The Denver Nuggets were one of the most disappointing teams on this soon-to-end season. They were not talented enough to make the playoffs in the West but they had enough valuable veterans to put a scare on any opponent on any given night, yet their internal issues with coach Brian Shaw essentially rendered them completely irrelevant. Now they will have to enter the offseason trying to figure out what the next step is and for a team with little on the way of young talent and with no cap space, a tear-down and rebuild feels like the right course of action.
The first order of business if Denver is in fact looking to start over will be figuring out what to do with Ty Lawson. Lawson was reportedly on the market at the trade deadline, but the Nuggets wanted two first round picks for him–an asking price understandably no one was willing to match. Lawson was in the middle of his worst season as a scorer in four years and had some off court issues to boot. With the league teeming with talent at point guard, the price was just too steep for a player that on his own won’t turn any team into a contender.
Yet it wouldn’t be surprising if interest in him was reignited during the summer, as he’s arguably the best player on the trading block. While his efficiency suffered during Denver’s nightmare of a season, he put up the best assists numbers of his career. He was one of just five players to assist teammates on over 40 percent of their made field goals while on the court, with the other four being Russell Westbrook, John Wall, Chris Paul and Brandon Jennings. He’s also a career 37 percent three-point shooter who can hit them off the dribble or spotting up. The combination of passing and shooting would make him a great secondary scorer for a team that already had a dominant offensive player.
At his best, Lawson is good enough to elevate an offense from good to great, as proved by the big role he played in seasons in which the Nuggets have finished in the top five in offensive rating. Defensively, however, Lawson has always struggled. At 5-foot-11 and with a mediocre wingspan, he just doesn’t have the physical tools to be more than a neutral defender at best. The Nuggets allowed fewer points with him on the bench this season, a trend that goes back to past years as well. Essentially if a player drives on him, he can’t contain them and without either great defense at the point of attack or a great rim protector, constructing an NBA defense is impossible.
Finding the right team for Lawson, then, would involve looking for a roster that features a dominant offensive player or two, a wing defender who can guard the league’s top point guards when Lawson is outmatched and a good rim protector. Obviously no one is going to trade for Lawson to have him come off the bench, so the ideal fit is with a franchise that doesn’t have a starting quality point guard, and since Lawson is 27 years old, he’s not a fit on a rebuilding effort. There are only two teams that fit that criteria and will probably show the most interesting in the seven-year veteran.
The Jazz are hoping rookie Dante Exum can be their point guard of the future, but the Australian phenom will need some time to reach that level. Trading for Lawson would give them a good floor general who can keep Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert fed inside while working off the ball on some possessions with Gordon Hayward taking over playmaking duties. Utah has one of the most anemic offenses in the league and getting Lawson would surely change that.
On the other end, having one of Favors or Gobert behind him at all times would hide some of Lawson’s biggest flaws. The Jazz lack that stopper to switch onto the Russell Westbrooks of the league but Exum could be that player and their defense has been so good since trading away Enes Kanter that it can take a small hit and remain elite.
The Jazz also have the pieces to pull off a trade, as they own their 2015 draft pick and could send former lottery pick Trey Burke to Denver to man the point guard position. The biggest question with Lawson’s fit in Utah is his age. It’s possible the Jazz are not as good as their post All-Star break record indicates, in which case having an expensive 28-year-old in their roster makes little sense. They won’t know until they actually make the move and pouncing at the chance to get a near All-Star caliber player seems like the smart thing to do.
The Kings have been rumored to be interested in Lawson ever since George Karl took over as coach. On the surface it makes total sense. Lawson already knows Karl’s up tempo offense from their time together in Denver and he would be a perfect third scorer behind DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay in the starting lineup. Defensively, the Kings would take a step back from bad to terrible but the offensive gain would probably offset Lawson’s negative impact on his own end.
The problem with a potential trade to the Kings is that they would be essentially spending $18 million on the point guard tandem of Lawson and Darren Collison, unless they include Collison in the deal. Neither can defend shooting guards, so it would be a waste of resources. Even if Collison is shipped to Denver in the transaction, the Kings need a power forward or a shooting guard more than they need a lead guard. Using their draft pick and one of Nik Stauskas or Ben McLemore — likely what the Nuggets will ask for — to land Lawson would not be good asset management.
That being said, the Kings are a dysfunctional franchise looking for respectability. With Cousins calling their season “a circus” it won’t take long for speculation about how unhappy he is in Sacramento to begin and trading for a good player could add a couple of wins to their total and allow the new ownership more time to figure things out.
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While the Jazz probably make more sense as a destination, the Kings seem like a better bet regarding where the talented and underrated Lawson lands. Hopefully wherever he plays next season allows him the platform to show that, while not elite, he’s one of the more productive offensive point guards in the league.