The Denver Nuggets have their old identity back.
Since opening the 2014 portion of the schedule with a 114-102 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, Denver has won six of its last seven games, including Wednesday's 123-116 victory at the Golden State Warriors. The team and player meetings that head coach Brian Shaw had after the 76ers defeat clearly have had a positive impact, per Christopher Dempsey of The Denver Post.
The success on the court is due to the Nuggets going back to a familiar brand of basketball—the fast break.
Oddly enough, one of the primary reasons that George Karl, the 2012-13 NBA Coach of the Year, got fired in the offseason was that his constant uptempo style wasn't translating well to the playoffs.
Shaw started to implement a more balanced approach that included an inside-out style of play at the beginning of the season. But after the Nuggets lost eight straight, Shaw had his squad run the floor more frequently with smaller lineups.
There are some differences between Karl and Shaw's scheme, such as Karl's dribble-drive motion offense and Shaw's team taking about four more three-pointers per game. It's also unclear if Shaw will find postseason success with this method.
But one thing is evident—Shaw is adapting to his players' strengths. Given the team he has to work with, one that is hurting with long-term and short-term injuries, he's putting his team in a position to win now.
As a result, certain Nuggets have vastly improved in the last two weeks. Not only is this true with statistics and making players better around them, it exists with guys in the starting lineup and coming off the bench.
Why Ty Lawson's Stats Now Correlate to Denver Success
With Ty Lawson as the floor general running the show, the fast pace of play is particularly beneficial for the speedster.
But he actually got off to a quick start and posted 21 points and 8.4 assists in November. Then his numbers declined to 14.2 points and 7.4 assists in December.
What happened? His energy was spent in a different place.
The half-court offense was a work in progress and severely inconsistent, but when things weren't going right in the first month, Lawson tried bringing his team back at times single-handedly against tougher opponents.
Sometimes this helped, but it's not like Lawson can do that for four quarters every night. His three highest-scoring outputs came against Phoenix (29 points), Oklahoma City (29 points) and Houston (28 points)—and all resulted in losses.
The Nuggets piled on some wins in November and were having some success slowing the pace down, but their depth took over against weaker competition, while their defensive weaknesses were exposed against stronger franchises. The teams that Denver defeated in November and December currently have a combined .452 winning percentage.
But after Denver's seven-game winning streak was snapped at Cleveland, followed by Lawson suffering a hamstring injury against Boston that caused him to miss two games, the Denver point guard gave more effort to trying to get his teammates on the same page in the half-court sets.
Consequently, the Nuggets went on an eight-game losing streak where they didn't reach 100 points until the Philadelphia loss. Lawson's turnovers went from 2.5 in November to 3.6 in December.
However, now that he's been given the green light early in the shot clock, Lawson is putting up 18.6 points and 11.5 assists in January.
With the exception of the Orlando Magic contest where he had 16 points and eight assists, Lawson has put up a double-double in every game this month. Plus, if he had not been limited to 30 minutes against Orlando since the game was a blowout, he would likely be on an eight-game double-double streak.
When Lawson attacks immediately—whether he has the open lane to the rim, hands it off to a trailing big man or kicks it out to a shooter—his vision and speed are being utilized. Furthermore, since he can create his own shot, hit the mid-range jumper or launch it from three, defenses can't play soft on him.
In transition, he's a nightmare for opponents. Few guards can handle his quickness one-on-one, and when the defense is scrambling back to the other end of the floor, it's pretty much a guaranteed open look for someone on Denver.
Lawson is the best player on the team, and he's is at his best when the ball is in his hands.
The Manimal Is Back
We can break down the stats for the "Manimal" and how he's scoring 13.4 points on 62.5 percent shooting and ripping down 8.6 boards in 27.5 minutes for the last eight games. That includes his four points and one rebound against the Warriors, where he spent much of the game in foul trouble.
But with Kenneth Faried, it's more beneficial to look at using his qualities right now versus maximizing his career potential.
He has a lot of things to work on: post defense, perimeter defense, offensive post moves, mid-range shooting and free-throw shooting. But it's important to remember that he's only in his third season and these developments take time—some of which come during the offseason.
Faried has an incredible amount of athleticism and plays with perhaps the biggest motor in the league (although teammate Nate Robinson might have something to say about that). When the Manimal is sprinting up the floor on the fast break, you know Lawson and Robinson are looking for the alley-oop as soon as they get near half court.
When you dump the ball into Faried like he's a traditional center, he's restricted. His one go-to move is when he gets on the low block on the left-hand side, takes one or two dribbles to the middle and goes with the right-handed baby hook, which looks like a borderline floater.
He doesn't have a left-handed move and doesn't like to use the glass. NBA.com's shot chart shows how few attempts he has taken outside the paint and on the right-hand side of the floor.
It's not that the Manimal can't improve or is incapable of doing things you'd see in a half-court scheme. His four points against the Warriors actually came when the game slowed down, Andrew Bogut gave him too much space, and he swished home two mid-range shots.
But Faried is more effective when he plays at a faster pace. When he gets going with a vicious slam or pulls down an acrobatic rebound, his motor kicks into another gear, and he starts causing mayhem for the opponent.
How often did we see Faried make a play like this in the first two months?
The uptempo style doesn't just help him on offense by letting him cut to the basket from the weak side when his defender helps with Lawson's penetration. It also helps him fulfill his role as a rebounder and playmaker.
The Emergence of Randy Foye and Evan Fournier
With the athletic talents that Lawson and Faried possess, it makes sense why they would benefit from the transition game. It's not like the other guys don't have athleticism of their own, but the shooting guards might reflect Denver's turnaround the most.
Randy Foye's start in Denver couldn't have gone much worse. After scoring just 10 points per game on 40 percent shooting and 37 percent from behind the arc in November, he regressed to 7.3 points on 32.1 percent shooting and 27.8 percent from three in December. He even lost his starting spot for a few games.
After receiving a bump in minutes when Shaw condensed his rotation, the Denver shooting guard has been lighting it up since the 76ers game. Foye is racking up 17.6 points on 56.6 percent shooting and 53.2 percent from three in the last seven contests.
This is why he was brought in—to make three-pointers and stretch the defense. When the defense keys in on Lawson bringing the ball up the court, Foye gets more open looks in transition and doesn't have to think as much, which allows him to develop a rhythm.
Additionally, since the Nuggets are pushing the ball more, he is able to play more of the combo guard that he is rather than being locked in at the 2. There are times when he brings the ball up the court, and we've seen him play pick-and-roll with several different guys.
When Foye isn't just a catch-and-shoot guy, it's a lot tougher for opponents to defend him.
Evan Fournier's numbers tell the same story for similar reasons. He was barely a second-unit player after Thanksgiving, but after earning the backup shooting guard spot over Jordan Hamilton, he's excelled.
In just 21.4 minutes, he is posting 11.9 points on 52.9 percent shooting and 50 percent from three in January. These are better statistics than what the young Frenchman brought at the end of last year's regular season.
The tempo is allowing Fournier to get open looks in transition, but it also fits his aggressive mindset. It's one thing to shoot a high percentage—it's another to take 8.5 attempts in just 21.4 minutes during this stretch.
We've only seen Shaw allow his team to play fast at all times for two weeks, but there's no doubt it's working.
The only teams with current winning records that Denver defeated in the 2013 part of its schedule were the 23-17 Dallas Mavericks (twice), 19-18 Toronto Raptors and 20-19 Atlanta Hawks. The Nuggets defeated the 29-10 Thunder and 25-15 Warriors on the road in the last week.
Perhaps Shaw will transition into a more balanced approach next year. With Andre Miller in trade rumors, per Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, Denver owning the rights to the New York Knicks' 2014 first-round pick and free agency in the offseason, Shaw could easily have a different set of players that'll be more fitted for a steady pace of play.
But this is the right call for now. The first-year head coach deserves credit for modifying his tactics and attempting to get the best out of his team.