Yes, John Lucas has Ty Lawson's back, but demons don't go away easy
HOUSTON -- The Rockets put a conference finals team in the hands of a point guard with long history of alcohol offenses -- and before playing in his first game he was busted again.
Now that the season is underway, how are things going for Ty Lawson and the Rockets?
Carefully, and one day at a time.
Those days often start for Lawson with his adviser John Lucas. He says there are three "P's" of a player's basketball career:
Probing. Prevention. Preparation.
Over the course of his 14-year NBA playing career, as well as his time after basketball as a player advocate and life coach for NBA players, Lucas personally has seen and experienced all three.
Now Lucas is mentoring Houston Rockets point guard Lawson, who also knows what that initial stage feels like. Often it's not pretty.
"When you first get in [the NBA], you probe," Lucas says. "[And you] screw up because you're so excited to be in the league playing against people you watched [as a kid].
"What [he's] going through became more public than anybody else. But we all had to go through those stages and you need somebody to guide you through."
Stage 1: Probing
In his three seasons as a player in college at North Carolina and his first six NBA seasons with the Denver Nuggets, Lawson was probing.
Lucas defines probing as exploring who you are as a person. How do you deal with being a NBA player, the money, the women, family and the lifestyle? Mistakes are made with money, women and your game.
Friday night, when the Houston Rockets visit the Nuggets, Lawson returns to a city and fan base that probably remembers only the probing version of Lawson.
These days, with Lucas' help, he has moved beyond that stage.
The Nuggets acquired Lawson from Minnesota in 2009 after then-Timberwolves GM David Kahn infamously selected two point guards in the first round. Lawson served as understudy to veteran Chauncey Billups until Billups was traded to New York in February 2011. With Lawson running point, the Nuggets enjoyed a run of success, including a franchise-best (since the merger) 57 wins in 2012-13.
What Nuggets fans saw was a fast, penetrating point guard who could lead the team in scoring as well as effectively integrate his teammates into the running offense then-head coach George Karl preferred. Over the years, however, although the Nuggets won consistently in the regular season, first-round postseason knockouts became the norm, and, after the 2012-13 season, Karl's tenure was over. And so was the winning.
Two seasons under new head coach Brian Shaw produced a total of just 66 wins.
Maybe Lawson felt increased pressure to shoulder more of the team's production. His points average went up to a career-high 17.6 PPG in 2013-14. He also averaged a career high in minutes (35.9). Teammates such as Corey Brewer, Kosta Koufos andTimofey Mozgov were traded or moved on. Danilo Gallinari couldn't stay healthy.
Stress. Pressure. Losing. Uncertainty. Things like that can push a man.
Lawson's struggles have been well-documented, as have his previous several run-ins with the law involving alcohol dating to 2008, when he was still in college. But things came to a head in 2015. First, in January, he missed a game after being arrested in Denver on suspicion of driving under the influence. After that arrest, he was ordered by the court not to drink alcohol or violate laws as part of his bond.
Then, in July, Lawson was arrested in Los Angeles again. A few days after his Los Angeles DUI arrest, a Denver judge ordered Lawson to enter a 30-day residential treatment program at Cliffside Malibu and to use a blood-alcohol monitoring device. Lawson had court dates on Aug. 18 and 20 in Denver, but those have been pushed to December.
For a private person such as Lawson, the incident was anything but.
"Before, these things were not public knowledge," Lucas says. "Everybody was going through something, but you just didn't know about it. There's so much social media and so much access now."
Nonetheless, enough was enough for the Nuggets, who traded Lawson to the Rockets for an assortment of backup players this past summer.
It was a gamble for Houston, GM Daryl Morey said at the time of the trade.
"Obviously, given the serious nature of some of those incidents, just being up front, a lot of those have a history of potentially recurring," Morey said. "But now that he's part of the Rockets, we're going to work together with him and continue to help him improve in those areas and obviously we hope to have him on the team for a long time."
With the help of Lucas and teammates James Harden and Brewer, who had joined the Rockets in 2014-15, Lawson has moved to the next phase of his development: maturity and the second "P."
"I've known Luc since I was in high school," Lawson says. "I worked out with him; he's a good role model. I listen to the process, take everything he says and just follow it."
Stage 2: Prevention
Lucas says Lawson is in the second phase of the three P's: prevention.
Lucas defines prevention as the way you react after the mistakes you've made. How do you make sure they don't happen again? After you get a new contract and change advisers? You stop drinking, drugs and partying. Cut off friends who were negative influences in your life.
So, what was Lawson's breaking point?
In an interview with Yahoo! Sports, Nuggets president Josh Kroenke said he could smell alcohol on Lawson's breath during practices. The Nuggets reached out to Lawson in an attempt to help him but were rebuffed.
Once he was arrested for a second time, Lawson realized he needed to change his ways and the people with whom he associated. During this evolution, Lawson's attitude has been strong while his game develops with the Rockets.
"What I've liked about [Ty] is his willingness to work on his game," Lucas says. "He's done all the work on himself."
Lucas' own professional basketball career was derailed by drugs and alcohol, so he understands the risks that come in recovery.
Lawson doesn't talk much about what happened over the summer. He says that he has learned from it and that it won't happen again. He's grateful for a chance to play with the Rockets because they've embraced his skill set. But he's also aware they are cautious of what has happened, so they brought in Lucas, who runs his Athlete's After Care Program in Houston, to serve as adviser to Lawson. It has worked out well thus far.
In phone conversations and in chats sitting on the practice court at the Toyota Center, Lucas says he shares his experiences with Lawson about what he went through with drugs and alcohol and how it destroyed his NBA career. Lawson knows Lucas' story well, but to hear it firsthand gives him more context to what he faces. It gives him hope he will get better, and he has told Lucas he feels better.
"We just been hanging out, it's all about basketball," Lawson says. "I think I've matured a lot."
Lucas and Lawson are joined at the hip. The two talk about life, basketball and recovery. Lawson and Lucas often are seen leaving the Toyota Center together after practice.
Lawson's support group of Harden and Brewer also is there to make sure he's on the right path. Lawson says Harden pushes him to be better. Like in training camp, instead of hitting the clubs after workouts, Lawson was at the practice court refining his game. Likewise, sobriety is a constant work in progress.
He plays in NBA arenas where alcohol is right there next to him. And at 27, let's be real, inevitably he will be out at night with his friends where temptation will present itself. But Lawson knows one slipup means an avalanche of negativity can be brought down on him and his team. And as the season rolls on, things will get more difficult. Lucas knows this.
"We haven't yet hit the dog days of basketball season where, at game No. 40, it don't look like the end is ever coming," Lucas says. "He hasn't had a tough streak or had any issues come up at all off the court yet. But they're coming. You're either coming into a storm or coming out of one."
But people are rooting for him.
"Ty and I had a really tight relationship," says Karl, who coached Lawson for four seasons in Denver. "I think he knows he made the right move this summer. He's in a great situation."
Stage 3: Preparation
The final P is preparation.
According to Lucas, it's something every player should seek. Lucas defines preparation in terms of a playing career coming to an end. You must take care of your body more, and make sure you have enough money in the bank to retire. How much longer do you want to play? Can you accept that your career will soon be over? This opportunity is not infinite, and Lawson knows that now. Lawson's middle school coach, Keith Andrews, talks to him daily. He sees the change.
"Sometimes it takes something serious to make you wake up. When you look at how these NBA contracts are, you can build a generation of wealth," Andrews says. "So you're not playing for yourself, you're playing for your daughter. He's doing so well. He gets it."
Perhaps returning to Denver isn't a big deal to Lawson, but it is the place that pushed him to Houston -- a contending team with a chance to do something special.
"The big deal is us winning games," Lawson says. "We started off 0-3, so right now our big deal is winning games and staying relevant in the West."
Lawson and Harden have used the first two weeks of the season to learn each other's tendencies in the backcourt. Harden averaged 38.5 points in a four-game win streak while Lawson took a secondary role. It's not a role Lawson is accustomed to, but he understands.
"It's still a learning process," Lawson says. "It's going to take a little bit of time to get used to the spacing, getting out to the free throw line. It's a different way of playing -- I'm just adapting to it. Right now I just want to stay in that groove, find that aggressiveness."
And the learning continues.