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.

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About J.R.
I have been watching basketball for over twenty years. I like to think I've learned a thing or two in that time. Truth is, I've learned just one thing: I love this game.

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

  1. KW says:

    I just never liked the way Nene was so unstoppable every night on his way to 13 points and 5 boards. Maybe McGee isn’t the answer to all our problems but Nene had hit his ceiling.

  2. J.R. Hoops says:

    This post wasn’t about Nene. His name came up once in the entire thing. And I’m sorry if 13 points and 5 boards wasn’t enough dominance for you. He’s currently anchoring one of the top-5 defenses in the league in Washington — you know, something production can’t account for. Thanks for reading. I think.

  3. Fantastic article. Really liked your analysis of JaVale’s playing time versus days off. I posted this to the SB Nation blog Denver Stiffs (http://www.denverstiffs.com/2013/4/12/4216032/cracking-the-code-on-javale-mcgee-and-the-perils-of-potential-in-the) to hopefully garner some more attention/discussion.

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