After spending some time in Denver over the holidays and getting a chance to see the Mile High’s finest run through the Atlanta Hawks – and then be subsequently steamed rolled by the Dallas Mavericks – I was able to get a better sense of the team’s collective flow. No debating that this is Carmelo’s team – through with Chauncey Billups mends the glue – but beyond their star base, is the real key to their success: Ty Lawson.
I was skeptical of the Nuggets when they wanted to make the rook their lone draft selection a year earlier in 2008 (when Lawson was a North Carolina sophomore), before shipping off the pick to the Charlotte Bobcats – who thankfully reimbursed my faith in Denver by selecting Alexis Ajinca with the 20th pick. Then, when Denver snagged him from Minnesota last summer, I thought it was a great value pick-up, but still not the long-term answer to the heir of Billups; that he was destined to become another undersized college phenom whose legacy would remain trapped in the NCAA’s “one shining moment” package.
From the tip-off of opening night (kid dropped 17 and 6 in a win against Utah), it hasn’t even been a question to whether the Law can handle the pressure. He has succeeded beyond expectations and has already become a reliable backup in the League. With Billups having been out seven of the last eight games with a groin injury, Lawson has filled in nicely. Lawson’s recent surge hasn’t been able to will the Nugs to many wins since Billups’ absence (2-6 over their last eight), but his play should warrant more PT when Chauncey returns. Over the past four games, Ty is averaging 18.5 points and seven assists a game, including 23 and 9 for each of the last two games. During that stretch, Lawson has averaged 1.5 turnovers a game – up from his season average of 1.4 a game. As a rookie and primary ball handler, Lawson has made solid decisions with the rock and is looking more confident with each passing game.
The Nuggets have serious chemistry issues – and a desperate need for another back-to-the-basket banger inside – and it’s showing in their recent production. Say all you will about how Billups (and now ‘Melo) being sidelined with injuries is the main overlying problem, but the real issue is cohesiveness.
You can feel it in the locker room just as you can witness it on the hardwood: the Nuggets are not buying into the same philosophy every game night. When healthy and focused, it’s hard to find a better skilled and athletic team in the League than Denver (short of Los Angeles). Nene, J.R. Smith and Lawson are all viable complements to the ‘Melo/Mr. Big Shot tandem. Remember too, this is still a team that was quite possible two inbounds passes away from staring down Dwight Howard in the Finals last season.
When is the last time the Pepsi Center has seen two point guards this strong in rotation? Not too long ago, the duo of Shammond Williams and undrafted DII point guard Junior Harrington were leading the Nuggets to 17 wins. Over the past decade, the only combos worthy of comparison are Nick Van Exel and Robert Pack, or Andre Miller and Earl Boykins. I’ve personally never been sold on Boykins’ lack of a team mindset or shot selection and I wouldn’t be surprised if Denver fans still booed Nick the Quick today if given the chance.
Point in case: Lawson gives the Nuggets some breathing room and the luxury of sanity come time when Billups begins to wind down. Lawson is not being looked upon as just a rookie for the Nuggets anymore and his play is speaking volumes about his work ethic and potential. He is ridunkulously quick from baseline to baseline and is a better three-point shooter than he’s given credit for. Whether the Nuggets can regroup from their rash of losses and comfortably move through the Northwest Division is still up in the air. With Carmelo playing out of his mind filthy good and Chauncey back in the lineup, Denver will of course regain some consistency. But it’s Lawson, however, that is the catalyst in bringing back the Nuggets to an elite status.
Follow Jack on Twitter at @jensenjack.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DIMEMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.