Denver Nuggets coach George Karl is one of the most innovative coaches in NBA history. When he coached the Seattle SuperSonics in the 1990s, he flummoxed bigger teams with a series of elaborate defensive traps that acted as the ancestor of the modern-day strong-side zone. Now, he has another wacky idea up his sleeve.
"I've actually talked to college coaches over the summer, [and I ask them], why don't you play three point guards?" he said to a couple reporters on Friday before his team's game against the Washington Wizards. "If you can get away with it, why would you not play three point guards? The benefits would definitely outweigh the risks."
OK, so no NBA team is playing three point guards at the same time right now. But Karl's Nuggets are once again at the forefront of a basketball revolution: playing two true point guards at the same time. Other teams often play two small guards together, but none do so like the Nuggets, who have become the most unlikely Western Conference contender (12-5, second place as of Monday) on the strength of their lineups featuring both veteran Andre Miller and Ty Lawson.
Just look at the facts. The Nuggets' top five lineups in terms of adjusted plus-minus all feature both Lawson and Miller playing together. Last year, three different lineups featuring Lawson and fellow point guard Raymond Felton (acquired from the Knicks at midseason in the Carmelo Anthony deal, traded to the Trail Blazers for Miller over the summer) had an adjusted plus/minus over +12. For a team that doesn't have a high-scoring superstar, the Nuggets sure seem to have stumbled on a winning formula that zips by teams in transition and exploits the slightest crack in their halfcourt schemes.
Part of the Nuggets' philosophy is dictated by their roster. They have a very good center in Nene, but he's not the type you can shoulder an offense on his own. Without Carmelo Anthony, Karl's squad also no longer has an elite isolation scorer. But what Karl does have is speed, and he uses it to his advantage.
"The game of basketball has gone from size to speed, and to me, a lot of nights, I think I can win with speed," Karl says. "So I usually go that way if I can."
On the other hand, you get the sense that Karl really does believe this is the way to win. When asked to elaborate more on why having multiple point guards on the floor is good, he responds rhetorically, "Isn't it more important to have good decisions than position players?" Later, he puts it more bluntly: "The more playmakers you put on the court, the better you play."
That philosophy defines the Nuggets. Without a true offensive superstar, Karl's offense relies on constant motion. Playmaking gets split between Lawson, Miller, shooting guard Arron Afflalo, ace small forward Danilo Gallinari ... basically, anyone who has the ball. The offense works well no matter who plays, but the offense really works well when the best playmakers are all in. This year, that's been Lawson and Miller.
There are many reasons why the Nuggets play so well with both on the floor, but one of the major reasons is Lawson's unselfishness and versatility. Lawson may be a sub-six foot speed demon capable of carrying the offense on his own, but he's more able and willing to play off the ball than most of his young point guard counterparts. This has allowed Miller, a skilled passer and crafty scorer that nevertheless looked out of place with the Blazers a lot because he shared the court with a ball-dominant Brandon Roy, to do what he does best instead of being a square peg jammed into a round hole.
"Anytime he wants the ball, I say, 'Here, you have it.' I just go on the wing," Lawson says.
Lawson finds playing off the ball makes life easier, not harder. Instead of becoming disengaged, Lawson says letting Miller do the heavy lifting actually engages him more. Driving lanes that otherwise might be tough to find suddenly become easier to spot when Miller draws defensive attention. For someone as fast as Lawson, that's all he needs to make an impact.
"For me, when he passes the ball, it's coming from something built out, so it's easy for me to get into the lane and make decisions," he says. "For him, he can post up smaller guards or go by two guards who are bigger than him."
That's music to Karl's ears. When Anthony was in his final days with the team, his tendency to set up shop on the left wing killed the Nuggets' offensive flow. Karl is a coach that stresses flow, and those last days of the Anthony era had to be aggravating. For flow to be established, though, a team's stars have to be adept playing without the ball in their hands. Lawson, who learned the importance of off-ball play because it was the only way he could see the floor as a rookie with Chauncey Billups on the team, has heeded Karl's message.
All this leads to an interesting question: why don't more teams try this approach? To Lawson, the answer is simple:
"They don't have two small guards like we do. Andre, he's a vet that can go. I'm a player that I think is becoming one of the top point guards. A lot of teams just don't have the talent to do it," he says.
But it's not quite that simple. Even if teams have the personnel to play two point guards together, those players still have to be willing to share playmaking responsibility. Even if the personnel exists, the coach and the general manager have to be willing to think outside the box to unlock its talent.
That makes the Nuggets' two point-guard lineup a perfect marriage between theory and execution. Whether it helps push the Nuggets to the promised land remains to be seen, but you can bet there will be plenty of copycats in the years to come.
And who knows? Maybe Karl really will play three point guards at once one day.