A huge surprise over the last two months of the season was the play of the Denver Nuggets. Many assumed the team would shrivel up and blow away after sending Carmelo Anthony to New York at the trade deadline. Instead, they finished the season on an 18-7 tear, and entered the playoffs with a lot of buzz about their potential to upset the Oklahoma City Thunder. The first two games of the series have not gone well, with the Nuggets losing both by a combined 21 points.
Although they clearly gave up the most talented player in their deal with the Knicks, the Nuggets were able to extract several talented players in return for Anthony. One of those players was Raymond Felton, who had been having a terrific season for the Knicks. The Nuggets already had Ty Lawson designated as their point guard of the future, but when they had a chance to shed Chauncey Billups‘ salary while adding depth, the Nuggets jumped at the chance.
Felton has solid size and strength for the point guard position, which allowed the Nuggets to use him frequently in the backcourt alongside the diminuitve Lawson. It turned out to be an extremely successful combination. The Nuggets used Felton and Lawson together just under 31% of the time after the trade deadline. In those 25 games to finish the regular season, lineups with Felton and Lawson together outscored their opponents by nearly 20 points per 100 possessions.
With Arron Afflalo missing the first two games of the series due to injury, the Nuggets have been using the Lawson/Felton combination even more frequently, just under 46% of the minutes in the series. However, they’ve not been nearly as effective as they were in the regular season. The table below shows the Nuggets’ Offensive and Defensive Ratings for the percentage of the team’s minutes when Lawson and Felton were on the floor together in the regular season and playoffs.
The swing in performance has been a huge factor for the Nuggets. The Lawson/Felton combination has been bad but not atrocious. The real impact is not the -3.5 Net Rating in the playoffs, as much as the 22 point swing from the regular season. What was a powerful weapon has all but dissipated.
The change in Defensive Rating has been just 0.9 points, but the Offensive Rating has dropped by 22.1 points. Although there are three other players on the floor with them, Lawson and Felton share much of the responsibility for this offensive decline. Lawson has actually been fairly efficient, shooting 55.0% for the series with a TOV% of 11.5%. However he’s using fewer possessions, 17.7% in the playoffs compared to 19.6% in the regular season.
Felton has gone the other way, posting a Usage Rate of 19.6% in the playoffs compared to 18.5% in the regular season with Denver. He’s been much less efficient scoring the ball, shooting 40.9% and making 2 of 8 three-pointers. Both players have also done far less creating for their teammates. Ty Lawson assisted on 28.3% of his teammate’s baskets while he was on the floor in the regular season. In the playoffs that percentage has fallen to 21.2%. Felton shows the same pattern, dropping from 31.1% with Denver in the regular season, to 26.0% in the playoffs.
Since joining forces, Lawson and Felton have been terrific at getting the ball inside either through penetration from isolations, or off of the pick-and-roll. This forced the defense to adjust, creating open jumpshots and interior opportunities for their teammates. In the playoffs, the length of the Thunder has gone a long way towards containing them. Even when the Thunder have gone small to matchup up with the Nuggets, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Thabo Sefolosha and Daequan Cook leave them with a surplus of length in the backcourt.
Some home-cooking (and 5,000 or so feet of elevation) should give the Nuggets a boost as the series shifts back to Denver. However, the Lawson/Felton backcourt combination could continue to struggle against the Thunder’s perimeter defense. The answer may be looking to other lineup combinations to create mismatches. Ironically, the Nuggets’ SB Nation site, Denver Stiffs, has a post up right now making some of the same complaints but about a completely different alignment of players. Getting Arron Afflalo back should give George Karl some more options, but it’s going to be on him to find the right one.