The Denver Nuggets were the
sexy nerdy sleeper pick in the Western Conference for a lot of the advanced metrics analysts, but they have mostly fallen flat on their face to start the season. Lawson is reason No. 1 for Denver’s early-season struggles. He’s shooting 37.3 percent from the field, a pathetic 26.1 percent from three, and an embarrassing 54.5 percent from the foul line. He is turning the ball over more than three times per game (compared to 1.8/game for his career) and hasn’t been able to get the Nuggets' offense clicking at all this season.
Lawson’s abysmal start is partially the fault of the Nuggets’ coaching staff, as they’ve apparently pulled in the reins on Denver’s transition offense and have them walking the ball up and running set pieces far too often. Much of Lawson’s value comes from him getting in the open floor and either getting to the rim or collapsing the defense for open threes, so walking the ball up hurts his value. This Nuggets team is not a great shooting team and needs clean, open looks to be effective from downtown, so Denver’s shooters are facing more defensive contests by walking the ball up more than last year.
No number reflects Denver’s change of style more than its drop from leading the NBA in free-throw attempts per game last season (26.7) to 19th this year at 22.2. Denver’s possessions per game is down slightly from last season (96.7 to 95.5), but its pace of play relative to the rest of the league is slower this season (second to 10th), nullifying a significant portion of Lawson’s skills as a point guard. Regardless of the pace, Lawson still needs to shoot better than 37 percent from the field (his career percentage is 49.2) and stop turning the ball over (which is even more concerning given the slowed pace of play). However, after 10 games the Nuggets, and especially Ty Lawson, have both been major disappointments to start their season and need to get their acts together.
It pains me to put Aldridge on this list because the Trail Blazers are one of my League Pass favorites and LA is the main reason why. However, Aldridge is shooting a measly 43.5 percent from the field, compared to his career's 49.3 percent, and is averaging nearly a half turnover more per game this season. Part of that is because he’s getting considerably more touches this season, but the shooting percentage is a legitimate concern for two reasons.
First, the six-point drop in field-goal percentage, over a larger sample size, would indicate that he can’t handle being the team’s primary offensive option. I don’t think that’s the case, but the numbers tell a more unbiased story than I do. Second, he’s taking roughly three times as many shots from outside of 15 feet as he normally does. I’ve watched a lot of his games and some of the time he gets pushed off the block by stronger opponents, but much of his shot selection stems from his apparent laziness. Maybe it’s the nearly four more minutes per game he is playing this year or the four-and-a-half extra shot attempts, but LA’s offensive game looks lethargic early on this season. Like Lawson, we’ve seen what Aldridge can do over a full season and while the sample size is too small to panic, the significant drop-off has to raise at least a faintly colored red flag.
It seems as though that now that LeBron has his title, Westbrook is the most scrutinized player in the NBA and he hasn’t even done anything to deserve the negativity. Before we get into his numbers we need to establish something very simple: Westbrook is not a point guard or a shooting guard—he is simply a guard. He just happens to be a guard that is asked to dribble the ball up court to get the offense started. Now that we’ve established that clearly we can stop criticizing him for not being a “traditional” point guard* and start focusing on all the things he does for that Oklahoma City team.
[*While we’re on the subject, Derrick Rose is just as, if not more, aggressive than Westbrook on offense and he gets praised for putting the team on his back. It’s true that the Thunder also have Kevin Durant, but it’s not as though KD is going to shoot the ball 50 times a game. Also, Durant has trouble getting open against physical defenders. Somebody has to make plays for the rest of the team and try and help Durant shoulder the scoring load. Westbrook is by no means a perfect player, but he’s a top 10 guy who plays as hard as any coach could ask a guy to play and wanted to be in the smallest market in the league when it came time to sign a new contract. If Rose is going to get treated like the Messiah of the new age of points guards, shouldn’t Westbrook be right there with him? Yes, he should.]
On the plus side, Westbrook’s turnovers are significantly down this season, even though he’s having to handle the ball more, and his assists are up by more than one-and-a-half. However, his field-goal percentage has dropped from an unattractive 42.9 percent for his career, and 45.7 percent last season, to 40.5 percent. While that should give the Thunder pause, the more troubling aspect of Westbrook’s game to start this season is the insane amount of three pointers he is shooting. His 29 percent from three for his career didn’t bother his coach when he was taking less than two per game, but he’s averaging 4.1 attempts per game to start this season and is only making 31.1 percent of them.
Westbrook’s best asset as a basketball player is his absurd athletic ability, which includes getting to the rim. Settling for more threes is exactly what his opponents want him to do and, thus far, he has obliged them. A deeper look at the numbers, however, suggest that Scott Brooks shouldn’t be too worried about Westbrook’s shot selection because one game where he took seven threes (and made one) and two other games where he only made two of six attempts have skewed his total number of three-point shots in the early going of this season. Nonetheless, Westbrook needs to take a page out of Dwyane Wade’s book and stop shooting three pointers altogether. Once he figures that out, those annoying critics that like to nag about everything will have one less thing to gripe about.