A Study in Point Guard Play: How Good is Ty Lawson?

the nuggets have been perfectly pedestrian thus far.  ty lawson hasn’t.  he’s been incredible.  going into the season, i was worried that brian shaw’s inside-out system and his desire to slow the nuggets down would stifle lawson’s career and prevent his numbers from continuing to steadily improve.  thankfully, this hasn’t been the case.  despite being thrown into a new system that not only doesn’t fit his own talents but also doesn’t fit the talents of his teammates, and despite being surrounded by arguably the worst team in his career, lawson is playing better than ever, as shown by the stats below:

Ty Lawson's Stats by Year.png

note that lawson’s 2012-13 numbers took a dip primarily due to an awful first half of the year — his post-all star break numbers fit more in line with the steady progression he’s exhibited throughout his career.  lawson’s progression is impressive, and it’s actually very much in line with the typical progression of talented point guards:  they typically struggle in their early years more so than players in other positions, but they get better more consistently and typically have break-out years in their fourth to sixth seasons.  for example, consider how some of the other point guards selected in the 2009 draft have progressed:

PERs for 2009 PGs.png

while none of these players have quite reached chris paul status (and it’s likely that none of them will), they’ve all steadily improved throughout their careers and have established themselves as strong nba starters.  it’s important to note that these improvements have all come in conjunction with steadily increasing usage percentages.  this is important because, as has been demonstrated many times in basketball sabermetrics, there’s generally a trade-off between usage and efficiency.  in other words, the more a player is demanded to do, the less efficiently they can do it.  this has tremendous implications on a player’s value.

usage efficiency tradeoff.jpg

for example, steve kerr was incredibly efficient, but there was a ceiling on his value because he really only did one thing (thus, his usage was low).  point guards are generally required to do a great deal (facilitate the offense, get others involved, and score when necessary), so this usage/efficiency trade-off is perhaps more important at this position than at any other.  notice how lawson’s usage has increased each year, and, barring the 2012-13 season, so has his efficiency.  this means he’s beating the usage/efficiency problem:  he’s doing more, and he’s doing it more efficiently.

obviously it’s early in the year, but his play this year has been the best example of beating the usage/efficiency tradeoff:  his usage is 25%, which is significantly higher than it’s ever been, and his player efficiency rating is 23.1, which is also significantly higher than it’s ever been (this ranks 5th among point guards).  this is incredibly impressive, especially when you consider how awful the team around him is.

in fact, let’s use some fancy new stats to show just how awful the nuggets are this year and just how impressive lawson has been (and how much better his numbers would be if he had a strong team around him).  this year, the nba installed SportVU player tracking systems into each arena and is releasing some of the resulting information to the public.  basically, this allows us to identify things like how many times a player gets a rebound when the ball is within 3 feet of him and how many times a player creates a shot for a teammate.  this latter example is the one that we’ll be focusing on, and it’s a better measure of playmaking than assists because it isn’t dependent on whether his teammates happen to make their shots or not.  here’s a table with the league leaders at assist opportunities per game (click to expand):

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