In February of 2003 the Milwaukee Bucks acquired Gary Payton from the Seattle Supersonics in exchange for Ray Allen at the trade deadline. That trade has sent a ripple effect through time that has ultimately caused much consternation amongst Nuggets fans. It reunited Payton with his former coach in Seattle George Karl. The thing is, the Bucks just so happened to have another high quality point guard on the roster in Sam Cassell.
Although Cassell and Payton had entered their mid-30s, they were still very effective players, both posting a PER above 20 and the two were the Bucks leading scorers once Allen was no longer on the team.
Karl was faced with a conundrum. What do you do when you have two really good point guards on the roster? The answer was simple, you play them both.
Fast forward to 2013 and George Karl continues to deploy the two point guard system. Neither Ty Lawson nor Andre Miller are quite as good as Cassell or Payton were in 2003. Even so, Karl does not care about positions when it comes to closing out games. He loves having two ball handlers and decision makers on the court together, especially when they are (arguably) two of the top five players on the team.
Nuggets fans hate it. It is not so much that anyone believes Andre Miller is a bad player, or that Miller and Lawson cannot play together from time to time, it is the fact that Karl has decided that the only two players guaranteed to be on the floor in crunch time are Miller and Lawson.
How bad is it though? I am here to try to lend some balance to the discussion with some cold hard facts known as statistics. Is it truly suicide to continually play Miller and Lawson together at the end of games, or does Karl maybe, just maybe, know what he is doing?
Tanks to the incredibly comprehensive NBA Media Stats page we, well I, can get detailed breakdowns of different player combinations. When looking at that data, Nugget fans may not like what it shows.
Out of the 41 five man units the Nuggets have trotted out onto the floor that have played at least 12 minutes together, 22 of them have a positive plus/minus. Of those 22 five man units, nine of them include both Miller and Lawson. If we narrow it down further to groups who have played at least 24 minutes together there are 13 five man combinations with a positive plus/minus and Miller and Lawson are paired up on five of those 13 combinations. In fact the most frequently used five man unit with both Miller and Lawson includes Andre Igoudala, Danilo Gallinari and Kenneth Faried. This group is one of the primary closing lineups that Karl utilizes. They have played a total of 76 minutes together and have a per 48 minute plus/minus of 8.2. That is a significant margin. That five-some actually out produces the starting five who has compiled a plus/minus per 48 minutes of 6.9.
If we break it down further and look at three man groups. There are 72 three man units the Nuggets have used for at least 48 minutes during the course of the season. Out of those 72, six of them include both Miller and Lawson. Out of those six, three of them have fantastic plus/minus statistics. Pairing the two point guards with Igoudala results in a per 48 minute plus/minus of 15.1. Insert Koufos for Igoudala and that triumvirate has a per 48 minute plus/minus of 12.1. If Gallo is on the court with Miller and Lawson the Nuggets have combined to outscore opponents by a margin of 9.5 per 48 minutes. There is also a fourth grouping that produces very solid results and that is when Manimal plays with Miller and Lawson Denver holds a 4.4 point per 48 minute advantage. How significant is the three man unit data? Combine all the players listed above, Miller, Lawson, Gallo, Igoudala and Faried and those are the players most frequently in the game and comprise the five man unit mentioned above.
(The interesting thing when looking at three man units who have played together at least 48 minutes over the course of the season, out of the top 16 combinations ranked by plus/minus, Miller is in ten of them. You do not see Ty Lawson show up without Miller in the group as well until threesome number 17. The other name that is liberally dispersed amongst the top 15 three man units is Kosta Koufos who is in 12 of the 15.)
The NBA Media Stats page gives us even more detail down two man pairs. This would seem to be the true test of how well Miller and Lawson rate out together. The Miller/Lawson duo rates as the seventeenth most effective duo on the Nuggets’ roster compiling a plus/minus per 48 minutes of 3.4. That may not sound like much, but consider there are 53 two man duos who have played at least 48 minutes together and Miller and Lawson were in the top third. The Nuggets as a whole outscore their opponents by 2.3 points per 48 minutes and the pair of point guards outperform that number easily.
The thing to keep in mind with the plus/minus of Miller and Lawson, is it includes time on the court with other players such as Corey Brewer and JaVale McGee who posted miserable plus/minus numbers with Miler and Lawson. Brewer and McGee are rarely on the floor to close out games and thus their data does not reflect how effective Miller and Lawson are with the other players they generally are on the floor with in crunch time. I believe the three and five man unit data shows how effective the duo are with their teammates they share the court with in tight contests.
Honestly, I do not always enjoy the two point guard system and I agree with many other Nuggets fans who take issue with the fact that Andre Miller is the only Nugget player who is above getting benched. However, to flat out dismiss the effectiveness of having two point guards on the court together to close out games is overly simplistic. I think there is good evidence that the Nuggets should close out games with a combination of Lawson, Miller, Igoudala, Gallinari, Faried and Koufos. It is also encouraging that Karl showed a greater willingness to go offense/defense in the closing minutes of the win over Oklahoma City. I loved how engaged Karl was in that contest and I hope he continues to coach that way.
Getting back to the point, the Nuggets have even more data than I have access to and you better believe if there was any semblance of proof that Miller and Lawson were detrimental to the team when they are on the floor together, that would be the demise of the two point guard system.
The fact is it is effective.
Click here to see a Google Doc of the data used to compile this article