The NBA is driven by talent but maintained by salary cap prowess. Any team could theoretically snag a superstar if the draft lottery's ping pong balls fall its way. Yet lasting success in the league just isn't possible without a sophisticated understanding of the mechanisms at work in the league and its collective bargaining agreement.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Houston. Under the watch and planning of general manager Daryl Morey, the Rockets leveraged a collection of smaller assets into a deal for James Harden, who later helped entice Dwight Howard in free agency. Those two moves transformed a franchise. They were only possible, however, because the Rockets executed dozens of other moves in very particular ways.
Houston traded Kyle Lowry for a first-round pick protected to ensure a lottery return—the kind of piece that intrigued the Thunder into weighing Harden offers. Kevin Martin was available as a stopgap and filler salary in the Harden deal only because the Rockets had drafted Carl Landry in the second round in 2007 and re-signed him to a favorable three-year contract, which subsequently pulled the Kings (and Martin) into a three-team trade. Houston made creative use of its resources to cobble the components of the Harden deal, to clear enough cap room to sign Howard, and, now, to make a successful bid for Nuggets point guard Ty Lawson.
Denver and Houston agreed on Sunday to the framework of a deal that would trade Lawson for Kostas Papanikolaou, Nick Johnson, Pablo Prigioni, Joey Dorsey, and a lottery protected first-round pick. The operative piece is Papanikolaou; the 24-year-old forward fascinatingly had both a team option and a wholly unguaranteed salary for the 2015-16 season—the latter subject to a far later guarantee date (Oct. 4) than most players in his position. As a result, Houston could be patient in looking to move Papanikolaou (whose $4.7 million salary proved convenient for salary-matching purposes) to a team which could then erase his salary from the books by waiving him. That single detail allowed Houston to land a very good player at little functional basketball cost.
The great irony, in this case, is that this is anything but a cap-sheet transaction. Lawson was traded from Denver for his errors in judgment—more specifically, for his second DUI in six months and his fourth on record during his basketball career. His decisions were self-destructive and patterned in such a way as to rule out indiscretion. Lawson was ordered by the court to complete a 30-day rehabilitation program to confront his relationship with alcohol. Were he to cut out early, a warrant would be issued for his arrest. That a basketball player was traded matters far less, in this case, than the player in question getting his life in order.
We can't assume that Lawson will be fine but also shouldn't rule him out as any kind of default. All there is to do is wait and see what this rehabilitative process—one reportedly to be extended through counsel with former NBA player John Lucas, if Lawson is amenable—might hold for a talented player who now finds himself in a promising professional situation.
This is a chance for Lawson, as a basketball player, to take his career to meaningful new heights. The most that could be said of Lawson's Denver teams was that they were competitive. Houston, which pushed through to the Western Conference finals last season, would be contending for a larger prize with greater stakes if Lawson were able to play a part. Effectively, the Rockets will have upgraded the point guard spot from placeholders Jason Terry and Pablo Prigioni to Ty Lawson and Patrick Beverley (who missed half the season and all of the playoffs due to injury). An upgrade of that magnitude would further root Houston in consideration of the best teams in the conference.
There's stiff competition given the Warriors championship credentials, the upgrades of the Spurs and Clippers, and the healthier outlook of the Thunder. Still, Lawson could help relieve James Harden, play brilliantly off of Dwight Howard, sprint the floor as is the Rockets' trademark, and balance out Houston's lineups. He could even come off the bench to let Beverley, who is in many ways a perfect complement to Harden, round out the starting lineup if Kevin McHale deems it a prudent use of his skills.
Regardless, the Rockets will have the kinds of options that indicate real playoff viability. Working in a higher-usage guard like Lawson will demand some adjustment; Lawson controlled the ball for more than twice the duration as Terry last season even after adjusting for playing time, per data from SportVU. The payoff is a broader ability to generate offense in any context. No longer would Houston be the kind of team that would need Harden to directly create so much of its offense. Lawson is the key to making the Rockets a more malleable sort, able to twist and contort its creative responsibilities through an opponent's well-schemed coverage.
Because of that need and corresponding talent, Lawson meant more to Houston than he would have to Denver. The relationship there had essentially run its course and, as cold as it sounds, Lawson's off-the-court track record made him a difficult fit for a rebuilding club. An NBA team has some obligation to do right by its players (and its employees in general), though the stewardship of the franchise takes priority. Lawson was sent to a team that appreciated his work and will help him along as it can. Denver, for its part, moves on from a player who was involved in a number of minor incidents (missing a team practice after the All-Star break, pining for a trade to the Mavericks in social media, implying he would be traded to the Kings in a live stream) in addition to his four DUI arrests. Those incidents are not equivalent to Lawson's arrests. All of the above, however, are difficult in their own way for a team trying to change the makeup and personality of its organization.
Trading Lawson was undoubtedly made easier in a basketball sense by the early promise of Emmanuel Mudiay—the No. 7 pick in this summer's draft who thrived for the Nuggets in the Las Vegas Summer League. Mudiay will take Lawson's place in the rotation and immediately transition Denver into a new era. The re-negotiation of Wilson Chandler's contract and rumor of a possible Danilo Gallinari extension confirms what we already know regarding the Nuggets' aversion to bottoming out completely. Denver has that luxury as a result of the Carmelo Anthony deal back in 2011, which gave the Nuggets the ability to swap first-round picks with the Knicks in 2016. If New York is as bad a team as it seems they might be, Denver could be in a position to move up a few draft slots while locking in quality veterans prior to the salary cap boom.
The exact plan in Denver hasn't yet taken shape, though Nuggets GM Tim Connelly could have some interesting paths to explore. Mudiay and Jusuf Nurkic are intriguing prospects. Chandler, Gallinari, and Kenneth Faried are useful on the court and movable via trade. Papanikolaou's contract could be traded again before his guarantee date, perhaps to a team looking to shed salary at the cost of minor draft considerations.
The Lawson deal gives Denver a protected first round pick likely to yield in the 20s based on Houston's expected record. Trading Timofey Mozgov last season landed a 2016 first rounder originally owned by Memphis that, due to its protections, is much more likely to convey in 2017. Denver is also accredited with a 2016 first-round pick from Portland that is highly likely to convey as a pair of second rounders because of its lottery protections over the next two seasons. The New York pick (or Denver's own) would be an outstanding trade chip—especially in light of the value of rookie-scale deals against the rising cap.
That's not a knockout foundation, but prudence could make a nice team of those players and non-player assets. The key is precision—to stay balanced, waste little, and operate in such a way that even the most minor contract detail becomes an opportunity.