Is Ty Lawson Better Than Chauncey Billups?

*More than usual, this post is heavily statistical. If you have a deep and abiding interest in the Denver Nuggets, Ty Lawson, Chauncey Billups, statistics, or anything I have to say in general, then I would encourage you to read on. If none of these interests apply, you might find this to be kind of a snooze.

Through a certain friendship, I’ve become well-acquainted with Denver sports over the years. The Nuggets, Broncos, and Rockies have joined teams like the Louisville Cardinals, Tennessee Titans, and Atlanta Braves in the group of teams that I’ve developed a small rooting interest in because of intra-national friendships. And because my Denverite friend lives right here in New York, I often find myself discussing the Coloradan sports scene. Past topics have included Jay Cutler’s petulance (go ‘Dores!), Josh McDaniels’ incredible ability to alienate, and the Matt Holliday and Allen Iverson trades. I can’t believe I have a strong opinion about each of those items, but I do.

Just recently, however, the Nuggets’ swoon has been a hot topic. That it has coincided with starting point guard Chauncey Billups’ injury has added an interesting element to our conversations, primarily because of our differing assessments of Billups’ ability. I asserted (with some vague knowledge of the pertinent stats) that the drop-off from Billups to rookie backup Ty Lawson isn’t as significant as many might think. He asserted, quite understandably, that Billups is the experienced caretaker of the offense, the team’s leader, and oh yeah, he’s still a pretty good player. Us being us, we proceeded to argue this point at length on several occasions. And me being me, I’ve hit the internet for some evidence that would either support or refute my claim. After some research, I’ve more or less decided that – at worst – Billups and Lawson are equally effective, and that it’s more likely that Lawson holds a slight edge.

This post will get increasingly statistical, but for now, let’s just look at Billups and Lawson’s traditional statistics so far this season:

  • Billups: 31.8 MPG, 17.1 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 5.7 APG, 2.3 TO, 1.2 STL
  • Lawson: 22.6 MPG, 9.5 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 3.9 APG, 1.4 TO, 0.89 STL

There are a few things you might glean from this set of basic numbers. You might decide that Billups is a better scorer, because he averages more points per minute than Lawson. You might also decide that they share the ball equally well, since they accumulate assists and turnovers at about the same rate. Finally, you might decide that Lawson is a superior rebounder and pilferer, since he does both at a higher rate than Billups. Based on these basic statistics from the entire season, you would be mostly right in drawing these conclusions. You could easily argue that – in fewer minutes – Lawson has shown himself to be a better thief and rebounder than Billups, and about an equal playmaker. You could also argue that Lawson is an inferior scorer, but you would be wrong. Look at their percentage stats for the entire season:

  • Billups: 40% FG, 39.2% 3P, 90.3% FT, 48.4% eFG, 23% USG
  • Lawson: 51.5% FG, 44.2% 3P, 79.5% FT, 56.2% eFG, 18.1% USG

These numbers should alter your opinion about who is the better scorer. Lawson’s 51.5% shooting would rank him fourth in the NBA among point guards, if he had played enough minutes to quality. His 56.2 eFG% would also rank fourth among point guards, with the same caveat. Also, lest we forget, Lawson is a rookie. Not only is Lawson a much more efficient scorer than Billups, he has done so using fewer of his team’s possessions than his veteran counterpart. But wait, the pre-injury Billups played more minutes than Lawson, affording the latter the ability to alternate maximum effort with rest on the bench, and necessitating that the former pace himself.

Well, let’s look at the numbers since Lawson has assumed most of Billups’ minutes (because of injury):

  • Billups: 31.8 MPG, 17.1 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 5.7 APG, 2.3 TO, 1.2 STL
  • Lawson: 28.9 MPG, 14.1 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 5.1 APG, 1.5 TO, 0.89 STL

Wow. In the nine games that Billups has been hurt, Lawson has fallen a little short of Billups’ raw point production, but out-rebounded him and accumulated assists with greater efficiency. But has Lawson’s improvement come at the cost of his aforementioned efficiency?

  • Lawson: 54.4% FG, 38% 3P, 80.7% FT, (eFG and USG numbers not available)

It certainly looks as if Lawson has retained his ability to score efficiently, even with the increase in playing time. At least offensively, it’s pretty clear that Lawson is at least Billups’ equal, even as a rookie. He hits two-pointers with way more efficiency than Billups and is as accurate from three-point range. He shoots worse (but still very well) from the line and gets there less frequently than Billups, but free-throws are worth half as much as two-pointers, a category in which Lawson has an enormous advantage.

* * * * * * *

We’ve examined how Billups and Lawson perform individually, but we should also examine how they function as part of the team’s success or failure. Luckily, websites like 82games.com exist, giving us access to incredibly interesting and useful information in this regard. Let’s look at Billups and Lawson’s respective floor-time stats, which give a solid idea of how the team performs when they’re on the floor:

  • Billups: 52% of his team’s minutes, +85 net points overall, 1.13 PPP, 1.08 DPP, +4.8 net points per game
  • Lawson: 46% of his team’s minutes, +149 net points overall, 1.17 PPP, 1.08 DPP, +9.4 net points per game

So, generally speaking, the Nuggets’ offense is better when Lawson is on the court, while their defense remains the same. We can also examine how each player performs as a part of a specific lineup, which is another tool that 82games.com features. Here’s how Billups and Lawson have performed as parts of three common but distinct lineups:

  • Billups/Afflalo/Anthony/Martin/Nene: 1.08 PPP, 1.04 DPP, 45.1% eFG, 46% eFGAllowed
  • Lawson/Afflalo/Anthony/Martin/Nene: 1.13 PPP, 1.08 DPP, 48.2% eFG, 47.3% eFGA

This lineup has a slight net gain with Lawson as point guard instead of Billups. The Lawson-led lineup scores more effectively, but allows more points. The result, however, is still a net gain.

  • Billups/Smith/Anthony/Martin/Andersen: 1.16 PPP, 0.99 DPP, 43.6% eFG, 38.2% eFGA
  • Lawson/Smith/Anthony/Martin/Andersen: 1.14 PPP, 1.09 DPP, 47% eFG, 46.5% eFGA

The advantage goes to the Billups-led lineup here. Billups’ lineup certainly defends better than Lawson’s. It also scores more points per possession, although with less efficiency than Lawson’s iteration. Still, the net gain in undeniable. Point for Chauncey’s crew.

  • Billups/Smith/Anthony/Andersen/Nene: 1.18 PPP, 1.16 DPP, 44.9% eFG, 47.3% eFGA
  • Lawson/Smith/Anthony/Andersen/Nene: 1.23 PPP, 1.06 DPP, 57.3% eFG, 44.4% eFGA

Lawson’s group is clearly superior here, both in terms of points per possession and shooting efficiency. They also have the clear upper hand on the defensive end. So, in two out of the three common lineups revealed on 82games.com, the Lawson-led group has the advantage. And one of the trials isn’t particularly close. Finally, for what it’s worth, Denver’s most effective lineup this season has also included Lawson (note: this particular permutation has a fairly small sample size):

  • Lawson/Afflalo/Smith/Andersen/Nene: 1.37 PPP, 1.04 DPP, 57.5% eFG, 49.3% eFGA

Hey, I’m just saying.

At this point, I think it’s safe to conclude that both individually and as a part of the team, Lawson brings more to the table offensively than Billups does. Basketball players’ defensive value remains incredibly difficult to quantify, but I’ll offer some thoughts on their defensive abilities anyway. I feel somewhat confident in stating that, based on the statistics I’ve shown, Lawson isn’t hurting the team defensively. He might not be helping to the extent that Billups does; Billups is larger and stronger than Lawson, and remains versatile in his ability to guard point and shooting guards. But I don’t think Lawson hurts the team with his defense in the same way that, say, Tim Thomas does. I think Billups is the superior defender, but Lawson appears to be about average, which means that his offensive superiority still affords him the net advantage. On one last note (on this topic at least), I should infuse a bit of subjective analysis into the discussion via two quotes from respected NBA analyst David Thorpe, a man who has worked individually with many NBA players and watches tape voraciously:

“I’ve studied the tapes, box scores and advanced stats, and the most glaring flaw Lawson has is … well, I have no idea. In the role he’s playing on the Nuggets, he’s performing about as well as anyone could. That’s not to say he can’t get better — of course he can — but I wouldn’t suggest he change a thing right now.”

“On top of that, Lawson appears to be able to defend his position well, which is a hard quality to find in pure points. Every NBA coach values having a point guard who can defend in space and lock onto his man in ballscreen action.”

Again, I’m just saying.

* * * * * * *

After reading all of this, one could reasonable say “okay, Lawson might be better now, but it’s early and the league will figure him out.” Of course, this is possible. Many rookies have burst onto the scene but lacked the ability or willingness to adjust once opponents hone in on his tendencies and flaws. In response to this possible argument, however, I would bring up Billups and Lawson’s respective basketball histories and the possible predictive value therein.

Billups played two years at the University of Colorado-Boulder before being drafted third overall in 1997. His senior year, he posted the following stat line, which is quite similar to his career NBA line:

  • Billups (NCAA): 32.7 MPG, 19.1 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 4.8 APG, 2.9 TO, 2.1 STL
  • Billups (NBA): 32.1 MPG, 15.1 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 5.6 APG, 2.0 TO, 1.0 STL

This similarity extends to his percentages:

  • Billups (NCAA): 41.3% FG, 40.1% 3P, 85.4% FT
  • Billups (NBA): 41.6% FG, 38.8% 3P, 89.0% FT

I think this is a fairly stunning bit of information. I have no idea if this is usually the case with basketball players, but Billups has settled in at the exact same spot on two different levels of competition. He’s always been a good three-point shooter, a great free-throw shooter, and an bad two-pointer shooter. His ability to hit three and one-pointers has made him an offensive asset throughout his career, masking his troubles converting anything in between. He’s always taken pretty good care of the ball, and rebounded at a roughly average level. This is who Chauncey Billups is, and it’s largely always who he has been.

Lawson played three years at the University of North Carolina, winning a national championship his final year before being drafted 18th overall. His line his senior year, along with his current NBA numbers:

  • Lawson (NCAA): 29.9 MPG, 16.6 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 6.6 APG, 1.9 TO, 2.1 STL
  • Lawson (NBA): 22.6 MPG, 9.5 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 3.9 APG, 1.5 TO, 0.9 STL

This similarity isn’t quite as striking as Billups’ until you get to the percentages:

  • Lawson (NCAA): 53.2% FG, 47.2% 3P, 79.8% FT
  • Lawson (NBA): 51.5% FG, 44.2% 3P, 79.5% FT

Again, a stunning bit of information. Other than his assist-to-turnover ratio (which was so exceptional in college that it had nowhere to go but down), Lawson is doing the exact same thing in the NBA that he did in the ACC. He’s making a remarkably high percentage of his twos, a good portion (if not a little high) of his threes, and converting from the free-throw line. Particularly if you look at his performance since he’s received college-sized minutes, he’s shown the same skills and abilities that made him one of the best players in the country his senior year.

Now, I can’t logically argue that because Billups’ career numbers have mimicked his college numbers, that means that Lawson’s will do the same. But I can argue that there’s a pedigree here that cannot be ignored, and that can be used to refute claims that Lawson’s production will decline. Lawson was one of the most efficient guards in college basketball history, and he did so in the ACC against top-notch competition for three straight years. The fact that his professional numbers are right in line with his college statistics should earn him some faith that his current performance is almost entirely sustainable.

* * * * * * *

Before fully resting my case (and in a desperate attempt to surpass the 2,000 word mark in the post), I want to lay waste to the idea that Chauncey Billups is a clutch player. Somehow, Billups has earned the nickname “Mr. Big Shot,” presumably because he’s hit some important game-winners over the course of his lengthy career. This moniker is undeserved.

According to the omnipotent 82games.com, Billups shot 40.4% from the field in “clutch” situations last season. He shot 35% from three-point range, and 89% from the line. These numbers are all almost exactly the same as his career percentages. We can also look at Billups’ performance in “game-winning shot” scenarios from 2003-2009, including the playoffs. In these situations in the regular season, Billups has shot an astounding 6 for 37 from the field. That’s 16.2%. But maybe he saves it for the playoffs! No, he does not. He’s 2 for 9 in the playoffs, which is 22.2%. Chauncey Billups as a clutch player is a myth.

* * * * * * *

I’m going to conclude this quickly because I have an angry girlfriend waiting for me, and her state will not be helped when I reveal to her that I was late because I was writing 2,200 words about why Ty Lawson is better than Chauncey Billups.

Ty Lawson has clearly been better than Chauncey Billups offensively this season. You could have blamed it on the small sample size for a little while, but Lawson is now receiving big minutes and producing at a clip that is right in line with his lofty college numbers. When he was healthy, Billups showed himself to be what he’s always been – an average offensive player who masks his troubles with two-pointers by hitting three-pointers and free-throws at a great clip. Lawson is better at making the offense click.

There’s more room for argument defensively, but there’s nothing conclusive. The Nuggets have performed as well defensively with Lawson on the court as they did with Billups. The combination of the floor-time statistics and David Thorpe’s experienced and subjective analysis indicates that Lawson is far from a liability on defense. At the very least, Lawson is an average defender.

Lawson’s undeniably superior offensive efficiency and defensive sufficiency make him better than Billups. I have little doubt that, in the coming months, Lawson will hit a wall and have to deal with the rigors of the long NBA season. But I also have little doubt that he will emerge on the other side as the incredibly efficient player that he has been his entire career, which is something that Billups has never been.

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One Response to Is Ty Lawson Better Than Chauncey Billups?

  1. avigailoren says:

    After this revelation, how could I be angry? I think your assessment is dead on balls accurate (it’s an industry term).

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