On George Karl, Masai Ujiri, and what’s next for the Denver Nuggets

“If I give you a team that’s not super-talented, but, they care and try hard, I’m going to win 35-games with that team and you are going to love them. If I give you a super-talented team that doesn’t care that much, [and] that doesn’t try that hard, I’m going to win 50-games and you are going to hate them.”

- Kevin McHale on the Dan Le Batard Show paraphrasing the great, Red Auerbach

George Karl accepting his Coach of the Year Award

This quote is a corollary for George Karl’s entire tenure in Denver. When he was originally hired midway through the 2004-05 season, he led the Nuggets on a furious 32-8 finish with a super-talented core of Carmelo Anthony, Andre Miller, Marcus Camby, Kenyon Martin, and Nene Hilario. That team suffered a gentleman’s sweep at the hands of the eventual NBA Champion, San Antonio Spurs, in the first round.

The very next season, under a full-year of George Karl’s tutelage, the Nuggets again suffered a gentleman’s sweep, this time at the hands of the Los Angeles Clippers — a series and opponent that saw Denver favored. However, that team deserves a bit of a reprieve, as every member of their frontline (sans Carmelo Anthony) suffered through injury. Nene was lost in the first game for the entire season. Kenyon Martin and Marcus Camby each missed enough time to force Francisco Elson into starting 54 games. Ruben Patterson, DerMarr Johnson, and Greg Buckner each started 20, 21, and 27 games for Denver, respectively. Buckner, a league journeyman, played 1758 minutes that season — fourth-most on the team behind Anthony, Camby, and Miller. Elson, Patterson, Johnson, and Buckner seemingly fell off the Earth following their time in Denver.

Earl Boykins was huge for Denver

In 2006-07, the Nuggets again suffered through serious injuries, when Kenyon Martin was lost for the entire year during the season’s second game. Carmelo Anthony, Allen Iverson, Marcus Camby, Nene, and J.R. Smith once again provided a super-talented — albeit wholly unlikable — core that, according to most, underachieved. Like George Karl’s first Nuggets team, the 2007 iteration suffered a gentleman’s sweep at the hands of the eventual NBA Champion, San Antonio Spurs. What gets lost is Eduardo Najera (1658), Steve Blake (1642), Linas Kleiza (1488), Yakhouba Diawara (1177), and Reggie Evans (1127) each played significant minutes for Denver that season. Outside of Steve Blake’s brief stint in Los Angeles and Reggie Evans’ run in Brooklyn, none of those players have been seen or heard from since. Even Earl Boykins, at 30 years old, played 877 minutes that year.

The 2007-08 Nuggets, on the backs of Iverson and Anthony, were thought to be surefire contenders. That team, much like every single other Karl squad before it, befell to injuries, as Nene saw just 266 minutes in 16 games. Anthony, Iverson, Camby, and Martin formed a nice core. It’s just that 32 year-old Anthony Carter was their starting point guard. Carter (1960), Kleiza (1889), Najera (1664), and Diawara (542) each saw a significant chunk of minutes. None of them have been seen or heard from since. Only 22 year-old J.R. Smith had a future in the NBA. And he saw merely 1421 minutes that season — eighth-most on the team. The 2008 Nuggets were swept in a not-so-gentlemanly manner by the eventual NBA Finals runner-up, Los Angeles Lakers in the first round.

The only year where everything seemed to fall into place came in 2008-09, when Denver suffered no significant injuries. Those Nuggets made the Western Conference Finals. And if not for a few errant Anthony Carter passes, would have made the NBA Finals.

The 2009-10 Nuggets won 53 games and the Northwest Division. Outside of Kenyon Martin’s 58 games played, no Denver player suffered a significant injury. Anthony Carter only saw 859 minutes, as Ty Lawson proved to be just the change-of-pace backup Chauncey Billups needed. That team had similar dreams of its predecessor, and if not for George Karl’s cancer, might have made some playoff noise. Adrian Dantley, however, proved to be in way over his head, as the Nuggets lost in six games to the underdog, Utah Jazz.

The 2010-11 Nuggets — in my eyes the best Denver team outside of the Western Conference Finals squad — played the upstart Oklahoma City Thunder to five close games. If not for a phantom basket interference call on Nene in game one, they would have had a good chance winning the series. Every game was tight. That team could both shoot from three and the free-throw line. They had a threat on the interior in Nene and terrific perimeter defenders and scorers alike. Of course, that Nuggets team was forced to live through the entire “Melo-drama” trade fiasco. Raymond Felton, a 46% 3-point shooter during his short stint in Denver, was moved that offseason for the slower, more determined, and plodding Andre Miller. J.R. Smith and Kenyon Martin were allowed to walk.

Denver’s 2011-12 Nuggets’ team has been lauded for taking the Lakers to seven games in the first round, when that same Lakers team was quickly dispatched in five the very next round by the Oklahoma City Thunder. What gets further muddied in the annals of history is Ron Artest’s suspension (following his elbowing of James Harden during the regular season) cost him the first six games of that series. If Los Angeles had Metta World Peace from the series’ start, the Nuggets would have been lucky to see  game six. As it was, if not for a ridiculous performance out of JaVale McGee, Denver was lucky to see game seven.

Which brings me to the 2012-13 season …

The Denver Nuggets were surreptitiously dispatched from the 2013 NBA Playoffs by the Golden State Warriors last week. Nuggets fans and bloggers alike are rightfully upset. The best season in franchise history was supposed to be different. 57 wins, the third seed, and homecourt advantage was supposed to mark a difference.

Naturally, everyone wants to lay blame at the feet of someone. Unfortunately, for a team without a “star”, the easiest person to blame is the head coach. George Karl deserves some blame. But, there’s plenty of it to go around.

This team, like Karl’s first few Denver teams, suffered a devastating injury when Danilo Gallinari went down during the final week of the regular season. Many conveniently forget to mention that when writing the Nuggets’ 2012-13 season opus. Gallinari’s injury, while a convenient excuse, is a valid one. It put Denver’s entire rotation in flux and forced its head coach to give playoff minutes to players who wouldn’t have seen the court except in spot duty — players like Wilson Chandler, Anthony Randolph, Corey Brewer, and Evan Fournier.

In six playoff games, Corey Brewer saw 146 minutes. He rolled up a PER (player efficiency rating) of 7.2 in that time. In Wilson Chandler’s 205 minutes, he tallied a PER of 8.7. In Evan Fournier’s 53 playoff minutes, he posted an overall PER of 4.0, while averaging four turnovers and four personal fouls per-36 minutes. These numbers aren’t just bad. They’re bone-chillingly bad. Denver’s other 2012 draft pick, Quincy Miller, couldn’t see the floor as he is nowhere near ready for the rigors of the NBA (and may never be). All the while, Mark Jackson was able to rely on rookies Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green, and Festus Ezili (two of which were taken after Fournier).

Denver's Playoff Productivity 2013

Denver’s Playoff Productivity 2013 (Courtesy: Basketball-Reference)

Even players who would have seen court time with a healthy Gallinari struggled. JaVale McGee, a PER-darling during the regular season, posted a rating of 14.2 in 112 playoff minutes. Kosta Koufos, Denver’s most underrated and unheralded player during the regular season, tallied a PER of 10.1 in 100 minutes. Denver’s lone draft day victory in Stan Kroenke’s entire tenure as owner, Kenneth Faried, posted a PER of 15.6 in 145 minutes — a far cry from the 18 he posted as a rookie in 2012.

PER is an incredibly flawed metric, to be sure. However, for the sake of brevity, it is a good overall gauge of player productivity.

For comparison’s sake, the Houston Rockets — a team many consider in the same league as Denver where it concerns youth and potential — had only two players fail to register a double-digit PER. Jeremy Lin, playing an injury-riddled 84 minutes, posted a negative PER of -0.6. James Anderson’s 18 minutes produced an overall PER of -1.6. Every other player on their playoff roster, including rookie Terrence Jones, Aaron Brooks, and Greg Smith (someone who had no business on a playoff basketball court), posted PER’s in the double-digits.

The Clippers had four players — Ryan Hollins, Grant Hill, DeAndre Jordan, and Chauncey Billups — each fail to register double-digit PER ratings. Only in DeAndre Jordan do they have a future invested. One other small detail: They have the best point guard in the world in Chris Paul and one of the league’s brightest, youngest, stars in Blake Griffin.

The Lakers had five players — Antawn Jamison, Chris Duhon, Metta World Peace, Jodie Meeks, and Earl Clark — fail to register double-digit PER this postseason. Wilson Chandler will earn $6.3 million next season, $6.8 million in 2014-15, and $7.2 million in 2015-16. Jordan Hill and Chris Duhon will earn a combined $7.4 million next season in Los Angeles — the end of their guaranteed contracts.

The Chicago Bulls had four players fail to register a double-digit PER in Luol Deng, Marquis Teague, Daequan Cook, and Richard ‘Rip’ Hamilton. Deng lost 15 pounds while laid-up in the hospital following complications from a spinal tap procedure last week. Marquis Teague is Chicago’s fourth-string point guard, and only seeing time because Derrick Rose and Kirk Hinrich are both injured — leaving only Nate Robinson available.

Masai Ujiri wins Executive of the Year

Picture used courtesy of The Denver Post (Hyoung Chang)

Masai Ujiri is very worthy of the Executive of the Year Award he received this season. He built a terrific regular season roster that won a Denver franchise-record, 57 games. However, when it comes to the playoffs, his team-building leaves much to be desired. And he’s just as culpable as anyone when it comes to laying blame for Denver’s first round flameout.

After all, it was Ujiri’s front office that didn’t address their team’s woeful shooting concerns. Say what you will about Stephen Curry’s super-stardom, but the Nuggets lost this series at the free throw line, the 3-point line, and on the perimeter. Game six, decided by four points, featured a Denver team that went 13-of-21 from the charity stripe — including a 2-of-7 performance from starting front court mates, JaVale McGee and Kenneth Faried. Even if Denver had been fortunate to get more whistles, they might not have been able to make them count. What’s more? The Nuggets shot a horrendous 25% (7-of-28) from the 3-point line in game six, with Ty Lawson, Wilson Chandler, Corey Brewer, and Andre Miller going a combined 1-for-20. If not for Andre Iguodala’s herculean 5-for-8 effort from three (and Kosta Koufos’s flukey 3-point make), the four-point margin would have been much, much greater.

Of the sixteen playoff participants, only the Pacers (31%), Clippers (30.4%), Lakers (27%), and Bucks (26.1%) shot worse from 3-point range than Denver (31.1%) during the postseason. The Clippers were bounced in six while both the Lakers and Bucks were swept. Furthermore, only Chicago (71.6%), Houston (71.1%), Atlanta (68.2%), Milwaukee (63%), and the Lakers (60.8%) shot worse from the free throw line than Denver (73%) during the playoffs. Houston and Atlanta both lost in six. The Nuggets were lucky to not have been swept in the same fashion as Milwaukee and Los Angeles.

Denver’s woeful shooting concerns notwithstanding, it was the same front office that didn’t shore up the Nuggets’ porous perimeter defense — outside of the patchwork trade for Iguodala during the summer. I have been very critical of Ty Lawson’s defense, and rightfully so. But the truth of the matter is no team with the undersized Lawson, the aged legs of Andre Miller, and the fundamentally deficient Kenneth Faried, JaVale McGee, and Corey Brewer should expect to defend well — even with Andre Iguodala wreaking havoc on the perimeter.

Sadly, the lionshare of the blame will sit at the foot of the head coach. He’s the one that led them to 57 regular season wins. He’s also the one that led them to a first round playoff loss for the eighth time in nine seasons. And he is the one that prematurely changed his entire rotation following game two, starting undersized and still hobbled power forward, Kenneth Faried, at center.

Denver’s best five-man unit in the playoffs saw only five total minutes together in the regular season because of Gallinari’s reign of good health. Ty Lawson, Andre Iguodala, Wilson Chandler, Kenneth Faried, and JaVale McGee played 22 total minutes together in the series. After their game five victory, where said lineup saw fourteen minutes, George Karl only gave them eight minutes in game six. Part of that had to do with Faried’s aforementioned foul trouble. But, as a head coach, you absolutely have to find time for a lineup that scored 110.5 points per 100 possessions while allowing just 87.7. Golden State had too much trouble countering Denver’s length and athleticism with those five on the floor.

Why did it take until game five for Karl to deploy that lineup? And why, after seeing its effectiveness, did he only give them eight minutes in a potential series-clinching game six? Removing Kenneth Faried is understandable. But, it’s certainly not advisable. Not when your playoff lives are on the line. However, therein lies the rub: How can George Karl possibly give players like Faried and McGee playoff minutes when they’re such poor free-throw shooters and ball-chasing defenders? Coaches aren’t dumb to opponent weaknesses. Not anymore. Smart coaches like Gregg Popovich and Scotty Brooks (gasp!) would eat Denver alive if they used such lineups.

Denver’s second-best five-man unit in the playoffs only saw four minutes together in the regular season. That lineup included Andre Miller, Ty Lawson, Andre Iguodala, Wilson Chandler, and JaVale McGee. They scored 104.5 points per 100 possessions while allowing only 94.6 in their 26 playoff minutes. What’s interesting is they saw action in all six games — just no consistent court time in anyone of those games. Why not? Why aren’t George Karl’s most effective lineups being used more often?

The Denver Nuggets don’t need a new head coach. They need a specialist able to identify their best lineups and advise George Karl on them properly. Is it any wonder that they’ve struggled in the playoffs since seeing stat man and ‘George Karl’s brain’, Dean Oliver, leave the team to join ESPN? I think not. Second, they need to clean house of the knuckleheads and get serious about winning a championship — if that is indeed their goal. If Denver’s free-throw and 3-point shooting was the cause for losing game six, it was the knucklehead play of guys like JaVale McGee, Wilson Chandler, and Anthony Randolph that lost them game four. That’s not just the perils of youth. Every team is young. The problem is most serious teams don’t do stupid. The San Antonio Spurs don’t hoard dumb players like they’re going out-of-style. The Memphis Grizzlies don’t harbor a single player lacking in basketball I.Q. The same can be said of the Oklahoma City Thunder, Miami HEAT, Boston Celtics, Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets and every other team (outside of the New York Knicks) that saw their season extended last week. Blame George Karl all you want, but, those players certainly wouldn’t work for other coaches because they wouldn’t have them. Third, if Denver’s front office thinks they can get away next season without Andre Iguodala’s perimeter defense, then, they have another thing coming. With Iguodala on the floor during the 2012-13 regular season, the Nuggets allowed 100.5 points per 100 possessions — a mark good enough for seventh-overall in team defense. With Iguodala off the floor, that number jumped to 105.3 points per 100 possessions — good enough for 22nd-overall in team defense and not far from their 19th-overall (103.4 DRTG) finish the year before his arrival. Denver was the worst team at defending the 3-ball in playoff history. One less Andre Iguodala means pain. Lots and lots and lots of pain. Fourth, the Nuggets absolutely have to address their gaping hole in the middle. JaVale McGee isn’t the answer. He never was the answer. He should be wearing another uniform by November.

What’s good is a lot of Denver’s players are quite movable. What’s bad is they aren’t movable for much. First, I would recommend trading all of the knuckleheads for draft picks — because you aren’t going to get much of value in return for players who can’t play fundamentally sound basketball when it matters most. Second, I would do everything in my power to ensure Andre Iguodala returns for the 2013-2014 season. If it takes guaranteeing him roster changes and that he be consulted prior to said changes, then I would make such concessions. It is beyond imperative that he return — beyond imperative.

Looking at Denver’s payroll moving forward, JaVale McGee, Wilson Chandler, Andre Miller, Anthony Randolph, and Jordan Hamilton appear to be the most difficult players to move (considering their contracts and relative abilities — or lack thereof). Those five players eat up $25.013 million of Denver’s payroll next season. That’s a ridiculous amount, considering the salary cap is estimated to be just over $58 million. Around 43% of their payroll is guaranteed to players who have no business on a contending team. Andre Miller, for all his faults, can still be moved for something of value. The other four? Not so much. Kosta Koufos, Evan Fournier (his playoff performance notwithstanding), and Kenneth Faried appear to be the most valuable trade chips they have on the table, as Lawson and Gallinari are untouchable. Dangle Koufos, Faried, and Fournier just to see if there are any takers (there probably won’t be). Then go from there.

Denver Nuggets player payroll entering 2013-14

Denver Nuggets player payroll entering 2013-14 (Courtesy: Basketball-Reference)

The playoffs are won with matchups. And until the Nuggets organization figures that out, they will continue to suffer the consequences. The reason Denver advanced to the Western Conference Finals during the 2009 season was because they had advantages at point guard (Chauncey Billups), small forward (Carmelo Anthony), and center (Nene) that were very hard for opposing teams to counter over a seven-game playoff series. They haven’t had the same advantages since. That’s one reason why George Karl’s Nuggets have advanced past the first round only once in his nine years on the job. He just hasn’t had good enough players.

For insight into players Denver should target in the June Draft and during the summer free agency period, check back here every week, as scouting reports and detailed player evaluations are added. As always, thanks for reading.

*Stats for this piece were used courtesy of NBA.com/Stats and Basketball-Reference.com

Andre Iguodala’s case for Defensive Player of the Year and more …

Denver Nuggets’ guard/forward Andre Iguodala is deserving of the Defensive Player of the Year Award.

I’m not being a homer in saying that. Until yesterday I scoffed at the notion. But the simple facts are this:

  1. The Denver Nuggets had the 19th-ranked defense in the NBA last year. 
  2. The Denver Nuggets have not had a top-10 defense in the NBA since 2008-09.
  3. The Denver Nuggets finished this season with the 11th-best defense in the NBA, allowing 102 points per 100 possessions. (It should be noted a 102 defensive efficiency rating last year would have given them the 15th-best overall defense in the league — a far cry from their slot in 11th this season.)
  4. The Denver Nuggets allow only 100.5 points per 100 possessions with Andre Iguodala on the floor. They concede 105.3 points per 100 possessions with him off.
  5. Andre Igu0dala shares a good portion of minutes with Ty Lawson, Kenneth Faried, and JaVale McGee.
    • The Nuggets allow 104.2 points per 100 possessions with Lawson on the floor and just 98.4 with him off.
    • The Nuggets allow 102.5 points per 100 possessions with Kenneth Faried on the floor and just 101.3 with him off.
    • The Nuggets allow 102.4 points per 100 possessions with JaVale McGee on the floor and just 101.7 with him off.
  6. Kosta Koufos, Denver’s best offensive and defensive center, saw only 1817 minutes of playing time this season (placing him behind Iguodala, Lawson, Faried, Danilo Gallinari, Andre Miller, and Corey Brewer in minutes played).
  7. Gallinari, Denver’s best overall player, missed the final month of the season due to injury. Yet, the Nuggets didn’t miss a beat.
  8. Miller, the Nuggets’ best defensive guard outside Iguodala (and Corey Brewer), is 37 years-old and hobbling as we enter the playoffs.

Name another player who doesn’t reside in Miami able to cover all those holes by himself. You just can’t do it.

While likely winner of the Defensive Player of the Year Award Marc Gasol is Memphis’ defensive conductor, he has a whole lot more on which to rely. He’s got Tony Allen wreaking havoc on the wing. He’s got Zach Randolph occupying the opposite block. He’s got perhaps the most underrated player in the entire league, Mike Conley, playing point guard. If Conley isn’t the most underrated player overall, he’s certainly the most underrated defensively at the point. No starting point man outside Devin Harris comes close to his on/off defensive efficiency this season. Jeremy Lin’s backup in Houston, Patrick Beverley, is the only other one in their universe. And Beverley has only seen 712 minutes of playing time.

San Antonio’s Tim Duncan, another potential candidate, has Tiago Splitter on the opposite block and Kawhi Leonard on the wing. Leonard is so good defensively he could give Andre Iguodala a run for his money. The same goes for Indiana’s Roy Hibbert. He’s got David West’s help in the paint with Paul George and George Hill roaming the wing and perimeter.

The only guy who has a legit gripe is Chicago’s Joakim Noah. Noah shares the court with Marco Bellinelli, Carlos Boozer, and little Nate Robinson. Though the Bulls do have Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler on the wing, the loss of Taj Gibson to injury earlier this season put even more of the defensive burden on Noah. Tom Thibodeau’s system is amazing, but, it can only take you so far. Chicago has the league’s 5th-ranked defense, and in large part, that is because of Joakim Noah.

All that said, based on Denver’s defensive improvement in only a year’s time, my vote (if I had one) would still go to Andre Iguodala. On Iguodala and his activity level, lead CBS NBA blogger Matt Moore said it best:

He switches from pushing Chris Paul away from his right, to switching onto Blake Griffin to deny the post pass, then rotating to the corner shooter. He goes from denying the catch for the shooter to showing on the drive to deter the penetration to recovering and stealing when the ball gets swung back to the shooter. He strips, annoys, blocks, challenges and otherwise smothers the opponent when they decide to try to take him one-on-one.

And he does all of it with a cast of characters only the ‘Island of Misfit Toys’ could love. It’s like former Sixers’ coach Doug Collins says in this video clip, Iguodala “is an anchor”. He’s a defensive anchor in the same way Marc Gasol, Joakim Noah, and Roy Hibbert are in Memphis, Chicago, and Indiana, respectively. Except Iguodala is on the wing and responsible for larger swaths of space. This isn’t a matter of opinion anymore. It’s a matter of fact. And the facts support Andre Iguodala as the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year.

What about George Karl? Is he really deserving of Coach of the Year?

While some very smart people did in fact see Denver winning upwards of 58 games this season, let’s be real:

  1. George Karl has made JaVale McGee a halfway competent basketball player. If for no other reason than that, Karl should win Coach of the Year. 
  2. George Karl has handled Ty Lawson, Kenneth Faried, and JaVale McGee’s minute allocation so well that Denver has a nearly top-10 defense.
  3. He’s transformed Kosta Koufos into a quality starter at center.
  4. He’s guided a team that can’t shoot outside the paint to 57-wins.
  5. He’s guided a team among the league’s worst in free-throw and 3-point shooting to 57-wins.
  6. He doesn’t have an All-Star. He doesn’t have a post option. He doesn’t have a knock-down shooter. He doesn’t have a threat from mid-range. He’s won 57-games.
  7. He has extracted from Wilson Chandler the best (half)season of his career.
  8. He’s won 57-games with JaVale McGee playing 1433 minutes.
  9. Andre Iguodala had his worst season since 2007-08, Kenneth Faried experienced a sophomore slump, Ty Lawson had a severe regression for half the season, JaVale was JaVale, and Danilo Gallinari wasn’t the same player without a big who could finish (as his drop in assist rate can attest). And George Karl’s Nuggets still won 57-games.
  10. 57 wins with Kosta Koufos, JaVale McGee, and Kenneth Faried as his primary front court players.

The only other candidates I believe worthy of consideration are New York’s Mike Woodson (due to his work with Carmelo Anthony and especially J.R. Smith) and Golden State’s Mark Jackson (for completely revamping the Warriors’ defense after injuries to Brandon Rush and Andrew Bogut). All that said, George Karl should win his first Coach of the Year Award in a landslide.

So, just how good is Nuggets’ rookie Evan Fournier and does he have a case for being the steal of 2012′s NBA Draft?

Let’s get one thing perfectly clear: Evan Fournier has only played 428 total minutes this season. Even in French that’s a small sample size. Of the 30 first round draft choices he took the stage with last June, only nine have seen less court time — with one of those being Royce White. Of his 428 minutes, 224 have been played in the fourth quarter of games well in hand. You can understand how it might be difficult to extrapolate much from such a limited data set. That fact notwithstanding, it is even more difficult to not like what you’ve seen from Denver’s latest draft pick.

Coming into 2012′s NBA Draft, the biggest cause for concern with Fournier was his perimeter shooting. Per Draft Express:

Had he shot a better percentage from beyond the arc with Poiters this season, it’s reasonable to wonder if he would be considered a legit top-20 prospect in this deep draft.

In other words, Evan Fournier is actually a top-20 draft pick. If you take his age (he’s only 20) and advanced basketball I.Q. into account, he’s a top-15 or top-10 pick in last year’s draft (in the coming weeks I plan to do an in-depth analysis into exactly where Evan stacks up in comparison to his fellow draftees). You don’t need to be a scout to see Fournier’s talents. He’s been absolutely dynamite down the stretch.

Over his last nine games, he’s averaging 12.3 points on 9 shots, 2.2 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.4 steals, and 1.2 turnovers in just 22.8 minutes per night. In that same span, he’s been Denver’s best overall player in terms of offensive and defensive net differential. The numbers are astounding. In Fournier’s 205 minutes played over the last nine games, Denver is scoring 116.2 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor and just 105.6 with him off. Furthermore, they are allowing only 92.5 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor and an astronomical 106.8 with him off. That’s just ludicrous. Especially when you consider he was not known as a defender coming into the draft.

It is for all those reasons I was not surprised upon learning of his insertion into the starting lineup for game one of Denver’s first round playoff series with the Golden State Warriors. What Fournier does best is provide a sense of calm, trust, and intelligence to a regularly frantic Nuggets’ attack. He can be trusted to make the right play from opening tip to final buzzer — otherwise the head coach famous for not playing rookies would not be giving his 20 year-old sensation such responsibility.

I do not know what Fournier’s contributions will be against Golden State. No one does. But, if Denver is lucky enough to make a deep run in the playoffs, Evan Fournier will be a major reason why.

Viva France!

Cracking the Code: On JaVale McGee and the perils of potential in the misunderstood

Editor’s Note: I stated three weeks ago that I would be writing here every Wednesday and Friday — as Mondays were occupied by my new feature at Warriorsworld. Unfortunately, I have been unable to deliver on that promise. I’ve wanted to write about JaVale McGee for a while now, however, the task has required much more time than I ever anticipated. This is the reason for the site’s inactivity. I apologize for that. JaVale is an interesting individual and is deserving of the careful analysis I hope is provided here. Thanks for reading.

If you have spent any time following me on Twitter, you have a clear idea for my feelings on JaVale McGee. If you have spent any time prior to now reading this blog, you should have a clear idea for my feelings on McGee. And if you were (un?)lucky enough to read the March 25th edition of ‘Smooth’s Starting Five’ at TrueHoop affiliate, Warriorsworld.net, then you should have no doubt about my feelings with respect to Denver’s backup center.

I was particularly acerbic on March 25th, criticizing both McGee’s offensive and defensive impact, in addition to his on and off-court intelligence — or lack thereof. Of course, JaVale responded with his best game of the season the very next Wednesday night in San Antonio. As a matter of fact, it is likely his best game since last year’s playoffs against the Los Angeles Lakers. Part of this is a byproduct of playing against the Spurs. For some reason, McGee always seems to give San Antonio trouble. In three games against Gregg Popovich’s team, he is averaging 14.3 points on 9 shots, 7.3 rebounds, 2.67 blocks, 0.33 assists, 1 steal, and 1.33 turnovers in just over 19 minutes. Those numbers vary drastically from his regular season output to this point, where he’s averaging 9.3 points on 6.8 shots, 4.6 rebounds, 2.0 blocks, 0.3 assists, 0.4 steals, and 1.1 turnovers in just over 18 minutes.

While the surprise performance is a welcome respite from an otherwise ho-hum season, it is certainly nothing to get overly excited about. We’ve seen flashes of brilliance from JaVale before, only to be let-down soon after. It is par for the course for “The Great Adventure” as Corey Brewer called him in a recent article by Nuggets’ beat writer, Benjamin Hochman. If you’ve yet to read Hochman’s feature on McGee in the Sunday, March 31 edition of The Denver Post, it would behoove you to give it a look. JaVale opens up about his early Attention Deficit Disorder diagnosis and subsequent doctor recommendation he take Ritalin, of which he told Hochman: “I wouldn’t do it. I just didn’t want to take it.”

If only JaVale’s play was as productive as the amusement and curiosity he sparks in others. “I didn’t know you had ADD,” teammate Kenneth Faried quipped JaVale’s direction during Hochman’s interview. “I knew something was wrong with you, but I didn’t know it was that.” It’s an excellent article about a bizarre professional athlete trying to find his way in the NBA and very much worth your time.

That said, the Nuggets should have asked themselves two questions prior to trading longtime Nugget, Nene Hilario, for JaVale McGee:

  1. Is McGee’s fitness-induced asthma going to be a problem while playing George Karl’s pace in the cold, dry, thin air of Denver? 
  2. Is our offensive and defensive system structured enough for JaVale to reach his ultimate potential? Will his Attention Deficit Disorder be a stumbling block in George Karl’s freelance scheme?

In answering those two questions, we must ask further questions: First, did Denver know about McGee’s asthma condition? And if they did, why wasn’t it brought front-and-center as reason number one for not making the trade? How can you possibly expect a player with fitness-induced asthma to play at George Karl’s pace, regardless of altitude? Second, did Denver know about McGee’s Attention Deficit Disorder? And if they did, was a certified professional consulted in order to deduce the likelihood of McGee’s success in George Karl’s system? Treating ADD in children and adults is no easy task, regardless of whether or not the patient is willing to take prescribed medication. One thing absolutely necessary for those with ADD is daily structure. That means strict schedules, strict rules for organization, and strict rules for process and presentation. I don’t know if anyone has noticed before, but, George Karl is hardly strict on the basketball court.

I am not a doctor. Nor do I play one on TV. But I do have a lot of life experience. It is my educated guess that JaVale McGee’s Attention Deficit Disorder and fitness-induced asthma has created a perfect storm for his lack of success in Denver.

To be fair, JaVale has not had what anyone would necessarily deem a “bad year”. He is averaging career-highs in PER (20.8), block rate (8.4%), and usage (21.5%). His TS% and eFG% numbers are also career-highs, however, Andre Miller’s spoon-fed facilitation is much the reason for that. Conversely, McGee is averaging a career-low in defensive rebounding (16.3%), and, by extension, total rebound rate (14.3%). The reasons for that are twofold: First, it is likely he’s never played with a roster full of so many great rebounders. Second, he takes those teammates very much for granted when biting on pump-fakes to get potential blocks.

JaVale McGee advanced stats

JaVale McGee advanced stats (Courtesy: Basketball-Reference)

He’s a stat geek ‘s dream player. One look at his production per-36 minutes gives insight into why. If George Karl played him 30+ minutes per night, so the argument goes, the Nuggets would have a double-double machine on their hands.

JaVale McGee production per-36 minutes

JaVale McGee per-36 minutes (Courtesy: Basketball-Reference)

JaVale’s best stretch of play this season came largely during the month of November (for argument’s sake, I am also including his lone game in October), when he averaged 10.4 points on 8.3 shots, 5.7 rebounds, 1.6 blocks, 0.5 assists, and 1.2 turnovers in nearly 19 minutes per night. His body was fresh. His game was alert. And his numbers reflected it. He continued that run of good play into the final month of 2012, culminating in a December 7th contest with the Pacers, when he posted 20 points on 9 shots, 8 rebounds, 1 block, and two turnovers in just over 30-minutes of action. Two nights later, everything changed — and not for the better.

JaVale McGee 2012-13 Game Log for games played up to 12/7 (Courtesy: Basketball-Reference)

JaVale McGee 2012-13 Game Log for games played up to 12/7 (Courtesy: Basketball-Reference)

On December 9th, the Nuggets went into New York’s Madison Square Garden for a matchup with former franchise centerpiece Carmelo Anthony and the New York Knicks. Denver lost by six points in a game that was theirs for the taking. However, JaVale McGee’s 15:48 of playing time proved costly. He finished the night with 4 points, 3 rebounds, 1 assist, 3 blocks, 2 turnovers, 3 personal fouls, and a minus-12. In a six-point loss, those few minutes of McGee are what turned the tide. Having seen greater-than 20 minutes in only 12 out of a potential 52 games since the debacle in New York, he hasn’t been the same player.

Diving into his season splits, a curious pattern emerges. He plays extremely well on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays while excelling on either zero or two days rest. Anything greater than three days rest proves fatal. This pattern holds true going back to last season (due to lacking time commitments I was unable to research further back).

JaVale McGee - Daily split for the 2012-13 season (Courtesy of Basketball-Reference)

JaVale McGee – Daily split for the 2012-13 season (Courtesy: Basketball-Reference)

JaVale McGee split based on number of days rest for 2012-13 season (Courtesy: Basketball-Reference)

JaVale McGee split based on number of days rest for 2012-13 season (Courtesy: Basketball-Reference)

What’s even more interesting is that the best stretch of play of his career is widely regarded as coming during last year’s playoffs against the Lakers. Every playoff series is set up in a very structured, regimented fashion. He played poorly in games one and two in L.A., then coming off two days rest, blew the brakes of the Lakers in Denver. After a certain rhythm and repeatable structure had been attained in the series, (games fell on every other day following game three), he exploded again in game five in L.A.

JaVale McGee Game Log 2012 NBA Playoffs (Courtesy: Basketball-Reference)

JaVale McGee Game Log 2012 NBA Playoffs (Courtesy: Basketball-Reference)

The point I’m trying to make is that his performance starts improving once structure is forced upon him. If he responds to such external factors like the repeating process of a playoff series, who’s to say he won’t respond similarly to stimulant medication and even more structure? The NBA season is a marathon — and not particularly conducive to regularized routine. He needs help implementing routine if he doesn’t already have it, in addition to potentially helpful medication.

The problem with McGee is not in production. The problem with JaVale is in trust. Can he be trusted to make the correct, fundamentally sound play during his time on the court? Much of basketball — a team game — is predicated on coach and player trust. If you cannot trust a person from moment-to-moment in their regular everyday life, how can you do so on a basketball court? For it is often the efforts of the collective that determine the winner and loser. This is especially true in the case of Denver.

You can’t just tell a player of McGee’s temperament to “play random”. Because invariably, he will do so. Karl is famous for saying his coaching staff does not call plays. It is their dribble-drive motion offense that creates opportunities close to the basket (which is one reason the Nuggets lead the league in points in the paint). Such an unstructured offense is incredibly reliant on player instinct, player intelligence, and the ability to make the right read at the right time. The optimal reaction time in such an offense is akin to what a typical person might have when touching a scalding hot stove: Immediate. But because of his ADD and asthma condition, McGee is incapable of playing within that construct, which is why his minutes have declined with his production.

Different things motivate different players. However, what absolutely motivates every player is playing time and dollar signs. If JaVale can be convinced there is a direct correlation between his untreated Attention Deficit Disorder and his reduced productivity on the court (and by extension, his reduced playing time), then perhaps he can be swayed into reconsidering treatment options.

Being locked-in at work 24/7/365 isn’t feasible for anyone. But if JaVale can be even the slightest bit more consistent, it would do worlds for his self-esteem, his on-the-job productivity, his playing time, and ultimately, his bank account. JaVale is not — I repeat not — a dumb person or player. He just needs more of the right kind of help than he is getting. Sometimes it clicks for him. Other times it does not. However, if he doesn’t soon realize the opportunity he has been given, the right kind of help will vanish, and with it, so will the opportunity.

An Apology

Editor’s note: On Monday, March 11, I said there would be a Monday-Thursday writing schedule. Then I proceeded to miss last Thursday and this past Monday. In the time since, I agreed to write for ESPN True Hoop Affiliate, Warriorsworld.net. My first article, where I discuss Arron Afflalo, Kosta Koufos, and Kawhi Leonard, went up Monday afternoon. “Smooth’s Starting Five”, as it is known, will appear every Monday for the foreseeable future — or until they get sick of me, which could be sooner than later. Seeing how I will be there every Monday, I have decided to amend my writing schedule here at Smooth’s Hoops. From this point forward, articles will appear every Wednesday and Friday with a special Saturday edition popping up every so often. I promise (cross my heart and hope to die). Unless the WordPress Mobile app decides to lose a bunch of my content again. 

Well, this just got a lot more interesting. Thirteen straight victories? By the Denver Nuggets? I mean, thirteen (13) straight wins for THE Denver Nuggets? This doesn’t even seem real. And it’s certainly been no fluke. Maybe this isn’t the same movie after all. I certainly don’t remember THIS being in the plotline over the last decade.

47-wins. And they did it with room to spare, as thirteen games remain on their schedule. It figures Denver reached the 47-win mark on the road … in Oklahoma City … on the second night of a road back-to-back … after going into overtime the night before in Chicago … and extending their franchise-record 13-game winning streak in the process. It just really figures.

The funniest part of all is none of it still makes any sense — at least not in a traditional basketball sense. Outside of Andre Miller, they still have no post presence. Outside Danilo Gallinari, they still have no outside shooting to speak of. This team is so unconventional and unorthodox that they’re almost a classification unto themselves. Before we get into the how’s and why’s behind Denver’s resurgence, however, there is one thing I definitely need to get out-of-the-way:

To Arturo Galletti, Andres Alvarez, the entire staff at Wages of Wins, and, by extension, everyone associated with the Denver Nuggets organization, I humbly, courteously, and without pause, apologize for in any way leading fans astray into believing the team was anything but the same successful franchise it has been for a decade running. I was wrong.

Sure, the Nuggets will easily surpass the 47-win benchmark I set for them. But it didn’t look like it was going to be all that easy halfway through the season. It didn’t look like it was going to be all that easy as late as two weeks ago, for that matter.

Most of the concerns I had coming into this season have come to fruition. While the Nuggets will undoubtedly surpass 47-wins, they will do so while posting the league’s 25th-ranked 3-point percentage (34.2%) in tandem with a 29th-ranked free throw percentage (69.2%). In the case of the former, I predicted a three-point percentage worse than last year’s 33-percent. While there is still plenty of season left, I was probably wrong in that estimation. In the case of the latter, I was absolutely right. I estimated Denver to have a free-throw shooting percentage worse than last year’s potential composite score given each player’s career-mark, which would have landed them at about 71%.

Where was I wrong? Turnovers. I anticipated Denver to see an increase in turnovers with Andre Iguodala’s fast break style taking the place of Arron Afflalo’s straight-line to the basket. The Nuggets turned the ball over 14.1% of the time last year. Currently, this season, they’re doing so at a slightly less 13.6%. And that’s after starting the year more along the lines of what I had predicted. The fact Denver is among the top-ten teams in ball security is a testament to George Karl’s coaching and the fast break style he demands. Even though Andre Iguodala is, as I predicted, putting up a nearly career-high turnover rate (17.1%), the team isn’t getting bogged down in the half court as much this season to allow those turnovers to become a more pressing concern. Denver was second in pace last year at 94.2 (behind the Sacramento Kings). So far this year, that number has climbed to 95.0 (behind only the Houston Rockets).

The truth of the matter is this: Even the most statistically savvy prognostications didn’t see Denver winning this many games with Andre Iguodala having his worst season since 2008, Kenneth Faried facing a sophomore slump, JaVale McGee not living up to his hefty contract, and Ty Lawson (outside of the last two months) regressing to Darren Collison-lite. If production is the name of the game, then those games failed. Because I predicted each one of those things happening — from Iguodala’s struggles to Ty Lawson’s regression to a whole host of other things I haven’t even mentioned.

How could I get so much right yet come out looking so wrong? First, anytime you deduce someone’s knowledge down to a simple win-total, you remove all nuance from the argument. The simple answer is I overestimated the rest of the league. I anticipated the Lakers, Warriors, Jazz, Mavericks, and T-Wolves all being better than they ended up. I also thought the Western Conference’s supremacy over the East would be more exaggerated. Furthermore, I was of the mind that opposing teams would do a similar job defensively to Denver this season as they did during Allen Iverson’s brief tenure and use more zone strategies.

I was most definitely wrong, though. Let there be no doubt.

The Nuggets made some calculated gambles that paid off — gambles I wouldn’t have made. Trusting Kosta Koufos to become a dependable starting center after giving JaVale McGee a big contract. Expecting Danilo Gallinari to magically resurrect his shooting stroke while taking the ball out of his hands and preventing him from doing what he does best — play the point-forward. And believing Corey Brewer capable of stepping into Arron Afflalo’s shoes as a shooter from the corners and mid-range.

On Friday, I will dig deeper into the numbers and try to shed more light on how Denver’s resurgence all came about. There is still so much to discuss.

Thanks again for reading.

Welcome back: To new days, new beginnings, and a fresh start

Welcome to the new and improved Smooth’s Hoops. If you haven’t visited for a while, things may look different. I changed the site format sometime back in December (or thereabouts) and made things look a little more tidy and professional. Back then, when I was ready to commit to this site and its content, I began grouping posts into respective categories. Those will remain along with the Encyclopedic articles. I can’t help it. I’m crazy.

What to expect moving forward:

First, not every post is going to be about me. However, in the interim, a few of these posts will be a referendum of the things I’ve said and put forward in the preseason. Because, let’s face it, a lot of people want me to eat crow. And I will. To a point.

That said, I have settled on a Monday/Thursday writing schedule. Posts could become more recurrent, however, I don’t want to bite off anymore than I can chew. Especially considering there are twelve total articles (including this one) in the archive of a site two years old this June.

The overriding emphasis of this blog will remain based on the Denver Nuggets. However, I do have plans of branching out my coverage to include both the entire NBA and NCAA when the need arises. Potential topics for future Smooth’s Hoops articles include: Kosta Koufos’ team MVP status, Ty Lawson’s incredible turnaround, Wilson Chandler’s role in Denver’s mid-season and post-All Star break surge, JaVale McGee’s wrong career choice (though, he has improved his play over the last few games), Arron Afflalo, Tobias Harris, and the Orlando Magic’s forthcoming resurgence, Royce White and the perils of forecasting player development without the use of pre-draft interviews, Mason Plumlee’s NBA Draft stock, and Anthony Davis’ rookie season and who I most closely see him resembling moving forward.

I also plan to take a look at players of the past and how they impact my view on the game today — a retrospective piece on Brian Williams/Bison Dele is currently in the pipeline. I will more than likely wait to go down that road until the offseason, however.

That’s just a warm-up.

Coming on Thursday, I will be closely scrutinizing my preseason predictions: where I went wrong, where I went right, and where I foresee Denver moving forward. Everything is liquid, especially in the National Basketball Association. However, there are some glaring areas where I was right and even more glaring areas where I was very, very wrong. The Nuggets only need five more victories over their final eighteen games to force a formal apology from myself to Arturo Galletti of the Wages of Wins Network and, ultimately, to the organization itself. The chances of Denver finishing with 47-wins is slightly more likely than me walking outside and getting struck by lightning (something I’m sure many of you wouldn’t mind seeing). That said, I wasn’t wrong about the team or its basic components. I was wrong in overestimating the rest of the league.

However, I want Smooth’s Hoops to be more than a referendum on myself. I want Smooth’s Hoops to be more than a numbers site. I want Smooth’s Hoops to be more than a recap site, or a grades site, or a film site. I want Smooth’s Hoops to be all-encompassing. Because neglecting any one piece of the basketball equation is to neglect all of it.

Whether it’s in the front office or on the playing floor, basketball is impossible to master. Even the game’s greatest maestros would agree. And that’s why I love it so much. It’s an impossible mountain to climb, where obstacles are always changing. Those who settle and remain satisfied with their lot, will stagnate. Those who hold themselves to a higher standard than even their most ardent fans espouse, will prosper beyond their wildest imagination.

The tagline at the top of my blog says it all: Either get the game, or the game gets you.

Welcome to Smooth’s Hoops.

- J.R.

A brief word on my Twitter account and my public “persona” because people have been curious:

I put persona in quotations because I do not have one. I have what everyone thinks of me and then I have my views of myself. It is only the latter that matters. Do not get me wrong. I certainly take the opinions of others under advisement. However, I do not let them define me.

My Twitter account became as much a fiber of my being as the skin off my back. Because it represented a hint of redemption. When I opened that account three years ago after moving back to Denver from California, I did it to meet people in the area and maybe make some new friends, as all of mine had left after college. I did not have any clue what Twitter was or the powers it possessed.

Then I discovered the basketball community and fell in love. It wasn’t until George Karl’s cancer scare that I became aware of its overwhelming influence. Twitter allowed Nuggets fans from across the globe to reach out and grieve and hope and pray for a brighter tomorrow. It allowed people to come together who wouldn’t otherwise have a chance or motivation to do so.

Twitter also helped me through some incredibly difficult times in my personal life. In retrospect, I probably should not have divulged the things I did, however, it seemed okay at that time. Twitter became a friend in and of itself. Whether or not people were listening or reading my tweets, the sounding board was always there. It worked as a point of therapy where none existed. It helped keep me alive. It helped keep me hopeful. And for that, I am forever in its debt.

That is why deleting my account was such a painful experience. The level of acclaim I was able to reach after being a whiny, self-absorbed, jerk was downright remarkable. I did not deserve the following I had built. It wasn’t until the last eight months had passed where I began to feel content with who I was and what I had become. My Twitter account typified this as much as anything.

I miss it. I miss my friends. I miss the laughs, the smiles, the arguments, and the potential for rants in all caps. I miss sharing experiences. I miss sharing disappointment. And I miss sharing jubilation. Because that’s what Twitter is ultimately for: sharing experiences with a community of people across the globe — truly your best of friends.

I will be back soon. You can count on that. It just won’t be with my previous handle. It’s time for a re-branding. It’s time for a new beginning. Not so much talk about myself. More talk about the team, the league, and the players and fans that make it great.

Until then, see you Thursday.

On this Thanksgiving of 2012, I am thankful for quite a bit …

Seeing as how I’m always one to constantly complain about the malaise of my sports teams, I wanted to change things up this Thanksgiving. It’s time to give thanks, be merry, and spread holiday cheer!

I’m thankful for a lot of things this year. I’m thankful to have the peace-of-mind and clarity of thought to even write about basketball right now – if even for free. I’m thankful for the Denver Nuggets. I’m thankful for an NBA franchise to call my own. I’m thankful to have this forum on which to spout my beliefs as if it’s gospel (it isn’t). I’m thankful for every single person who has read something I’ve written and maybe come to a new understanding of the ways in which the world turns (not always correct, but new).

I’m thankful for Ty Lawson’s blinding speed. I’m thankful for 36 year-old Andre Miller and his (hopefully movable) 3-year, $14.65 million dollar contract. I’m thankful for 6-6. I’m thankful for Andre Iguodala’s steady resolve. I’m thankful for “The Manimal”, Kenneth Bernard Faried Lewis. I’m thankful to be able to see Faried every single night he suits up to play for my favorite team. I’m thankful to see him not shrink from the competition of playing the Timberwolves’, Kevin Love.

I’m thankful that a lot of the things I say aren’t taken seriously.

I am thankful for Danilo Gallinari’s monumentally momentous braggadocios swag. I’m thankful for Ohio State grad, Kosta Koufos. I’m thankful for Kosta Koufos? I’m thankful for Kosta freaking Koufos! I’m thankful for Corey Brewer’s locomotive.  I’m thankful for Jordan Hamilton’s 44% 3-point shooting through seven games played. I’m thankful for Gallinari and Iguodala’s identical Player Efficiency Ranking (PER). I’m thankful for Timofey Mozgov’s unused brilliance off the bench. I’m thankful for over 7-years of George Karl’s patronage, coaching, ego, and consecutive playoff appearances – and what will hopefully be a continued cancer-free bill of health.

I’m thankful for the services of every Denver Nuggets player past and present – even those who may not have received the kindest of exits. I’m thankful for Carmelo Anthony’s heart-stopping buzzer-beaters. I’m thankful for 33-points in one quarter. I’m thankful for Nene Hilario’s near-decade of service to the city, the franchise, and the community at-large. I’m thankful for Chauncey Billups’ brief return home and the Western Conference Finals that materialized because of his presence. I’m thankful for the brief time Arron Afflalo spent in Denver as a result of Chauncey’s recruitment. I’m thankful for Chris “Birdman” Andersen’s colorful energy, Al Harrington’s inefficiency and locker room chill, Renaldo Balkman’s weed habit, Anthony Carter’s clutch passing, Melvin Ely’s cardboard cutout of Melvin Ely, Shelden Williams’s immense forehead, Kenyon Martin’s amazing tattoo, J.R. Smith’s amazing tattoos, and Malik Allen’s cardboard cutout of Malik Allen. I’m thankful for Joey Graham. Wait, who?

And I will forever be thankful for Mr. Frenchie, Johan Petro.

I’m thankful for 4-points, 14-rebounds, 4 turnovers, and six personal fouls in 35-minutes and 26-seconds. I’m thankful for sobriety.

I’m thankful for people even humoring me into listening to what I have to say.

I’m thankful for Tad Boyle. Praise be to Jesus, I’m thankful for Tad Boyle. I’m thankful for Josh Scott’s post presence and free-throw shooting. I’m thankful for Askia Booker’s confidence and leadership. I’m thankful for the rebounding tenacity of Andre Roberson and the bright future of Xavier Johnson and Spencer Dinwiddie. I’m thankful for the #23 ranking in the latest Associated Press poll – 15 years in the making. Look ma, it’s the real deal!

I’m thankful for Jon Embree and any man willing to take on the responsibility of rebuilding a once-proud college football powerhouse from the depths of despair.

I’m thankful for Peyton Manning. I’m thankful for Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil. I’m thankful for Willis effing McGahee. I’m thankful for Brandon Stokley, Demariyus Thomas, and Ronnie Hillman. I’m thankful for Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil again. I’m thankful for John Elway and Pat Bowlen and John Fox and Jack Del Rio. I’m thankful for Peyton fucking Manning.

I’m thankful for the end of Tebow-mania.

I’m thankful for the pick-and-roll. I’m thankful for the Triangle, the Princeton, and the Motion offense. I’m thankful for Steve Nash skip-passes. I’m thankful for Rasheed Wallace blind-passes out of the post. I’m thankful for J.R. Smith pull-up jumpers in transition. I’m thankful for Dirk Nowitzki operating out of the high-post. I’m thankful for Carmelo Anthony – starting power forward. I’m even more thankful for everything he does on a nightly basis despite never getting enough respect from NBA officials. I’m thankful for Paul Pierce’s mid-range game. I’m thankful for Rajon Rondo’s developing jumper. I’m thankful for Jason Terry’s airplane spin and Ray Allen’s buzzer-beating 3-pointers on the wing. I’m thankful for Chris Paul-to-Blake Griffin alley-oops.  I’m thankful for Jamal Crawford. I’m thankful for Portland Trail Blazers fans. I’m thankful for Damian Lillard. I’m thankful for Andre Miller’s lob passes and post-game and “savvy veteran leadership”.

I’m thankful for the coaching mastery of Doug Collins, the smooth shooting of Kevin Martin, and the end of Linsanity.

I’m thankful for Klay Thompson.

I’m thankful for the genius of the San Antonio Spurs. I’m thankful for Tim Duncan’s Hall-of-Fame career, Manu Ginobili’s Euro-step, the fancy footwork of Frenchman, Tony Parker, and the immutable Gregg Popovich’s class, crass, and sass.

I’m thankful for Mike Dunlap and the emerging brilliance of Kemba Walker. I’m thankful for Zach Randolph and the likely Jared Sullinger comparisons I make in the future. I’m even thankful for Gerald Wallace and Brook Lopez, interestingly enough.

I’m thankful for Kobe Bryant’s renaissance.

I’m thankful for the unmatched and untouched and unmitigated dominance of one LeBron Raymone James.

I’m thankful for the Wages of Wins stat geeks. I’m thankful for Matt Moore and the rest of the unrelenting taunting, trolling ignoramuses on Twitter.

And I’m thankful for you.

Thank you for reading. Thank you for arguing. Thank you for being there. Thank you for everything.

Happy Holidays. Go Nuggets!

I will always be thankful for this:

Danilo Gallinari, the Denver Nuggets, and Man’s Best Friend

As I said back on August 30, 2012 in part I of my three-part series on the Arron Afflalo trade, I do not enjoy making reason of chaos. This continues to be the case. There is just too much wrong with the Denver Nuggets for my personal lifestyle to keep up. This is the main reason why my writing has taken a dip of late. I have too many other commitments to be spending an incalculable number of hours processing and  illuminating the incomprehensible inadequacies of this organization and then postulating how I would have done things differently. And until an NBA team decides my abilities are worth their time and money, my abbreviated outrage on Twitter will remain.

That said, prior to the season starting, people were interested in my ideas on how the Nuggets could make their new roster of players work, rather than the litany of ways in which it would not. In response, I had to tell them there was no way of it working. Eight games into the season, we have seen a validation of my hypothesis. And that’s sad, mostly because people being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars per year (if not more) are being tasked with making decisions I am better able to make in a few hours from my laptop at home for nothing.

The word “compulsive” describes the repetitive, irresistible urge to perform a behavior. A dog who displays compulsive behavior repeatedly performs one or more behaviors over and over, to the extent that it interferes with his normal life. The behavior he’s doing doesn’t seem to have any purpose, but he’s compelled to do it anyway. Some dogs will spend almost all their waking hours engaging in repetitive behaviors. They might lose weight, suffer from exhaustion and even physically injure themselves. Dogs display many different kinds of compulsions, such as spinning, pacing, tail chasing, fly snapping, barking, shadow or light chasing, excessive licking and toy fixation. It’s important to note that normal dogs also engage in behaviors like barking and licking, but they usually do so in response to specific triggers.

Courtesy: WebMD

In what comes as a shock to many, the Denver Nuggets (with one of the league’s lighter schedules) are a middling team through eight games of the 2012-13 season. In what should come as zero shock to my faithful readers, I am not surprised. Now, with Denver struggling to keep their head above water, throngs of Nuggets’ fans have began calling for more trades. Surprise, surprise. The dog is chasing its tail again.

On June 22, 2012, I wrote:

At what point do the players traded stop being the scapegoat and the people in charge of moving them take responsibility? When is the franchise going to have any form of stability? When will their best players be identified and then be held onto for the duration of their careers?

Since June 22, the Denver Nuggets have done nothing to stem the tide of tail-chasing. Instead, they’ve involved themselves in yet more trades. And the dog goes round and round again.

During the NBA’s draft on June 28, Denver took swing-man Evan Fournier out of France with the 22nd overall pick. I guess Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, Arron Afflalo, Jordan Hamilton, and Corey Brewer weren’t quite enough to satiate their appetite for wing players. With only Kenneth Faried and Al Harrington on the roster at power forward, common sense would dictate Nuggets brass look for a backup power forward. Jared Sullinger, whom I advocated they take with their first overall pick (if they weren’t going to trade up for Iowa State’s Royce White — who I had no idea would refuse traveling with his team after signing an NBA contract), went to the Celtics immediately after Denver took Fournier.

The Nuggets further compounded their basketball inadequacies by taking Quincy Miller during the second round. I said on Twitter during the lead-up to the draft that if Denver decided to take Miller at any point I would “laugh my ass off in anger.” I was forever grateful they didn’t take him during the first round, but, became amused when they predictably did during the second. He’s a nice player — puts up nice numbers — until you actually watch him play, an activity by which it seems Denver’s front office very rarely partakes. How else would you explain drafting Kenneth Faried in 2011 and following it up by trading for JaVale McGee? Anyone who actually watches basketball knew those two wouldn’t mesh. Everyone except Denver, I guess. How else would you explain the Nuggets then trading their only shooter this past summer for yet another diverse wing in Andre Iguodala? Anyone who actually watches basketball knew that wouldn’t work. Everyone except Denver (Kevin Pelton, John Hollinger, and their echo chamber), I guess.

When NBA executives begin using the ever-elusive “productivity” to build their team, they’ve lost before even getting started. Which is why the cacophony of basketball illiterates is at it again. Everyone wants to trade Danilo Gallinari, one year removed from being what many called the third-best small forward in basketball (behind LeBron James and Kevin Durant; sorry Knicks’ fans, even ahead of Carmelo Anthony). Everyone wants to move Gallinari because he’s neither shooting the ball well nor getting to the free throw line with nearly the frequency he’s accustomed to throughout his career.

Fancy that. When the Nuggets traded their only shooter in Arron Afflalo this summer for Andre Iguodala, it forced Denver to move Gallinari into a supporting role as a shooter — something he’s not built to do. Not surprisingly, I made this point immediately following the trade. Not only did Denver hinder Gallo’s development first by trading Nene for JaVale McGee, they further compounded their basketball inadequacies by trading the only shooter on the roster for a player four-years older, four-inches shorter, and with a similar skill-set to their 24 year-old, 6-foot-10, Italian phenom. The ignorance is so breathtaking it’s palpable.

Danilo Gallinari is 24 years-old and in his fifth NBA season. Andre Iguodala is 28 and in his ninth NBA season. Danilo Gallinari is a 6-foot-10, 225-pound point guard in a forward’s body, who can rebound, dish, and shoot at an elite level in the right situation. Andre Iguodala is a 6-foot-6, 202-pound tweener at shooting guard and small forward. He can’t shoot well enough to be a prototypical shooting guard. And he’s not big enough to line up at small forward and be defended by bigger, taller, longer opposing players (like those he’d face in Gallinari and Durant). Danilo Gallinari averages about half the assists and half the steals of his new teammate, but he’s nearly ten points better than Iguodala at the free-throw line and nearly four points better from three. Gallinari also turns the ball over at nearly half the rate of Andre Iguodala. Their respective effective field goal percentages (EFG%) are naturally similar, however, Gallinari has a far superior true shooting percentage (TS%). Other than that, they’re objectively the same player. Gallinari is merely able to do the same things in a much bigger body, which, in basketball, is kind of a big deal. (Oh, another pretty big deal? Gallinari is just now entering his prime. He can still become a better player. Andre Iguodala is on the downswing. Age and size are kind of important in basketball. Shocking, I know.)

Gallinari and Iguodala through each’s first four years (Courtesy: Basketball-Reference)

Gallinari and Iguodala player comparison–2012-2013 season included (Courtesy: Basketball-Reference)

If those numbers aren’t enough for your brains to wrap around, here’s more:

According to 82games.com’s on-court/off-court statistics for the 2011-12 season, Danilo Gallinari had a better year (per 100 possessions) than Kevin Durant (see below), James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Dwyane Wade, Rudy Gay, Andre Iguodala (see below), Carmelo Anthony (see below), Nicolas Batum, Luol Deng, Paul Pierce, Josh Smith and countless others. Furthermore, Gallo’s on-court/off-court statistics are steady throughout his career. His 2010-11 season is somewhat skewed because it’s the year he was traded from New York to Denver. However, if you look at his 2009-10 season, it is better than Durant’s 2011-12 iteration — when KD is arguably as good as he will ever be.

2011-12 NBA season comparison (Courtesy: 82games.com)

2011-12 NBA season comparison (Courtesy: 82games.com)

How do Durant and Gallinari compare statistically? They’re scarily similar.

Danilo Gallinari – Kevin Durant through each’s first four years (Courtesy: Basketball-Reference)

Danilo Gallinari – Kevin Durant player comparison–2012-2013 season included (Courtesy: Basketball-Reference)

The NBA is fast becoming a league where every team has the same exact data at their disposal when making decisions. The front offices that find success are those that understand the data better than the rest, and hence, put it to use in a much more academic manner. Some basketball-stat folks are now saying they “aren’t quite sold on Danilo Gallinari”. Meanwhile …

So, to recap: the Nuggets traded a player they were asking far too much of in the first place (Afflalo) for a player who has the same skill set as the best young asset they received in the Carmelo Anthony deal (Danilo Gallinari). They then expected Gallinari to take over for Afflalo’s role shooting the basketball (something he’s not equipped to do), while moving Iguodala into Afflalo’s starting spot in the rotation. Then they expected Iguodala to manufacture the same production he’s historically known for, while being surrounded by a team of players not complementary to his skills in the least.

If any of that makes sense to you, then you would also be able to make sense of playing a 6-foot-11, 260-pound beast (and natural power forward) at center for nine years. If any of that makes sense to you, then you would also be able to make sense of a team trading that same beast (even if he is oft-injured) for JaVale McGee. If any of that makes sense to you, then you would also be able to make sense of a team offering a fairly generous contract extension to an undersized starting point guard who lacks both a mid-range jumper and floater — two skills found in nearly every starting point guard in today’s NBA and an absolute necessity if your franchise is in earnest pursuit of success. If any of that makes sense to you, you probably spend more of your time staring at a spreadsheet than you do basketball players playing basketball games. If any of that makes sense to you, then you would probably be fine making the decisions for a team that never gets out of the first round of the playoffs, because … you would be running it.

And if any of that makes sense to you, you would probably chase your tail incessantly as a dog until you collapsed from exhaustion. That’s why dogs have owners — to discipline them and ensure they cease with the compulsive activity. If and when they don’t stop the tail-chasing, the responsible dog owner has three options:

  1. Keep the dog, love the dog, and put up with the poor thing until it dies.
  2. Put the dog up for adoption, knowing full well that another family is unlikely to bring it into their home with its affliction.
  3. Put the dog down.

It might be time to put the dog down.

You set yourself back ten years (arbitrarily speaking) by trading Nene for JaVale McGee. You’ve set yourself back at least another five years by trading Arron Afflalo for Andre Iguodala. And you will set yourself back a further ten years beyond that (if not more) by trading Danilo Gallinari. It shouldn’t be that difficult to find and maintain success in the NBA, what with the dearth of talent that exists throughout the league. You just can’t be … the runt of the litter.

Is there a way to fix this roster and maybe get them winning more games this season? I do not know. If so, it would take a drastic change in direction and philosophy — something George Karl and his staff have never seemed to embrace.

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