The Denver Nuggets' performance since making the Carmelo Anthony trade has been one of the season's most surprising stories. Wednesday's win over the Sacramento Kings improved Denver to 12-4 with its current lineup, which might understate how well the Nuggets have played recently. Denver's worst loss in that span came by six points, and the Nuggets' differential of +12.2 points per game is competitive with the best full-season marks in NBA history.
Why Denver has been so successful has been well trod in recent weeks, so I'd like to focus on one particular aspect of the Nuggets' run that was somewhat predictable but also unexpected. Collectively, Denver is getting better play from its two point guards, both of them North Carolina grads, than almost any other team in the league has at the position.
Player Win% WARP TS% Usg Ast% Stl% TO%
Lawson .638 2.2 .586 .190 10.5 2.4 .132
Felton .515 0.8 .490 .181 10.1 2.2 .155
Lawson is playing at an All-Star level since becoming a starter, scoring the ball efficiently without sacrificing his duties as a playmaker. Felton hasn't been nearly as effective at shooting the basketball and is turning the ball over a bit more, but in terms of assists and steals he's provided no drop whatsoever from Lawson. Prorated to a full season, Lawson would be worth about 11-12 Wins Above Replacement Player--with Felton providing 4-5 more, enough to make him one of the league's best backup point guards.
Again, this isn't entirely crazy. Felton was an All-Star candidate earlier this season in New York before regressing slightly back to the mean, while Lawson did nothing but put up numbers in limited minutes behind Chauncey Billups during his first season and a half in the NBA. Both players excel in the fast-paced style played by the Nuggets, while George Karl--a point guard himself at Carolina, in the ABA and briefly in the NBA--has always tended to get the most out of his playmakers.
What is surprising is the way Karl has been able to blend the two point guards together. When Denver got Felton as part of the return in the deal that sent Anthony and Billups to New York, the assumption was that he would be flipped as part of another trade before the deadline. Felton's agent quickly raised a stink when Karl said that Lawson would be his starter. Still, the Nuggets have kept the two point guards together and Karl has found a way to get them both on the floor. Lawson is averaging 32.1 minutes per night and Felton is getting starter's minutes too, playing 30.8 minutes per game.
Key to that playing time has been Karl's ability to use Felton and Lawson together in an undersized backcourt with unmatched quickness. Typically, Karl has saved the duo for fourth quarters, when they have the ability to change the tenor of a game. According to BasketballValue.com, the small backcourt has played 180 minutes together, or about 13.8 per night in the 13 games both players have been available. The results have been phenomenal. With Felton and Lawson together, Denver has outscored opponents by 24.6 points per 100 possessions, making those lineups nearly twice as effective as the Nuggets have been overall since the trade.
As you would imagine, with two offensive-minded players in the backcourt, Denver has been difficult to stop. Denver has put up 125.1 points per 100 possessions on offense with both point guards together. What makes Felton and Lawson so strong as a duo is that they can operate interchangeably on and off the ball depending on matchups. Both players are good enough as shooters to be dangerous spotting up on the perimeter, while each has the quickness to take a slower opposing defender off the dribble and get into the paint to break down the defense.
The tradeoff, on paper, should be at the other end of the floor, where the 6'1" Felton has to defend bigger shooting guards. But Felton's strength is an asset in these matchups, and having two players who generate a lot of steals on the floor is also a positive. Overall, the small backcourt has been effective at the defensive end, allowing just 102.5 points per 100 possessions.
It's worth watching what kind of factor the Felton-Lawson backcourt might be during the playoffs. Most likely, the Nuggets will face the Oklahoma City Thunder in the opening round. When Thabo Sefolosha is at shooting guard for the Thunder, the only concern with going small would be Sefolosha crashing the offensive glass, since he's a non-scorer. However, James Harden has largely supplanted Sefolosha since the trade deadline. The 6'6" Harden has the size and enough of a rudimentary post game to make Denver pay at the other end for putting both point guards on the floor.
This arrangement may not last. Felton isn't complaining about his reserve spot for now, but he told Hoopsworld.com he would revisit the situation in the summer. Even 30 minutes a night may not be enough to satisfy Felton if it means coming off the bench. For now, however, the Nuggets' pair of top-tier point guards has been a major factor in the team's winning ways.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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