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Ty Lawson's Last Shot

Ty Lawson is one of the NBA's most exciting playmakers. He also recently picked up his fourth DUI, and was just traded for pennies. This might be his last chance.
July 20, 2015, 12:06pm
Photo by Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Let's begin with what's important: When Ty Lawson got into his car, intoxicated, speeding down Route 101 in Hollywood, he did not make a mistake. A mistake is putting on mismatched socks, or missing a doctor's appointment because you thought it was Thursday, not Tuesday.

No, when the inebriated Lawson left Le Jardin in the early hours of the morning, he made a choice that endangered his life, the life of his girlfriend in the passenger seat, and that of everyone else who was on the road at that time. This is the fourth time Lawson has made such a choice, and the second within the year. Those are just the ones we know about. Four is the number of times that Lawson—who is one of the NBA's fastest, funnest, and most intelligent playmakers when he is not putting lives at risk by driving drunk—has been cited for DUI.

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Lawson was not coerced into driving drunk, not this time or the last time, and not any of the times before. This is a smart player and an intelligent person who will talk at length and in depth about basketball strategy and philosophy; Lawson is not just a great quote, but someone who will talk hoops at length because he is consumed by it. I once asked him where he was most comfortable passing the ball, a question I've asked several players before, only to get an answer of "anywhere" or something of similar bravado. Lawson answered, without hesitation, "two feet behind the three-point line," and explained why with the confidence and ease of a fighter pilot describing some impossible instant telemetric consideration. This is how he answers questions.

All of which makes Ty Lawson a smart man who makes incredibly dumb choices—the type of choices that could yet cost him his career, right when it should be blossoming. Even in the continuously, blithely, unconscionably oblivious NFL, four DUIs would be as red as a flag can get.

And yet Lawson has not been exiled in the NBA, not yet, in large part because his last season was one of his best. He averaged 15.2 points and 9.6 assists per game, despite playing for a coach that detested running, and wasn't too fond of Lawson, either. Lawson has never been the leader of a team, but this is not exactly a failure. It's not necessarily Lawson's mindset to demand more of his teammates; he can be frustratingly passive, if only because he looks to get teammates involved before he gets his own points.

He's not a star to build around, in other words, but Ty Lawson is absolutely talented enough to be a starting point guard on a championship-caliber team. After being traded to the Houston Rockets on Sunday night for a lukewarm appetizer platter of non-guaranteed deals and a draft pick, that is exactly what he is. Or he's that, and a player whose career is careening downhill at a pace not even his turbo-boosted speed can match. Where it goes from here is, finally, up to him.

Fast, smart, and out of control. — Photo by Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

The Nuggets' relationship with Lawson deteriorated rapidly this season. He missed his flight from Las Vegas back to Denver after the All-Star break, which was reportedly the last straw for both sides. None of this is exactly a secret, and while the team's decision to draft Emmanuel Mudiay was a case of a bottomed-out team taking the best player available, it wasn't a coincidence that the team tabbed a point guard as its ostensible new franchise player. Nuggets general manager Tim Connelly said the team is "firmly behind" the embattled point guard, which is exactly what he had to say. When he dealt him to the Houston Rockets for Kostas Papanikolaou, Nick Johnson, Joey Dorsey, a protected first round pick in 2016, and some leftover lasagna, Connelly showed what such words are worth in the NBA. Before this DUI—and, more realistically, before the third DUI—Lawson could have easily fetched an unprotected first round pick and a promising young player. As it stands, Denver got the best offer it was likely to get.

To watch a player deteriorate like this is not a foreign experience. It happens to everyone, sometimes gracefully, and sometimes with agonizing anti-grace. Normally, this deterioration is due to age, or injury, or the simple ruthless churn of a league that tends to shake off players who are not quite good enough. Lawson is something different. He is a very talented player who won't turn 28 until after the start of the 2015-16 season and who can, when right, average 15 points and 10 assists with relative ease. He is also a player who is another bad choice or so away from being out of the NBA.

On July 17, a judge ordered Lawson to undergo constant alcohol monitoring and enter a 30-day rehab program. This seems like a good start, but there is a vast difference between someone admitting they have a problem and seeking help and one forced to get help. It's hard to know, just now, whether Lawson wants to change. It's easy to see that his basketball career depends upon it.

In Houston, Lawson has a chance to start over, if also a chance to make the same bad choices in one of the NBA's biggest and brightest party cities. All anyone who has enjoyed Lawson can hope for is that his on-court intelligence and vision translates off-court; hope that he accepts help willingly, not grudgingly; hope that he will, finally, grow into the player and person he is capable of being.

It was not within Brandon Roy's power to stop the erosion of cartilage in his knees; the attrition of Joel Embiid's feet before he has played even one minute in the league has nothing to do with Joel Embiid. But Ty Lawson, who is one of the NBA's smartest decision-makers in the heat of the moment, has a choice, and so he has a chance. The decisions he makes next will decide the rest of his career. He has a shot in Houston. He has to be willing to take it.