"As Ty goes, so go the Nuggets."
When Ty Lawson signed a 4 year, $48 million dollar extension with the Nuggets on Oct. 30th of this year, the expectation from the front office to Denver Stiffs alike was that Ty would take the next step to becoming an All-Star caliber guard. He would have a full 82 game season in front of him, alongside a healthy Andre Iguodala, JaVale McGee and Kenneth Faried, even tweeting after the acquisition of Iguodala "Looks like I'm a be throwing oops to the moon this year lol" [sic]. He finally had the keys to the Lamborghini, so to speak, and was free to put this Nuggets team into sixth gear.
Instead, he seems to have stalled the engine, and they're in the middle of a proverbial Colfax Avenue at 9-10.
There's just something about Ty that I can't quite put my finger on. I look at point guards like Chris Paul, Rajon Rondo, Kyrie Irving, Russell Westbrook, even Goran Dragic, and from them I see something that I'm just not seeing from Ty Lawson yet. Call it whatever superlative you like: grit, hustle, gamesmanship, intensity, drive, desire ... leadership? But those starting point guards are truly in command of their respective teams. They've stepped into the role of running the offense as soon as the ball's in their hands, and they know that they need to put up starter quality performances night in and night out for their teams to be successful.
Recently, we've started to see Ty show some glimmers of his previously aggressive self, posting at least 16 points and 6 assists in 6 of his last 7 games. He does seem to very gradually be coming out of whatever funk he's in, but he has a long way to go. Ty's confidence in his shooting and ability to drive the lane is at an all-time low, and it's affecting everything from his free throw shooting (a career low 59%) to his three point shooting (also a career low 28%) to the way he orchestrates the offense (career high 3.3 TO/g). Where I used to remember Ty taking it to the rack on nearly every drive, blowing past defenders with ankle breaking crossovers, I feel that watching Ty take it inside - or hell, even below the free throw line - is more the exception this season than the rule this season. To wit, as "The NBA Mistress" aptly puts it in a recent piece:
"[Ty Lawson] has hesitated on the ball to such an extreme that the opponent's defenses collapse around him, which has led to turnovers - like in the Miami Heat game - he may have a clear shot from downtown, but will pause to such an extreme, it will lead to a foiled basket. The other teams - so far this season - have learned how to weaken Ty Lawson.
Blocking his shot and clogging the paint.
And it's worked.
Lawson will allow a few blocked shots - it's going to happen - to corrode his confidence and then he becomes useless. He allows the opponents to play a mental game with him, and so far this season, it has worked.
It's unfortunate to see one of Denver's best players to struggle this much, but he has to get his head back in the game. It's not analyzed among statisticians, but a player's mental state - good or bad - is indicative of how well a player produces. This is an indicator of Lawson's performance as of late; he isn't tapping into the mental fortitude that is required to endure games that are more strenuous than others."
It's hard to find fault with this assessment. Ty's PER this year is an alarmingly low 13.20, good for just 43rd in the NBA among point guards. Forty third. Behind the likes of the illustrious and storied Nate Robinson, Beno Udrih, Raymond Felton (!), Jameer Nelson, Jarrett Jack, Randy Foye ...I could go on. That is just flat out astonishing. Ty has regressed so much he looks more like his (now out of the NBA) draft lottery selection counterpart Jonny Flynn than he does the blurry speedster we came to see as the motor of this team.
In the offseason, there was some minor controversy over a photo Lawson posted showing a hookah that he'd bought for his house. I get that a single photo of a hookah does not an explanation make, but I find myself going back to that image in my head and wondering if the new contract, the new millions and Ty's lifestyle aren't starting to interfere with his on court game. His performance to date would certainly suggest that there's something else going on besides just a shooting slump. Check that, his numbers aren't just in a slump, they've fallen off a cliff, and they're taking the Nuggets with them.
I - we - have all seen the flashes of brilliance from Ty that suggest his elevation to a truly special talent in the NBA. His lateral and vertical quickness are probably among the top 3 in the entire league, and he has started to develop the ability to finish with either hand. Ty has become one of my favorite players in the NBA to watch.
But I truly think that beyond our frontcourt woes, our still-struggling defense - so much for all that offseason talk about focusing on defense throughout training camp, huh? - and our terrible free throw shooting, this team has tried to take its cues from Ty's leadership. Yet it has to get very tiring to have to run all the way out to the three point arc to set a pick because your primary ballhandler won't take it inside, or picks up his dribble at the first sign of a defender. It isn't a good sign when I'm relieved to see Andre Miller come in simply because he's been so much more competent at creating good looks on this team. For this struggling drive-and-kick offense to work, it must run through Ty's hands and feet. It's a tall order to ask any player to simultaneously look for his shot and set up his teammates, but this team has to trust Ty's direction. Lately there's been no reason to, largely because Ty himself doesn't seem to have one.
Last night, Ty had perhaps his best game of the season against the Atlanta Hawks, posting a season high 32 points on 12-16 shooting, attacking the basket all night. He also shot 5-5 from beyond the arc, nicked the ball 5 times and racked up 7 dimes, but turned the ball over 4 times, including a critical turnover late. Despite that, Ty's performance against the Hawks was exemplary, and he deserves to be commended for it. Now I want to see him post a similar night against a few more teams and I'll start to believe he's pulling up from his nosedive. Ty's problem until very recently is that he hasn't been able to string together performances like these into consecutive games, and it seems as though it disjoints a young team expecting more from their floor general.
As the Nuggets FG% improves (up to an eFG of 49.4%, 11th in the NBA), the lane will begin to unclog like a pipe filled with so much Drano. However, Ty has to figure out that his hesitations when he has open looks are killing this offense. I implore Ty to continue to show the leadership this team needs and start taking his shot when he has his open look, whether it's wide open beyond the arc, or below the free throw line in the key, where he must live at the rim instead of away from it.
Only then will this team and his teammates start finding theirs.