Ty Lawson is without question the best player currently on the Denver Nuggets roster. The point guard has improved each of his seasons with Denver and this will be his third full season as the Nuggets starting point guard. This is the season where Lawson must take that next step as a player or he will likely never take that step.
Lawson will turn 26 years old within the first few days of the 2013-14 NBA regular season. For most NBA players, once they reach the age of 27, they are pretty much as good of a player as they are ever going to be. Lawson is inching dangerously close to that mark and as Denver’s best player, that should make fans as well as the Nuggets front office nervous. Denver has been lacking a superstar player and some would say a leader since Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups were traded in 2011. The Nuggets have wanted Lawson to be that player for them since that trade but this has yet to materialize.
New head coach Brian Shaw is implementing a half-court offense with many elements of the triangle system. Lawson has never had to run a half-court heavy offense and in fact has not looked to be an effective half-court point guard at any point in his career. He relies on his physical gifts as a speedy player more than anything while he is on the floor. That is a huge advantage for the Nuggets when they are on the fastbreak and playing the uptempo style of basketball we are accustomed to seeing in Denver. However, Lawson will need to learn how to use his quickness in the half-court and improve his vision on the court.
The Nuggets have a renewed focus on advanced statistics and metrics this season. Contrary to what has been reported about the Nuggets as new users of advanced analytics, Denver previously employed Dean Oliver (now with ESPN) as Director of Quantitative Analytics during the Anthony era. In fact, it was Oliver’s advanced stats that convinced the Nuggets to trade for Lawson on draft night. However, a closer look at stats could lead Lawson out of town.
Lawson’s shooting percentages have decreased in every single season that he has been in the NBA. This could simply be attributed to an increase in playing time. However, he actually played slightly less minutes per game in 2012-13 than he did in 2011-12. Lawson’s assists per game have increased every season though. A couple of things are interesting when looking at Lawson’s statistics.
The Nuggets brought in Nate Robinson over the summer and his 2012-13 numbers are very similar to Lawson’s production, in less minutes. For the sake of this comparison we will look at per 36 minute stats since Lawson played close to 36 MPG and Robinson only played about 25 MPG. Lawson averaged 17.4 points, 7.2 assists and 2.8 rebounds per 36 minutes of play. Robinson averaged 18.5 points, 6.2 assists and 3.2 rebounds in the same amount of time. Robinson had slightly higher usage and assist percentages than Lawson last season.
For further comparison, Robinson had a PER (Player Efficiency Rating) of 17.4 to Lawson’s PER of 17.9. For those unfamiliar with PER, it is a number that attempts to roll every piece of statistical information about a player into one number that can show how good a player is. As a point of reference, the league average is 15 and last season’s MVP, LeBron James had a PER of 31.6.
Statistics aside, there is another important number in sports – salary amount. Robinson is due just over $2 million this season, while Lawson is slated to make just under $11 million. Both are undersized point guards with similar production, but the salary difference makes the complete picture staggering.
Lawson has frequently stated his desire to be on the same level as Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul. Let’s look at some of the same numbers for Paul to illustrate the chasm Lawson needs to cross. His per 36 minute stats from last season: 18.3 points 10.5 assists, 4.0 rebounds and 2.5 steals with a PER of 26.4. It does not seem like much of a difference: 0.9 points, 3.3 assists, 1.2 rebounds and 1 steal. Lawson has more than enough talent to put up those numbers. But the 9.0 differential in PER reveals a lot more. Paul also has an assist percentage about 20 points higher than Lawson.
Paul is an elite point guard – a superstar. Lawson is thus far an above average point guard that put up numbers last season on par with that of a journeyman making one-fifth of what the Nuggets will pay him this year. For Denver’s sake, Lawson needs to make the jump this season or they need to seriously consider finding a point guard that is more suited to lead this team and run Shaw’s half-court offense. Let’s hope it is the former.
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