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The reinvention of Denver Nuggets point guard Ty Lawson

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As wing NBA players age, we typically see their game drift away from the basket. Michael Jordan famously developed a deadly fadeaway, same with Kobe Bryant, and even Vince Carter reinvented himself. Is Ty Lawson's game being reinvented, too?

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Denver Nuggets point guard Ty Lawson is known for being the engine that makes the car, that is the Nuggets, go. His aggressive play is what makes him unique on the NBA level. Consider that heading into the season, 1,415 of Lawson's 3,622 career shots have come at the rim. So, 39% of the time the 5'11" guard is took a shot, it came at the rim.

It didn't take Lawson long to make a lasting NBA impression as to who he'd be as a player. Remember this play against the Lakers back in Lawson's rookie season in 2009?

I'm sure D.J. Mbenga would like to forget that play. But what we don't forget is how aggressive Lawson plays the game. He was the perfect match for a Nuggets team that wanted the bulk of the offense coming at the rim or from the three-point line. Let's take a look at Lawson's season-by-season shots at the rim and how much attacking has meant to his overall offensive game:


FG at Rim FGA at Rim FG% at Rim Games Played Total Shots % of total shots at rim
2009-10 117 198 59.1% 71 425 46.5%
2010-11 201 314 64% 85 740 42.4%
2011-12 191 300 63.7% 68 876 34.2%
2012-13 239 389 61.4% 79 1,080 36.0%
2013-14 123 214 57.5% 62 806 26.5%
2014-15 7 12 44% 4 34 35.2%

All numbers above include playoff totals for Lawson.

From 2009 to 2012-13 Lawson was coached by George Karl. You can see above how important it was for Lawson to attack. As a starting point guard for Karl for two full seasons (2011-12 and 2012-13), Lawson saw his percentage of shots at the rim settle into the 35% range. That's a massive workload inside for a point guard. Consider how much attacking at the rim Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook have done over the past two seasons:

Chris Paul Russell Westbrook
Season 2012-2013 2013-14 2012-13 2013-14
Shots at Rim 141 137 529 399
Total Shots 948 1,067 1,576 1,189
% of total shots at rim 14.80% 12.80% 33.50% 33.50%

All numbers for Paul and Westbrook include playoff totals.

Paul attacks roughly 13% of the time, Westbrook 33.5% of the time, and Lawson (under Karl) was again attacking about 35% of the time. Now, enter Brian Shaw. Lawson is entering his second season under Shaw and his numbers last season dipped from attacking about 35% of the time to 26.5% of the time.

Here we can see Lawson licking his chops against the Kings on Nov. 3rd. Notice how there is nobody behind Lawson's defender down the right side of the floor. Lawson recognizes this and darts to the rim. He loses the ball, but recovers and connects on an easy bucket in traffic:

Lawson did miss 20 games due to injury last season, but we can get a pretty good idea of how Karl wanted Lawson to play versus how Shaw wants Lawson to play, based on similar games and minutes played in the 2011-12 season and last season. Let's take a look at where Lawson's shots came from during his first full season as Karl's starting point guard and his first season under Shaw:

Lawson 2011-12: 876 shots Lawson 2013-14: 806 shots
68 games / 2,366 minutes / 34.7 mpg 62 games / 2,222 minutes / 35.8 mpg
FG-FGA FG% FG-FGA FG%
Rim 191-300 63.7% Rim 123-214 57.5%
3ft to less than 10ft 62-133 46.6% 3ft to 10ft 42-95 44.2%
10ft to less than16ft 37-72 51.4% 10ft to 16ft 39-98 39.8%
16ft to less than 3pt 58-143 40.6% 16ft to 3pt 71-197 36%
3-pt 82-228 36% 3-pt 72-202 35.6%

The biggest differences between the two? The increased mid-range shots and decreased shots around the rim, under Shaw. Lawson took 433 shots around the rim, compared to 309 under Shaw. Why isn't Lawson being asked to attack as much? He's proven to be effective going to the rim.

You could also say that Lawson struggles with the 3ft to less than 10 foot shot if you compare percentages at the rim. But getting into the lane is where he is able to set up teammates or score the ball himself.

Now, we can see from above that the more Lawson shots the mid-range shot, the more his shooting percentages dipped. There's a difference of 80 shots taken under Shaw in the mid-range vs. what Lawson shot under Karl, and it seems clear that the mid-range shot, for Lawson, is a more difficult one. Yes, it's not a stellar sample size, but it's what we have to work with, for now.

Let's compare Lawson's mid-range game from last season to Chris Paul's:

Ty Lawson Chris Paul
FG/FGA FG% FG/FGA FG%
3ft to less than 10ft 42-95 44% 85-156 54%
10ft to less than 16ft 39-98 40% 83-165 50%
16ft to less than 3pt 71-197 36% 110-235 46%

Paul is 10-percentage points better across the board, he is a mid-range point guard. While Lawson's attempts in the mid-range are dwarfed by 166 shots by Paul, it would seem that Lawson is being asked to develop more away from the paint.

Watch here as Lawson gets the screen from Kenneth Faried, but has nowhere to go as he attacks the left side of the paint, where Timofey Mozgov's defender cuts off any hope of attacking the rim (as does Faried's man and even Arron Afflalo's man comes down to help). Lawson settles for a fallaway shot that misses, but watch how Arron Afflalo follows up the exact same shot, but makes it.

Lawson looked like he wanted to attack, but backed out of the paint and settled for a mid-range shot. While Afflalo faked like he might attack, but was looking to setup the mid-range shot the entire time. The above plays shows a bit of the lane clogging that having active bigs in the post can create. It'll be up to Lawson to get comfortable setting up the mid-range shot and not the drive.

Lawson just turned 27 years-old on Oct. 28th and should be entering the prime of his career. Make no mistake, Lawson is an aggressive point guard that makes his money by driving to the rim. Can he develop the mid-range game that Shaw's offense seems to be asking for? That's the multi-million dollar question, but it shouldn't be. Why should Lawson have to go away from what makes him a dangerous player? Lawson's career record as a Nugget? 234-160. Let him lead the offense.

If Lawson is going to continue to be the Nuggets point guard of the future, he will have to reinvent his game. But why try to fix what isn't broken?