The Summary of a Season:
It is extremely apropos that Ty Lawson would be the Nugget whose dichotomic year would be the best reflection of what truly was a polarizing season for Denver. It was a season that, like Denver’s, began horribly and made even the most steadfast supporter question the validity of his freshly inked extension, or in the team’s case, the perception of the squad as a dark-horse contender. Then things took a turn for the efficient, Lawson found his shot again, and the Nuggets were off to the races. 57 wins later and imbued with recency bias the Lawson-led Nuggets marched confidently into the playoffs, where they were tragically felled by the fiery hands of the Warriors and their parade of shooters (that inexplicably, and almost unfairly, included Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green). The ending to the season left a taint on the season, like a stain you can’t un-see on an otherwise glorious and pristine masterpiece. You can’t have one without the other. Lawson’s end of season numbers reflect this, the stain of his first half cannot be parsed from his incredible second because the imperfection is what makes him who he is as a player and is an inseparable part of his, and the Nuggets’, season.
The Tale of Two Lawsons:
Finding a place to put a split on a player you know had a rough start to the season is tough, if you do it too precisely than its done more for “shock” value than actual analysis. So with Lawson I just choose a nice round number with 40 games played, and the results where pretty dichromatic to say the least. Here are Lawson’s first 40 games:
And here are his last 33 (injuries kind of threw off the whole round number thing I was going for here):
Lawson’s early season shooting troubles seeped into all aspects of his game. He lost faith in his jumper very early on and developed an unfortunate habit (that never quite went away) of passing up open three pointers. It got to the point where defenses stopped closing out on him as aggressively, knowing that they have little to fear from a spotting up Lawson, which, on a team that is in desperate need for spacing, spelled death for the offense. Here Lawson catches the ball in perfect position to spot up and take the three, David Lee still has most of his body in the paint, and yet he decides to drive and gets his shot blocked at the rim:
Even worse, defenders stopped bothering fighting through the screen when Lawson was running the pick and roll, instead fearlessly giving him a wide berth and cutting off his lane to the basket as an early November game versus Utah shows here:
Gordon Hayward is completely ceding that elbow jumper to Lawson but Lawson wants no part of that shot, and lets Hayward corral him to the rim where he is met by two other hulking Jazz players.
Whether it was born from George Karl’s motivational texts about leadership at one in the morning or just simple regression to the mean, somewhere along the way Lawson’s jumper found the bottom of the net again and his faith in it was restored. Now if you went over a screen on Lawson, as Tyshawn Taylor does here, he will burn you, especially from that left wing three (if you look at the shot charts that spot has the biggest disparities between the two halves of the season. It went from 32 attempts in 40 games to 54 attempts in 33 games):
There were a lot of factors that went into Denver’s run after the first couple months of the season including: some much needed home relief after a brutal road-heavy, rest-light opening schedule, Karl changing up his second most used lineup (which involved JaVale and Faried playing together) that was getting destroyed, and Wilson Chandler’s return from injury. But Lawson going from a replacement level point guard averaging 14 points on 42 and 32 percent shooting to a borderline all-star averaging 20 points on 51 and 41 percent shooting was maybe one of the biggest.
The Pick-and-Roll Artist:
Its hard to say, numerically, where Lawson improved as a pick and roll artist. Per Synergy Sports he posted nearly identical numbers in every category as he did last year:
|Season||% of Offensive Plays||Points per Possession||FG%||3FG%||TO%||%Scored|
This isn’t to say that’s a bad thing, the numbers he put up last year, and that he relatively sustained or slightly improved upon this year, are excellent. One thing that did increase rather significantly was the percentage of his offense that came out of the pick and roll. Lawson spent much less time in isolation or spotting up off-ball this year than last he did last year, something that had a lot to do with Lawson’s uptick in usage rate this season (basically means he’s handling the ball more) and Andre Miller’s usage rate going down. The most significant improvement, however, were the decrease in turnovers.
Lawson has always been decently fastidious about taking care of the ball, for his usage rate he ranks around average for guards in turnover percentage but he had significant problems in the pick-and-roll last year. Because of his size, whenever teams force him to pick up his dribble through a trap or a quick double, Lawson has trouble actually seeing the court and either because he is holding onto the ball for too long or getting rid of it almost blindly Lawson very often tends to lose the ball in these scenarios. Against a team like Miami, who is notoriously persistent about trapping the pick-and-roll, this can be death as seen here in a game last season:
Lawson dribbles right into this trap and can only see the periphery of a rolling Mozgov around the sizable frame of Dexter Pittman, and Chalmers easily picks off the tentative pass. Its difficult for any point guard to beat a trap once they have picked up their dribble, especially when its a Miami trap, and that goes doubly so for smaller guards. Lawson has done a much better job of seeing the trap coming and beating it before his court vision gets reduced to squinting through Pittman’s armpit.
Here Lawson anticipates the trap, keeps his dribble alive and knows exactly where Faried is so by the time Bosh is in position to impede Lawson’s vision, the pass is already sailing to its target. This ability to anticipate defenses and act, rather than react, upon them is an invaluable skill for all players and one that Lawson is just beginning to truly master.
The Tragic Flaw:
For all the exciting improvements Lawson has and will make going forward, the biggest “flaw” in his is game is one that can never really be changed. Barring using some medieval tactics that look rather unpleasant or a Paul George-esque post-adolescent growth spurt (unlikely) Lawson isn’t really going to get any taller in a league where size still matters quite a bit. Now this weakness also happens to be a strength with him, as his stature helps not only with his blinding speed but also with a low dribble that makes him hard to get in front of. But, defensively, he is always going to have some problems and it was never more painfully highlighted than it was in the playoffs.
Lawson valiantly tried to stay in front of Jarrett Jack (if you go back and re-watch those games you will see him throw everything he has at trying to stop Jack from driving) but all Jack really had to do to get an open shot, no matter how far up Lawson played him, was pull-up from midrange. And he did it a lot. The unfortunate fact of the matter is guards with range are just going to do this to him.
That said, effort on defense can go a long way (I’m looking at you Andre Miller) and Lawson has enough of it to still impact the game. He’s not as bad a pick and roll defender as you might think, he can compensate for what he gives up in length with a pretty good ability to stay in front of quicker guards. Still, Denver was a much better defensive team with Lawson off the court, the team went from the mires of the early twenties to a top three defense when Lawson sat. Its a damning stat even when you factor in the lesser competition the bench unit usually faces, and one that Denver is just going to have to live with.
The Summary of a Leader:
Lawson ended the season averaging 16.7 points and 6.9 assists on 46 and 37 percent shooting for a PER (player efficiency rating) of 17.9. We can pine for the Lawson we saw after February and hope even more for the one we saw in the playoffs but we can’t completely shun what he did the first half of the season. Too many times we ask, “which guys is he” when someone enjoys a particularly polarized season when the answer almost always is both.
The poor shooting in the first half was an outlier just as the blistering numbers Lawson put up after that was an overcorrection. The bad half informs the good and perhaps was one of the biggest catalyst for the exceptional latter half. Like with the Nuggets’ season as a whole, it is unwise to remember the bad without the good and vice versa, no matter how good (for Lawson) or poorly (for the Nuggets) the season ended.
The team mimed how Lawson played all year and struggled when Lawson struggled and rose to great heights when he did. And that may be the most encouraging sign of them all. A team that has been so in flux for the past three seasons, for better or for worse, may have just found their leader.