That was a problem. Unselfish, Lawson needed to be more selfish since he was the only one besides Al Harrington who could make shots. The Nuggets couldn’t score 90 points in a game where Kobe Bryant was average, just 17 points.
Still, it felt as if Ty Lawson had come of age in his third year when most NBA players establish their credentials. Five months later, Lawson signed a $48 million dollar extension. He was far from the highest paid point guard. Ahead of him were Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Mike Conley. It suited Lawson who shied away from being the highest paid anything; that was when the pressure came raining down, the expectations to earn your money. In Denver, away from a lot of the media spotlight, Ty Lawson could fine tune his game, improve, and work towards an All-Star selection.
What could go wrong?
Driving under the influence of alcohol doesn’t necessarily mean you are a drunk. It doesn’t necessarily mean you are an alcoholic. It means you drink and get behind the wheel of a car. It means you jeopardize the lives of others who inadvertently have the misfortune of being on the road at the same time as your drunk self. It means you are not thinking about anyone else so that means you are selfish. It means your judgement, at the very least, is impaired or lacking impulse control. But. Repetitive driving under the influence culminating in arrests mean you have a drinking problem. Putting your career in jeopardy because you drink too much and then drive means you lack certain innate behavioral controls. It leads everyone to the conclusion you are immature, self-involved, an addict and perhaps stupid.
The first time Ty Lawson was arrested for drinking was one year before he was drafted when he was a college student at the University of North Carolina. He pleaded guilty. There was community service as a part of his punishment. He was driving on a suspended license.
One month before his 32 point Game 6 performance, Lawson was stopped by police. It wasn’t drinking. He had a restricted license and had an unauthorized person drive his car. He pleaded guilty.
One year later, he was arrested on domestic violence charges. The charges were misdemeanors related to domestic violence and property damage.
Two years later, he was arrested in Denver for speeding while under the influence of alcohol. He told the police he had a previous DUI arrest in Missouri. After the Denver arrest, he wasn’t supposed to drink alcohol as a condition of his bond. But seven months later, in Los Angeles, he was arrested for driving under the influence. The Denver judge ordered him into rehab.
Ty Lawson may be an alcoholic though he says he is not . He definitely has judgment issues regarding drinking and driving. It is the Freudian definition of insanity. Repeating the same thing and expecting different results.
Another NBA player, Vin Baker, also had problems with alcohol and it cost him his career. Baker drank to deal with the pressure. However, the similarities are a little bit vague. Ty Lawson isn’t in the NBA, but not because he kept drinking and driving. He isn’t in the NBA because he is a mediocre point guard.
Chauncey Billups said, “Ty has not demonstrated the kind of leadership you want.”
That was before Lawson was dealt out of Denver for Houston, once his drunk driving arrest in Los Angeles became public. In two years, one year with Houston and Indiana (2015-16), and one year with Sacramento (2016-17), Lawson was an average player with a problem that became public talk. He was a low confidence player or a lost player. What he had in Denver was gone. He didn’t look the same.
Lawson was ordered to give up alcohol immediately. He didn’t. This led many to believe he had a serious alcohol problem. Because if the question is give up a habit or lose money, most of us would chuck that habit out the window. Only addicts hang on.
In 2015-16, he was making $12 million dollars. After his Houston/Indiana disaster he found no takers and had to take a one year deal in Sacramento for $1.3 million dollars. This past summer, no takers again except for China, who gave him a million dollar raise.
The worst thing Ty Lawson did to murder his career was to let his personal behavior affect his ability to make a living. He blurred the lines. Josh Kroenke, Denver Nuggets president, went low hanging fruit.
“The problems have been there for several years. There were a lot of times where you were at practice and you just know. You could smell it. You know there is probably deeper issues than he would probably let on.”
It sounds like Kroenke was looking out for Kroenke but if you believe him then why didn’t the Nuggets do something proactive? Why didn’t they plan an intervention, he was their star? Why were they a passive observer to Ty Lawson self-destruction and then tried to spike the football, as if doing nothing was noble and should be celebrated? The Nuggets are not the injured party.
As for Lawson, after Kroenke went rogue on his reputation, he said “I did my job. I wasn’t disappointed.” Perhaps not. But doing his “job” also means representing the organization with humility and honor.
Ty Lawson once told ESPN:
“I’m not a person out here like everyone thinks that I am drunk all day. No I don’t do that. A lot of my friends, we go out and celebrate. But I’m not that person in the morning getting drunk before practice. I think there is a big misconception about what everybody thinks. ”
Before Lawson was thought to have alcohol issues, the Lawson game was taken with a grain of salt. He was an undersized point who was always going to have to do more with less. He wasn’t a sensational shooter like Isaiah Thomas. He wasn’t a ball manager, get everyone in their spot, like Chris Paul. He didn’t have the speed of Damian Lillard. He wasn’t a defender like John Wall. He didn’t have Steph Curry talent. He didn’t have Kyrie handles. He wasn’t energetic like Russ Westbrook. He was a good guard. Good guards can be replaced though. It is the exceptional ones who get the benefit of the doubt. Lawson never got that memo. He made false assumptions about himself.
His best year was four years ago, 2013-14. And even then he shot just 43% and 35%, not Steph Curry numbers, nor Chris Paul. He averaged 17 points a game and dished out 8.8 assists. In 2017-18, that would place him 15th among point guards, tied with Eric Bledsoe and ahead of Kyle Lowry.
Last season, he was a fraction of who he used to be four years ago, or even in that Western Conference Game 6. 9.9 points, 4.8 assists, 28% from three. That is why Ty Lawson was in China. He didn’t have much of a NBA game left. The point guard position is young, deep and bursting at the seams with scorers.
Ty Lawson called his drunk driving arrests (Denver, Los Angeles) “dumb mistakes” and not behavioral patterns that indicate a larger problem. He admits to learning things in rehab and then he says he didn’t need rehab. He blames a lot of what has happened to him on the public perception of him when he’s out in clubs. In other words, he’s misunderstood. But perception is reality. You are not who you say you are. You are who others think you are.
Ty Lawson is on the cusp again of NBA games that matter. Unlike Derrick Rose, he’s a perimeter threat who can get to the rim but his defense is marginal and not just because he is small. He reaches or he gets beat off the dribble and it’s easy to rise up and shoot over him. But his offense makes up for it. He doesn’t turn the ball over. He has toughness and his last few years, you would think, have given him a little humility. The Wizards actually are a good fit and Scott Brooks is an empathy coach Lawson will get along with. If he does well, then Ty Lawson is back in the rotation for 2018-19. If not?
It’s Asia again. Everything lost. Nothing gained.
photo via llananba