Taking the helm: Ty Lawson alone should be Nuggets team captain

Leadership is getting players to believe in you. If you tell a teammate you’re ready to play as tough as you’re able to, you’d better go out there and do it… Leadership is diving for a loose ball, getting the crowd involved, getting other players involved. It’s being able to take it as well as dish it out. That’s the only way you’re going to get respect from the players.

–Larry Bird

So many games come down to who’s going to make plays. Who’s the guy who’s going to take that responsibility. So the leaders of this team are going to be the ones who take responsibility in winning. It’s not the responsibility of putting numbers on the board, it’s the responsibility of winning.

–George Karl

After the Denver Nuggets traded away Arron Afflalo and Al Harrington to land Andre Iguodala, the conventional wisdom dictated that while this move would bolster Denver’s perimeter defense, its 3-point shooting, and by extension its offense as a whole, would take a hit (an issue which Charlie deftly analyzes in his most recent post). Most of the buzz centered around whether, on the balance, this was an upgrade in basketball terms that would propel the Nuggets to the next level.

Less examined, however, is the fact that in trading Afflalo Denver lost its team captain, and in trading Harrington lost the player who by all appearances was the team’s true leader in the locker room. On the surface this might be considered an easily dismissible issue. Iguodala, after all, was not only team captain of the Philadelphia 76ers, most recently leading them to the Eastern Conference semifinals, but also boasting additional leadership credentials as an All-Star and Olympian. Leaders out, leader in, plug-and-play and they’re ready to roll. Simple enough.

Except that it’s not.

Ship without a captain

NBA fans are not often privy to the behind-the-scenes goings on of their favorite teams. Sure, there are interviews of players and coaches. Media reports trickle out regarding locker room friction, human interest stories and player-coach disputes. But the vast majority of the information available to the public is secondhand. Nuggets fans were fortunate last season to get a fly-on-the-wall view of the team through one of its most interesting and tumultuous years, as NBA TV’s Denver Nuggets: The Association documented extensive coverage of the team’s inner workings.

As the season progressed and injuries began plaguing the Nuggets soon after the turn of the new year, most notably with Danilo Gallinari going down in early February, the question of leadership loomed large and became an ongoing predicament for George Karl and his coaching staff. Although Afflalo was captain, and Lawson was ostensibly in charge of the offense, it was quite clear to anyone watching the Nuggets regularly that veterans Andre Miller and Harrington were shouldering the bulk of the team’s leadership.

Events in The Association confirmed this impression, as Karl spoke at length about leadership in interviews, and could be seen explicitly pleading with Afflalo and Lawson to step up and take the helm:

Ty needs to be in his A-game. He needs to be our stud, He needs to be the responsible dude with the ball… I want him to be involved, intense in almost every possession of every game. I feel that sometimes the let down that my team is giving me is a little bit because he’s not assertive and aggressive enough all the time.

–George Karl

Karl:

I think you know I’m disappointed.

Afflalo:

In me or in the team?

Karl:

Both… I need a leader. I need a leader with the right stuff. I’m still searching.

Who will take the helm?

Leadership roles had essentially fallen into the laps of Harrington and Miller by virtue of the fact that they were experienced vets and simply because of the types of players and people they are. Harrington was the outspoken, vocal leader in huddles and the locker room, and also took it upon himself to step up his game when Afflalo was struggling early in the season and Gallo was sidelined. (Many Nuggets fans had balked at his contract when he was signed as a free agent, but he would go on to perform at a level worthy of his salary). Miller led quietly, less by words than by his controlled, stabilizing presence on the court.

But what Denver really needed – and still does – was for one or more of its young players, part of its long term future core, to claim the mantle of leadership and, in Karl’s words, “take responsibility in winning.” The coaching staff was clearly frustrated, but also recognized it was on them to cultivate the qualities they were looking for. As Karl said, “As a coaching staff, we’ve got to know that this is an area that we’ve got to develop.”

The message did get through to Lawson and Afflalo, at least in terms of their basketball performance. Both finished the season strong, as reflected by their pre/post All-Star break splits:

Both players surged in the second half of the season, scoring more points more efficiently and basically producing at a higher level across the board. Still, leadership issues seemed to persist despite the upswing to close out the regular season. Facing the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the playoffs, the Nuggets struggled through most of their first two games, losing both. Karl was still searching for his “leader with the right stuff,” as evidence by his conversation with Lawson prior to game three, their first back home at the Pepsi Center:

Karl:

I think you understand how important you are to us.

Lawson:

What, tomorrow?

Karl [laughing]:

Every game. That’s the one I’m not getting. You haven’t signed that contract yet.

Lawson:

What contract?

Karl:

How important you are to us.

Lawson must lead them

Progress had been made over the course of the regular season, and Lawson’s growth through that one playoff series seemed to happen so quickly as to be visible in real time. (More on this at a later date). But with a first round exit delaying the continuation of that process until the start of next season, the question of whether Karl and the coaching staff can find true leadership from within their young core seems to linger. (One might wonder, too, whether their previously displayed disappointment in Afflalo’s leadership may have factored into the organization’s willingness to let him go for Iguodala).

The recent history of Nuggets team captaincy has been rather odd and disjointed, bouncing around between having individual captains and two or three co-captains from season to season:

  • 2006-07 Carmelo Anthony, Marcus Camby
  • 2007-08 Carmelo Anthony, Marcus Camby, Allen Iverson
  • 2008-09 Carmelo Anthony
  • 2009-10 Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups, Kenyon Martin
  • 2010-11 Kenyon Martin
  • 2011-12 Arron Afflalo

Reviewing this pattern – if indeed any pattern can even be discerned here – it almost seems as if Karl was so reluctant to entrust Melo with the responsibility of genuinely leading his team that he felt more comfortable stacking the deck. If this was the case, perhaps he was justified in doubting his star. Melo has not traditionally been known, after all, to exhibit many of the qualities which most would normally consider essential for great leadership, such as motivating and inspiring his teammates, being one of the hardest workers in practice and training, taking responsibility for the team’s failures, following the coach’s game plan and playing hard consistently on both ends of the court.

Granted, whether the decision to line up co-captains alongside Melo helped to strengthen the team’s leadership core or instead gave cover for Melo to shirk responsibility – or any combination of these and many other effects – is purely speculative, and nothing conclusive could really be determined from such a thought experiment.

What does seem to be more readily apparent, however, is that at the times when Ty Lawson fully realizes that the responsibility is on him to carry his team, he tends to rise to the occasion. In those moments when the coaching staff was able to successfully communicate to him the urgency in which they needed him to step up and take control of the offense, he delivered. Perhaps not every single time, not every single game, but as a general rule Lawson has shown a propensity to respond to the challenge of leading the team when called upon to do so, as he did when the Nuggets were struggling midseason, as he did when they were down 0-2 to the Lakers.

It is not, perhaps, an identity that comes easily to him:

You know Ty is one of the most laid back guys you’ll ever meet. And leaders can’t be that way. He’s a leader in training.

–Al Harrington

It is time for Ty Lawson to graduate from Padawan to Jedi, to complete his training and take full command, to completely own is role as the present and future leader of the Denver Nuggets.

He will not in actuality be the team’s only leader, of course. Like last season, veterans like Miller and Iguodala will lead simply because it’s in their experience, nature and work ethic to do so. Some of the other young players, most especially Gallinari, but likely Corey Brewer and Wilson Chandler as well, will certainly make their contributions.

But at the end of the day, as goes Lawson, so do the Nuggets. He is the engine that drives the offensive machinery. As the only direct holdover from the Carmelo Anthony era, Lawson is also the closest thing to foundational stability on a roster which has almost completely turned over in the space of just two seasons. Despite the near embarrassment of riches Denver has in its depth and talent, or perhaps because of it, it is paramount to the team’s success that Lawson wholeheartedly sign on to Karl’s symbolic contract of how important he is to the team.

And to that end, Ty Lawson should be named sole captain of the 2012-13 Denver Nuggets. It would be all too easy, practically automatic even, to select Iguodala, or Iguodala and Lawson, or Iguodala, Gallo and Lawson, or some combination of the above including Andre Miller. But the question of whether the Nuggets as a team break through to the next tier this season may hinge more than any other single factor on whether Lawson is able to do so individually, especially in the area of leadership. Naming Lawson and Lawson alone team captain would send the right message, one which hopefully would be received and taken to heart.

It can be difficult to strike the right balance between challenging a player to deliver at a higher level and putting too much pressure on him. But if Lawson is the player the Nuggets organization and (most) fans believe he can be, then it’s time for him to show that he’s ready to take that next step, accept the responsibility of winning, and lead his team not only to a deep playoff run this season, but an even brighter future beyond.

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Joel is a long time Denver Nuggets (and Broncos) fan from Colorado who's been living in Japan since the mid-90s, and blogging about the Nuggets since 2008. You can contact and follow him on Twitter: @denbutsu.
  • Ban

    Lawson is the one irreplaceable piece.

    More important even than naming him captain: lock him up. Get that extension done before the season starts.

  • parkhill

    He needs to set the tone defensively and punish other PGs. I don’t see a need to straddle him with the title of solo captain. There’s two likely hall of famers on this team who can shoulder that load.

    I’m trying to think of young leaders in the league. Only D-Rose comes to mind and it seemed to be unnecessary stress on him. Lebron is rare in this capacity. Kobe got his game right first before being strapped with leader. This can wait for Ty. He can lead like Faried–pure hustle and humility.

    • dynamo.joe

      Buuuuuuuttttt, you just said it. Faried is already a leader on this team. We have heard multiple people associated with the team say things like “it’s infectious, the way Faried plays, it makes others (on the team) play the same way.”

      Can Ty be an on court leader? Yes. Is Ty the straw that stirs the drink on offense? Yes. But why force him into a mould when you have a guy to whom it comes naturally?

      Sometimes you have a born leader who is pushed aside because of lack of talent (can’t establish his bona fides, ala Trent Dilfer), but Faried is already the best player on this team, so that shouldn’t be an issue either.

      • John

        As much as i like Faried, and he might be my favorite Nugget. He is in no way the best player on this team. He is probably the biggest cheerleader, and a spark plug for sure, but he is probably the 6th best player as far as actual skills.

        Right now he is very raw and little more than a pogo stick, which was abundantly apparent in Summer League, where he was never even the best player on the floor amongst mostly untried Rookies.

        I know this is a very unpopular opinion, but the Nuggs would be best served with Manimal as a sixth man, and maybe the leader of the second unit, with a more skilled PF starting ahead of him, at least until the game slows down for him, and he develops some offense.

        • dynamo.joe

          I didn’t say he was skilled. It is self evident that his offense consists of little more than dunks. Having said that he is still the most productive player on the Nuggets on a per minute basis.

  • Ephy

    “Two likely hall of famers?” I honestly can’t figure out who you’re talking about. The two andres?

    • Jake

      Huuuuuhhhlarious. Same thoughts. Andre is a longshot for the hall of fame, and he has no range. Ty has all the potential, and if we lock him up, the right system to do “him.” who other than Iggy is a strong maybe?

  • Mike

    George Karl and…….. Kosta Coast.
    Yeah I thought the same thing? Miller has no shot. Iguodala? He’s like Pippen lite. If he had played with a top flight PG who could shoot (Nash, Paul, Chauncey) and had developed his 3 pt shot (he may have found it since he shot borderline average in 10-11 and Very well in 11-12) he could have easily become Shawn Marionesque with a little better 3 pt and a lot better passing. It will be interesting to see if his offensive skills rise on this team given there is a lot more offensive talent (and versatile talent as opposed to decent scorer types like Lou williams and holiday) and it is definitely much better coached on the offensive end than anything Philly has put out there.

    • John

      Kosta Koast… I like that… though I will spell it with a second K…

      • John

        BTW – I wouldn’t count Andre Miller out on the HOF… He is currently 10th, and on pace to finish(within this contract alone) 7th in NBA/ABA history for assists. I’d say, if the Nuggs happen to win a ‘ship before he is done, he is a lock. Considering he already has 1200 more assists than Mr. Logo himself Jerry West. Here is the Top 10 list…. pretty sure all these guys go..

        Career Assists
        1. John Stockton* 15806
        2. Jason Kidd** 11842
        3. Mark Jackson*** 10334
        4. Magic Johnson* 10141
        5. Steve Nash** 9916
        6. Oscar Robertson* 9887
        7. Isiah Thomas* 9061
        8. Gary Payton** 8966
        9. Rod Strickland 7987
        10. Andre Miller** 7472

        *already in HOF
        ** not yet eligible
        *** currently under consideration

        • Ban

          That sort of statistical thinking is how some just okay journeymen pitchers made the baseball hall-of-fame based on 300 wins.

          And, by the way, Rod Strickland is not in the hall-of-fame and never will be. Nor is Mark Jackson…and I’d be surprised if he made it, with only one all-star appearance to his resumee.

          Miller NEVER made the all-star team. Doesn’t that pretty much say it all. How can you be a hall-of-famer if in a long career you were never one of the 12 best players in your conference?

          Really solid career, nice longevity…but his peak just isn’t that great. He’s a little above Rod Strickland, maybe, but no way, no how, is he a hall-of-famer…

          • John

            I see what your saying BAN, …and you are welcome to your opinion, but I gotta think that Top 10 in any category(other than say turnovers) in the history of the NBA means he is pretty good.

            Also, I think the HOF voting is a little more circumspect than the fan/media driven All Star Voting.

            It is after all the “Basketball” Hall of Fame, not just NBA. Consider Ralph Samson’s recent entry, judged primarily on his college career rather than his NBA.

            Go back and watch Miller’s NCAA Final Four performance against the heavily favored Arizona team in 98 I believe. He owned them… one of only 4 triple doubles in NCAA tourney history…. 4… Ever… In History.

            And while he may not have been voted by the fans as one of the best players in the League, he has always been Player/Coach/Front Office favorite where ever he was, and who makes up the 24 members of the “secret” voting panel for the HOF? Certainly not you and me.

            What else….hmmm. Oh he was the ONLY player in the NBA to average more than 10 assists in 2001-2002. Seems pretty good too.

            Let us also, not forget that he was picked to represent the USA in International play, not once but twice.

            Also, I’ll never forget watching him drop 52 on a very good Dallas Mavericks team 2 years ago. Amazing.

            So I’ll stick by my guns here, I think as is, he is looking at about a 70% chance to get in, but if the Nuggs can pull off a Title in the next few years, I think that would drive him up to about 85% chance. Pretty good odds, I think.

            • Mike

              Luckily for us there is a statistical formula that basketball reference has an estimate for each player: I think in some cases it does underestimate (Nash at 58%, more like 95%). It tends to underestimate guys who did not start their careers too strongly (Nash, Chauncey, Ginobili who didn’t play in NBA until he was 25) but Andre Miller is at 1.5%. Which is to say NO. Caron Butleresque
              http://www.basketball-reference.com/leaders/hof_prob_active.html

              The guy is a very good passer (perhaps the best lob passer in the history of the game) but by no means a guy who changes the game with his passing like Nash, Paul or Kidd. Unfortunately his shot outside 10 feet is almost the exact same motion as his lob passes. It’s the same trajectory as a 3rd grader who barely has the strength to get the ball to the rim, hence it rarely goes in. (It is a very nice backboard shot though. I think it would have made sense for him to attempt to develop the world’s first purposeful bank three from the wings into a deadly weapon. The humor alone would have been worth it.) Never the less, He is one of the worst 3 pt shooting guards in the history of the game. He was always slightly slow for PG and has never been better than average on D because of his lack of athleticism.

              • Guy

                Andre Miller is also a terrible defender and has never won a playoff series. If they are going to start putting players like Miller, Strickland and Mark Jackson into the Hall of Fame who were never at any time in their careers thought of as a top 5 point guards in the league just because of their numbers than making the H of F doesn’t mean much.

            • parkhill

              Iguodala also has many of the intangibles the NBA likes in an ambassador. I like the politics concerning both Andres.

              I agree this isn’t just about NBA stats, but it helps to be around the top five in any category.

              We haven’t mentioned Miller’s toughness and work effort. He’s also shown an ability to improve every team he led after a certain point in his career. Later in his career he needs to reign in the long ball at times to cut down on the turnovers and embrace the role selfless distributor. He’s in a good place to make that push, but if we need him to score like last year we won’t go too far. Two good postseasons with one WCF, or a good appearance in a final should help tremendously.

              • Mike

                Let’s walk before we run here folks. WCF or a championship when Andre hasn’t made it out of the FIRST ROUND. EVER. EHHHHVER. In fact last season when he was probably the 5-7th best guy on the team was the first time he got to a game 7 even. And he would be the 7th/8th best guy on this team if they made WCF. He never made an all-star team. NEHHHHVER. I stand by my statement of no shot. Intangibles are nice, but this is HOF. Truth be told Chauncey is probably more of a 50/50 guy and I wouldn’t put Andre close to him at all.

                This is as crazy as the people who think Kobe is equal to Jordan.

                Andre doesn’t have the stats, playoff success, or talent. All that said the guy was a very nice player for many years and got the most from his skill set assuming he was truly incapable of overhauling that atrocious outside shot.

                PS I skimmed some of the argument but I didn’t see anyone discuss the fact that part of the reason Miller had so many assists is that was his only above average offensive skill. He had very mediocre complimentary skills because of his shooting and lack of athleticism so he HAD to initiate the play to create value for it. And he wasn’t like Kidd who could create like crazy on the break, played dominant defense and was a better creator in half court. And actually became a good shooter in the 2nd half of career.

  • chronicnugs

    NBA players respect one thing… talent. Coaches and fans respect talent, hard workers, and cheerleading. The players respect talent.

    I’ve been friends with people who are members of the Nuggets organization and work with the players. I’ve been friends with guys who are position coaches for the Broncos. There a few silly ideas that fans can’t seem to get over, mentoring and leadership.

    Do these traits and practices exist in pro sports? Sure they do. They are actually very rare and have far less influence than the casual fan will ever know.

    The idea of a player mentoring another player is a bit of a joke. They practice against each other, they will do some light, light coaching with their younger peers. None of the players are out there exchanging state secrets. There is no true mentoring. Do you think that Andre is actually trying to coach up Ty? Do you think Andre wants to do that? So Ty can steal more of his minutes? Do you think Ty is even listening if he is? Ummm… OK.

    The leadership thing is also a bit of hot air (but more real than mentoring) Every once in a while a Magic Johnson will come through the NBA. Or a guy like Jordan who leads by example and fear. These are the exceptions. To expect Lawson to assume a role like this is being pretty naive. No one on this team is talented or accomplished enough to seize that mantle. Karl wants it to happen because he is smart enough to know its a players league. Finding that mythical leader is an act of job preservation for him.

    Fans need to understand that this isn’t your old high school locker room. These are incredibly well paid, well trained, confident young men. They are the best in the world at what they do. They aren’t impressed by ra-ra bullish!t. They aren’t impressed by try hard. They are impressed by TALENT. Combine special talent with some charisma and you will find your true leader. That player isn’t on this roster.

    • Ban

      Ty will be the guy pushing the ball…the guy who has the ball in his hands the most, the guy who has to make the most decisions. If the Nuggets have a successful identity, it will start with him.

      Maybe that’s not leadership in any obvious vocal sense. But it’s leadership all the same. You can call it “talent” instead, but that’s just semantics. Successful point guards, like quarterbacks, are leaders by default.

  • nida

    Leadership is getting others to believe in themselves. Faried, as mentioned, is the guy to do that – he is full of charisma and special talent.

  • Gary

    I guess no one else wants to bring up the point that Karl is a megalomaniac control freak who would never let any mere player lead the team. He talks the talk, but does he walk the walk. I put to you that embarrasing players with his public comments does not encourage development of a leader. In fact, if Michael Jordan were on the team, Karl would be putting forth a him-or-me ultimatum

    • ryanvdonk

      umm, karl has let players lead before, that happened when he made his only finals appearance. while he is reluctant to give up the reins, he will do with to a player who has built up his trust and shown will to win a la gary payton (now there’s your sure fire hall of famer).

  • Denver4ever

    With the departure of AAA, expect the pressure to be higher on Lawson knowing that he doesn’t have a shooting guard teammate who can score (although Jordan Hamilton and Evan Fournier have the potential to do such).

    • Daniel Y

      What? Andre Iguodala anyone? That guy can score pretty well. Also, don’t expect Evan Fournier to see much of the court this year.

  • charliemyboy

    Ty has to hold some of his energy, or he will burn out. The obvious experienced leader is our new man. Iggy did it in Philly and will do it here, freeing Ty and the others to focus on their other responsibilities.

  • https://twitter.com/denbutsu denbutsu

    Judging from the comments, there are a couple ideas I was trying to express in this piece, but I think I may have failed to clearly connect the dots.

    1. I think the title of “captain” is primarily symbolic, and as such, it really isn’t a “burden” on the player(s) who bear it. Last season, especially for the first half of it, Afflalo was captain in name only, while Harrington and Miller, and to an extent Gallo before his injury, were in effect leading the team. The same can largely be said for the 2008-09 season, when Melo was sole captain but Billups was clearly the man at the helm. This is what I meant when I said, among other things, that Lawson “will not in actuality be the team’s only leader, of course,” and made a point of Karl giving a (usually shared) captain title to Melo, whose leadership he really didn’t trust all that much. The players who are natural leaders will lead whether they’re officially captains or not.

    2. So given that first point, why should anyone care who is named captain at all? Because — and this is really the mainest main point I was trying to make — in Lawson’s case specifically, he seems to more enthusiastically embrace the concept of being the man (especially including more aggressive play on the court) when the coaching staff makes it explicitly clear to him that that is what they expect of him. Or in other words, he receives the task not as a burden which brings too much pressure, but as a challenge which makes him play better. If I were to boil this entire post down to one sentence, it would be:

    Naming Lawson team captain will help reinforce that leadership mentality, and that means he’ll play better.

    Of course, this is a very speculative hypothesis which relies on a lot of inference and anecdotal evidence (if it can even be called “evidence”). I certainly don’t claim to have a highly functional crystal ball, and wouldn’t be altogether surprised if I turned out to be wrong.

    But the natural leaders are going to lead anyhow, and the importance of officially being a captain doesn’t extend much beyond the symbolic. And I don’t really buy into the “too much pressure” notion. If he’s not ready to accept some of that pressure, is he really the Nuggets point guard for the future? So if it can’t really hurt, but it *could* help, then it’s worth a try.

    I’m sure some of you will still disagree, but I hope I’ve at least articulated the case I was trying to make a bit more clearly.

    And thanks, guys, for taking the time to read it. I do appreciate it.

  • parkhill

    Yeah, tough issue to call. We’ll never know how things would have turned out if Dre and Big Al were flat out named captains last year. Maybe Al’s and Dre’s year isn’t so good? AAA was dealing with the hamstring so hard to guess whether him being named the captain had an early impact. I wouldn’t want to rock the boat and name Faried captain.

    I doubt Ty will shrink under that title but I’d just flat out come with the Andres. Or one of them in conjunction with Gallo, or (wait for it) McGee.

    • dynamo.joe

      For McGee, it would either be the best thing or the worst thing that ever happened to him (as a player) with no inbetween.

    • Jack adams

      Al Harringtons year was horrible. He was easily the worst player on the team production wise. Perhaps his “leadership” capability should have forced him to stop shooting whenever he touched the ball.

  • http://Denverstiffs.comSlader Richard Greenslade

    I would go for Lawson as offensive captain and Iguadola as defensive captain. That puts appropriate emphasis on their roles, and it’s on D that we need to take the biggest step anyway. It seem logical to have a captain focused on that aspect.