Last season, the core, non-LeBron strength of the NBA resided in the Western Conference. Actually, in the Western Conference's top five teams, to be exact. The only thing keeping that epicenter from being the top six teams in the West was a foot injury to Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant. Come the 2015-2016 season, Durant will be back, and it will be the job of the rest of the league to keep up with LeBron James and the top six teams in the Western Conference.
So what happened this offseason? Amazingly, in an arms race that practically relegates the non-LeBron Eastern Conference to some sort of souped up rec league, the top six teams in the Western Conference, one could argue, all improved even more in the past several weeks.
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The defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors didn't do much personnel-wise, but didn't need to. They locked up Draymond Green long-term and kept the house in order. The Spurs acquired LaMarcus Aldridge. The Clippers fortified their bench with Josh Smith and Paul Pierce, and picked up Lance Stephenson. The Grizzlies re-signed Marc Gasol and picked up Brandan Wright and Matt Barnes as bargain bench guys. The Thunder get Durant back.
The Rockets, on the other hand, basically brought everybody back from last season's roster, minus Josh Smith. So if you're a Rockets fan, until Sunday, you were hanging any hope for improvement next season on the team's medical staff. "Well, if Dwight's knee is okay, and D-Mo's back is all right, and Patrick Beverley can finally give you 75 games, and Terrence Jones' repairs his leaping ability, and…and…and…."
It's fine, sometimes the moves you don't make are the best moves, and the point about the team having some of the worst injury luck ever last year, yet still garnering a two seed in the West is valid. But in a Western Conference that was tough last year, and has gotten considerably tougher, merely bringing back what they have, in the end, probably wasn't good enough. GM Daryl Morey has said all along, the Rockets need three stars. There are three ways to get that third star — draft him (good luck, picking 27th every year), sign him in free agency (tried that last season, screw you, Bosh!), or trade for a depressed asset.
Over the last week or so, Ty Lawson, the Denver Nuggets' mercurial point guard, the speedster with All-Star level talent and D League off-court judgment, has seen his stock plummet to a crash landing. A DUI arrest last week (his second in six months) combined with the Nuggets' obvious plan to go in a different direction at point guard (drafting Emanuel Mudiay) has essentially made Lawson the Blockbuster Video of potentially elite point guards.
Not surprisingly, Morey smelled blood, and on Sunday night, just when it appeared that it would be a quiet weekend on the Rockets' front (with all apologies to K.J. McDaniels and his new three year, $10 million deal that he signed on Sunday), Morey pounced, sending Pablo Prigioni, Kostas Papanikolaou, Joey Dorsey, Nick Johnson and a protected first round pick to Denver for Lawson and a 2017 second round pick.
Let me translate that trade into descriptive terms — the Rockets got (potentially) one of the ten best point guards in the league for a 38 year old backup point guard, three guys who barely took off their warmups in the playoffs, and a first round pick that's actually protected if it's worth anything. Simply put, it's the quintessential Morey deal, the NBA's version of a condemned building in the part of town where property values are exploding.
I was on the record on my radio show saying the Rockets should steer clear of Lawson after his most recent DUI arrest. I just thought the arrest said a lot about his poor judgment, if not an implication that he out and out has a drinking problem. (For what it's worth, Lawson was sentenced to do 30 days in alcohol rehab as punishment for the multiple DUI's, so there will be no flowery press conference introducing him, at least not any time soon.)
Admittedly, my disapproval of Lawson as a potential Rocket was under the assumption the Rockets may have to give up something of value in order to get him, like Trevor Ariza or Clint Capela, or at least one of the rookies they drafted a few weeks ago (Sam Dekker, Montrezl Harrell). They did not. Instead, they gave up four guys with little to no chance of playing meaningful minutes for the team in 2015-2016. Honestly, there's a decent chance that Nick Johnson was the only one of the four who would even be on the Rockets roster this season. (Not to be snide, but quite honestly, there's just as good a chance that Morey finds a better player with the Nuggets 2017 second rounder than the Nuggets find with the Rockets' 2016 first rounder.)
So what are the best and worst case scenarios with this deal?
Under the best case scenario, the Rockets have acquired a 27 year old point guard who, as a player, all of a sudden makes them ridiculously tough to defend. The off the court issues will need to be addressed, but I'm guessing a phone call has already been made to John Lucas about attaching Lawson to his hip immediately to help him with addiction issues and help begin the self-repair, on and off the court.
The worst case scenario is that Lawson gets arrested on the way to his first practice, and the Rockets punt. If that were to happen, this deal would still have made sense. That's how lopsided this was for the Rockets. They had to do this.
In a Western Conference poker game where the stakes are being continually raised, the Rockets did a nice job of staying in the hand on Sunday. The third star player for this team may have arrived under the strangest of circumstances.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast.