Ty Lawson has been the heart of the Nuggets' nine-game winning streak. If Denver wants to advance deep into the playoffs Lawson will be at the center of that, too.
The Nuggets are a team without a defined superstar who rely on Lawson to set the tone. So it's no coincidence that Denver's early-season struggles mirrored Lawson's disappointing performance out of the gate. When Lawson failed to live up to the expectations set by his new contract, it was only fitting the Nuggets failed to live up to their expectations as a team.
Over the past two months, though, the Nuggets have been a better team mainly because of their helter-skelter point guard. From the start of the season until Dec. 31, Lawson averaged 13.6 points per game while shooting 40 percent from the field and 32 percent from three-point range. Since the year turned 2013, Lawson has averaged 22 points per game on 50 percent shooting from the field and 42 percent from three. Is it any surprise the Nuggets have gone 24-7 over that span?
It's an obvious statement to say that Lawson holds the key to the Nuggets' chances and most Nugget fans would agree upon how much of their recent success is due to Lawson's performance. But if the Nuggets want to win the Western Conference, Lawson must improve in these five areas to take Denver's game to the next level.
As I mentioned, Ty Lawson has had a Jekyll and Hyde season thus far.
A terrible first half of the season has been highlighted by a terrific second half, propelling the Nuggets to the fifth seed in the Western Conference. If the Nuggets want to advance deep in the playoffs, though, Lawson must be a more consistent player.
Denver cannot afford for Lawson to undergo prolonged stretches where he disappears from the action. So much of the Nuggets' offense is facilitated by Lawson's ability to drive the lane and create open looks for shooters on the outside. If Lawson disappears for stretches at a time, Denver will fall behind due to the lack of a bona fide scorer.
Lawson has been a model of consistency over the past two months, but he must maintain this level of consistency for Denver to succeed.
Turnovers are the nature of the beast with the type of offense the Denver Nuggets run. But, Ty Lawson must do a better job protecting the ball down the stretch for the Nuggets.
He's averaging a career-high 2.7 turnovers per game, although his usage rate is at a career-high level. Even so, as games slow down in the playoffs, possessions are at a premium, meaning turnovers will lead to the demise of a team.
Lawson plays at breakneck speed, and in the past has been able to hold onto the ball fairly well. This year he's been a bit loose with the ball and that will have to change once the playoffs begin.
As was such with his consistency, he has been much better at turning the ball over less during the past two months. He must continue to improve upon that as the season progresses and the playoffs begin.
The Western Conference features some of the best point guards in the game. Chris Paul, Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry and Steve Nash will be among the point guards the Nuggets will likely face when they reach the postseason.
Corey Brewer will often handle the duty of defending these players, but what happens when Brewer is off the court or on one of the other dynamic scorers on the opposing team? Lawson will be forced to cover them.
Ty Lawson isn't a bad defender, but he isn't an elite one either. His size is part of the reason, but that is by no fault of his own. He sometimes drifts from his man, though, allowing open shots. He can also use his quickness to get in front of opponents, but at times is a bit lazy allowing an open drive to the hoop.
Going up against the best in the West, Lawson and the Nuggets cannot allow these mental lapses on the defensive end to happen.
There's no question Denver's game revolves around the fast break. As we've seen in past years, this model doesn't necessarily equal success in the postseason, though.
The competition is tougher and the game slows down once the playoffs begin. Part of the reason for the Nuggets' early exits out of the playoffs over the past decade is their lack of execution in the half court.
Here are some interesting stats from HoopData. As the Nuggets attempt shots farther away from the rim, they continually get worse in comparison with the rest of the league. At the rim, the Nuggets make 67 percent of their shots, sixth in the league. Three to 9 feet away from the rim they make 41 percent of their shots, ninth in the league. Ten to 15 feet away from the rim they make 38 percent of their shots, 26th in the league. Sixteen to 23 feet away from the rim they shoot 33 percent, dead last in the league.
They actually improve to 24th in the league with 34 percent from three range, but you get the point. The Nuggets rely on the fast break to get easy shots at the rim, more than other teams in the NBA.
That works in the regular season, but in the playoffs it won't. That is because the Nuggets lack a true scorer who can score off the dribble anywhere on the court at any given time.
Andre Iguodala was that three years ago, but for some reason he has fallen from his near-superstar level to just-above-league-average level. Danilo Gallinari struggles to create his own shot at times, and when he does he sometimes takes ill-advised shots. Wilson Chandler has shown signs of life recently, but he is too inconsistent and can be very streaky.
Inside, the trio of Kenneth Faried, JaVale McGee and Kosta Koufos all lack the offensive skill set to be dominant post scorers. They all rely on Lawson to give them the ball in easy positions to score.
That leaves Ty Lawson. He doesn't necessarily have to carry the scoring load, but he must set his teammates up in positions where they can get open shots off. Lawson needs to be the guy who makes the Nuggets a more consistent team when they can't get easy points off turnovers on the break.
Even though I just said he must improve his game in the half court, that doesn't mean he, or the Nuggets, should get away from the fast-break style they play.
What I meant by the previous slide is when they aren't able to get fast-break points, they must be more efficient in the half court. But the easiest way to get a bucket is off a run-out or an odd-man break. And that is what the Nuggets do best. It just may not be available in the playoffs as often as the regular season.
Lawson, though, must remain aggressive. Even if there isn't a fast break available, he must push the tempo and try to get a shot off before opposing defenses get set. Once the defense gets set, the Nuggets struggle. Therefore, even after made baskets Lawson must push the tempo to try to get into the offensive sets early in the shot clock. Whether it be driving the lane and dishing to Danilo Gallinari on the outside or finding Kenneth Faried underneath, Lawson must be aggressive in getting to the rim.
He must also be aggressive with his shot. At times he defers to the other players on the Nuggets, but Lawson is one of the better shooters on the team. He is one of the few players on the team who can stretch the floor with the three ball, and should take more from outside, which would open up lanes all over the floor.
Overall, the Nuggets' success is contingent on Lawson's success. If Lawson struggles down the stretch and in the playoffs, Nugget fans will be greeted to the postseason fate that has stricken them in years past. If he is able to continue his high level of play and improve in some key areas, the Nuggets will be a team no one wants to face in the playoffs.