Why the Andre Iguodala trade doesn’t make Denver better: Part III

In part one of our discussion surrounding the Nuggets’ involvement in the Dwight Howard megadeal, we established Denver was operating at a severe disadvantage in negotiations as they were brought into the discussions on the final day of talks. Given the short amount of time in which they were allotted to make a decision, we took it one step further in part two and showed the caliber of player they relinquished in Arron Afflalo. With Afflalo’s relative place in history clearly established, we will now meticulously outline his importance in Denver’s offense and defense last year. We will then see how Andre Iguodala can fill that void.

Discussion:

Arron Afflalo was probably the best, most consistent, basketball player on the Nuggets roster last season. As has become common with this franchise, they were asking far too much from ‘Trip’ for him to remain (in their eyes) an effective player. Denver’s coaches and front office wanted Afflalo to take on more responsibility offensively while maintaining his near elite-level defense. It’s not simply Afflalo considering himself “the guy”, as many in basketball circles would have you believe. A player of his caliber and dedication doesn’t just decide to stop playing defense. His 19.1% usage rate last year was a career-high, and over a 3-point jump from 2010-11. No, what happened with Afflalo more than anything was an inability to handle his new responsibilities on offense while sustaining effort defensively on a possession-by-possession basis during a contracted schedule where teams were playing as many as five games in seven nights.

As can be seen here using Basketball Reference’s advanced stats calculation — an arbitrary measure, to be sure — Afflalo’s defense isn’t what fell off last year. It was mostly his offense, specifically his shooting percentages. In 2010-11, when he was surrounded by a bevy of capable shooters, Arron naturally shot better from the perimeter because he was privileged to have more space to do so. In 2011-12, with the exodus of Nene Hilario’s skilled passing and offensive presence inside, the reduced capabilities of Danilo Gallinari (because of injuries to both he and Nene in tandem with Nene’s trade), J.R. Smith’s production replaced with Cory Brewer’s, and Raymond Felton/Chauncey Billups’s dead-eye shooting from range replaced with Andre Miller’s set-shot, Afflalo had more attention payed his way when Denver had the ball on offense. Besides maintaining his elite-level defense, Denver asked him to shoulder the load for them offensively when all of their best shooters from the prior year were in another city. George Karl has been documented as being critical of Afflalo’s defense. He did so openly and honestly during NBA TV’s ‘The Association’ broadcast. An interaction which, if you pay close attention, includes Afflalo silently brushing aside his coach’s criticisms. I’m sure Arron is guilty of having his concentration wane playing through Denver’s injury-ravaged, trade-wrecked mess of a lockout-shortened season. I guess you would have to be an inherently understanding and empathetic person to see these things.

Trip is a key player to build your franchise around on the wing (which is why Orlando is now doing it. Like Sam Presti did in San Antonio and Oklahoma City before him with Manu Ginobili and James Harden, Rob Hennigan is doing in Orlando with Arron Afflalo.) But Trip isn’t so good that he can make up for an entire team’s systemic defensive shortcomings such as those exhibited by Denver last season. The Nuggets’ front office didn’t see it this way and moved him in the blockbuster trade that brought Iguodala to Denver and sent Afflalo and power forward Al Harrington to Orlando.

Now, on the surface, this seems like a great move by Nuggets management. They were able to move a player who they believe has peaked in Afflalo and an inefficient, overpaid, stretch-four in Al Harrington for an All Star, Olympic Gold Medalist, and all-World defender in Iguodala. And as Josh Kroenke readily admitted during Iguodala’s introductory news conference, he’s a player the Nuggets have coveted in year’s past. The problem, however, lies in Denver’s inability to see the forest through the trees.

Why I would not have done the deal:

Before moving forward, there are three things we must pay attention to that are of vital importance in this discussion: 1. Inconsistencies in the data. 2. Arron Afflalo’s place in history as a shooter. 3. Usage rate differentials.

  1. Inconsistencies in the data. Many people like to use one form of measuring a player and stick to it. Some use John Hollinger’s Player Efficiency Rating (PER). Followers of the Wages of Wins Network use Wins Produced. Fans perusing Basketball-Reference sometimes cite win shares and other similar derivatives. This is faulty thinking because it can lead to bad decision-making. If you’re not breaking down the numbers to their very bottom, you’re not doing your job. Case in point: If we look at Afflalo and Iguodala’s Player Efficiency Rating (PER) through each’s first five seasons, we find a significant gap of 4.6 points in Iggy’s favor. However, if we pay attention to Afflalo and Iguodala’s per-36 minute numbers and look at free-throw shooting specifically, we find that ‘Dre gets to the line about 2.3 more times per game, hitting 1.6 more free-throws per each appearance. Because he is able to get to the line with such greater frequency than Afflalo, his PER, Wins Produced, and win share numbers become vastly inflated. Yes, getting to the line is valuable. But it is also something of a choice. A player can choose to attack if/when he’s able. It isn’t an inherent skill. Arron Afflalo isn’t deciding to draw fouls less frequently because he likes taking jumpers. He’s taking jumpers because that’s what’s available in the flow of the offense and no better options exist in terms of attacking an already clogged lane full of players who cannot, will not, and are not able to space the floor (see: Faried, Kenneth; McGee, JaVale; Martin, Kenyon).
  2. Arron Afflalo was historically elite at one thing — shooting the basketball. Considering he was Denver’s only shooter, and a historically elite one at that, I believe it’s more than fair to expect a tremendous drop-off in Denver’s offense this season. There were instances last year, particularly in the Nuggets’ first round playoff series with Los Angeles, that Afflalo and Lawson were the entirety of their team’s half-court offense. Faried couldn’t be counted on to score. JaVale certainly couldn’t be counted on to score. And we’ve already gone over Gallinari’s drop-off following the loss of Nene. In that series it was mostly Lawson and Afflalo. And in games where Lawson no-showed (which is a more common occurrence than anyone would like to admit), Denver relied on Afflalo as a primary option. So, in addition to guarding one of the league’s most physical, aggressive, and premiere offensive players in Kobe Bryant, the Nuggets were asking Afflalo to be a primary option for his own team’s offense–and be guarded by the very same Kobe Bryant in the process. That is something for which he is just not capable. No one outside of a select few players in the world is capable of that — LeBron James being one of them. And no, neither is Andre Iguodala. Certainly, Iggy can contain Kobe Bryant. But he cannot produce offensive numbers anywhere near Afflalo’s — particularly shooting the basketball against a defensive opponent of Bryant’s caliber. Asking Trip to undertake the task of playing Kobe Bryant head-to-head is irresponsible, unprofessional, and mindlessly arcane, especially when Bryant has Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol to rely on inside and Afflalo has nothing. Bryant and Afflalo’s respective numbers in the Los Angeles series bear this out, as they battled each other to a relative standstill statistically.
  3. The difference in Iguodala and Afflalo’s usage rate is pronounced through their first five seasons. However, during the lockout-shortened season last year, Trip faced a tremendous uptick in usage — a number on the level of Iguodala’s five-season mark. Afflalo was able to maintain his shooting numbers for the most part given his increased usage, his role as a primary option in Denver’s offense, and the stunning lack of capable offensive players surrounding him. They weren’t on the level of his numbers in the year prior when he had better teammates, but they were vastly superior to Iguodala’s.

If we are to compare Andre Iguodala and Arron Afflalo side-by-side as players, the trade appears to be mostly a wash. Early on in Iguodala’s career, he was incorrectly labeled a scorer. As can be seen from the statistical curve through his first five seasons, he took that label and ran with it — except, he didn’t. Through each player’s first five seasons, and per-36 minutes, Afflalo and Iguodala’s statistics are starkly similar. Outside of ‘Trip’s’ clearly superior three-point and free-throw shooting, Iggy has the edge in defensive rebounding (1.2 >;), assists (1.9>;), steals (1>;), and, unfortunately for him, turnovers (1>;).

With all that said, given Afflalo’s 8%-edge from three and his 4.5%-edge from the free-throw line to go with his stellar turnover-rate and marginally worse rebounding and assist numbers, I agree with Rob Hennigan in choosing Afflalo to build around on the wing over Andre Iguodala. He’s younger, cheaper, has no injury history to speak of (Iguodala is coming off his first major injury last year), is a historically elite shooter, doesn’t rely on athleticism for success, and works tirelessly to improve his game on a daily basis. Afflalo is still growing as a player. In the right situation, he could be downright scary.

Furthermore, a wing player’s primary responsibility is to shoot, and in so doing, free up space on the interior for his frontline to dominate. If and when his teammates get doubled down-low, that frees up shooters on the wing to knock down open shot after open shot after open shot (think of Ray Allen in Boston with Kevin Garnett; or Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard in San Antonio with Tim Duncan; or James Harden with Serge Ibaka in Oklahoma City; or Nene Hilario with Arron Afflalo in Denver).

Given Denver’s veritable lack of an inside presence following the Nene trade, it makes Afflalo’s shooting contributions even more pronounced. Granted, we are in the middle of a new “small-ball” era where a prototypical ‘post-option’ is no longer necessary. Teams like Oklahoma City and Miami are running with lineups where everyone on the floor is a threat from 3-to-9 feet and beyond. The problem with Denver’s roster is that (outside of Danilo Gallinari) it doesn’t work from 3-to-9 feet, from 10-to-15 feet, or from 15-to-23 feet. It never really did. In basketball, however, as the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder have so clearly pointed out, spacing is everything on offense. Afflalo’s shooting numbers from 2011 (when he was surrounded by capable offensive players) bear this out ten-fold.

Arron Afflalo-Andre Iguodala player comparison after five seasons per 36-minutes (Courtesy of Basketball-Reference)

Arron Afflalo-Andre Iguodala comparison after five seasons-Advanced (Courtesy of Basketball-Reference)

More to come ….

What’s Denver Missing in Timofey Mozgov?

When it looked more and more like Carmelo Anthony was going to be traded to the New York Knicks instead of the New Jersey Nets last February, there was much consternation in Gotham and the Mile High City over exactly what the teams would exchange. Danilo Gallinari was New York’s main attraction. He was going to Denver regardless. Then Knicks’ starting point guard Raymond Felton was floated as being part of the deal along with swingman Wilson Chandler. Denver smartly drew the process out to the very end of the trade deadline, expertly pitting Mikhail Prokhorov’s New Jersey Nets against the Knicks for ‘Melo’s services. Masai Ujiri famously “pushed the goalposts” back for New York to cross. He knew they were all-in for Carmelo. Just as the trade was going to be completed, Ujiri requested that 24 year-old Russian 7-foot center, Timofey Mozgov, be included. The Knicks had reached their breaking point. Until they didn’t.

A New Team:

At one point during Denver’s second game together following the trade’s completion against the Portland Trailblazers, ‘Timo’ as he is known, completed a nifty and-1 in the paint. He showed upper body strength and touch around the rim I never knew he had. I quickly exclaimed on Twitter that he deserved a real chance at starting for the Nuggets during the upcoming season.

He continued this solid play through the end of the 2011 season and into the playoffs. When the lockout finally lifted, Timofey found himself in the starting unit for Denver’s season-opener the day after Christmas against the Mavericks. Alongside Nene Hilario, Denver’s beast (finally) at power forward, the Nuggets were going to have one of the most imposing front-lines in the NBA. This was the way to win a title in the Association without a “superstar”. Build a physically imposing, highly-skilled front court that could just as easily matchup with the oversized Lakers and Bulls as it could the quicker Thunder, Clippers, and Grizzlies. Until Mozgov got hurt. And then Nene got hurt. And then Gallo. Every single member of Denver’s front court, listed at 6-foot-10 and above, was out at one point due to injury. And any and all well-intentioned plans were abandoned. Nene was traded for JaVale McGee. Mozgov came back healthy, but, having lost his starting role to Kosta Koufos and backup role to McGee, couldn’t find his confidence or his way. Gallo came back healthy and, having lost his only reliable pick-and-roll partner in Nene, precipitously regressed to an isolation and post-scorer. In one fell-swoop, Denver went from near-contender to JaVale McGee punchline. It was neither pretty, nor fluid.

Through all this, however, Nuggets’ brass held onto the Russian big man. I have continually chirped on Twitter that ‘Mozzy’ is one of Denver’s most-skilled players. This has fallen mostly on deaf ears. In my previous post I reiterated this point and faced a pretty harsh backlash for it. According to those allegedly smarter than myself, Mozgov’s skill level is nowhere near tops on this team. So, I decided to do some research and see if I could in any way back up my “nonsensical” claims. The findings were interesting to say the least.

The Beginning:

At one point during the playoffs, when the Indiana Pacers were playing the Miami Heat, I marveled at how Indiana was built. They get it, I said. They get it. David West and Roy Hibbert were the perfect pairing in the front court to build around. Indeed, Indiana did get it. Larry Bird won the executive of the year award just four days later, as voted on by a panel of his peers. They didn’t have a star. They didn’t lead the league in jersey sales. They weren’t noteworthy on ‘Inside the NBA’. Whether intentional or not, Larry Legend modeled his team after what Sam Presti had done with the Spurs in San Antonio; reliable horses at center/power forward, a quick, strong point guard, and steady, tough bench production. Memphis and Chicago were built in similar ways. Denver was almost on that path.

The template had been set. And Indiana was living proof. How amazing was it? Less than a year prior, people were actually discussing the prospect of contracting Larry Bird’s Pacers from the NBA altogether. Now they were on the verge of pushing the Miami Heat, and title favorite, out of the playoffs entirely. The NBA is a tricky place. And Larry Bird had mastered it.

The Breakthrough:

I kept observing Roy Hibbert. Rewinding and pausing and rewinding and pausing, until I started to get dizzy. I watched his off-ball movement on offense, and his shield, cover, and retrieval on defense. He was almost a defensive savant. I then made the ghastly pronouncement on Twitter that there was no reason Mozgov couldn’t do what Hibbert had exhibited in Indiana. Roy Hibbert wasn’t doing anything spectacular. He was merely playing fundamentally sound basketball.

Mozgov/Hibbert rookie season comparison

Mozgov/Hibbert comparison at age 25

Then I delved into the numbers. My curiosity was first piqued by Mozgov’s seemingly effortless penchant for knocking down a high percentage of free-throws. Coming from a 7-footer, hitting upwards of seventy-percent from the stripe is no small feat. Then I saw his shooting percentages from the field, and the murmurs got a little bit louder. Then I looked at his per-36 minutes statistics, and a warm glow began resonating from my temple. This guy is being as ill-used as Nene. Except where Nene was out of position, Mozgov wasn’t seeing the floor.

I decided to dig deeper. Since 1946-47, there have been twenty-two players measuring 7-feet or taller shoot 68-percent from the free-throw line, greater than 50-percent from the floor, and play at least 1200 minutes. Timofey Mozgov is one of them. Roy Hibbert is not. Names of those who did make the list? Yao Ming, Rik Smits, Bill Cartwright, Pau Gasol, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, Robert Parish, Hakeem Olajuwon, Andrew Bynum, Dikembe Mutombo, and Tree Rollins. There are a few other names. All of them just as impressive. The fact that Timo is putting up these numbers without a structured offense run through him (or anyone, for that matter) is the most impressive thing of all.

Small sample size? Absolutely. No argument. But it’s not as small as you think. Especially when considering his fifty-five games in Denver have seen slow, steady, measured improvement. Consider the improvement you’d see if he was actually granted the minutes Denver’s other “energy” guys get. Imagine the improvement you’d see if Mozgov was in a system where his half-court game could develop and flourish, instead of one where it’s always “go-go-go”. Timo played most of his rookie year in New York under Mike D’Antoni, where a prototypical center is often not necessary. For this reason, among others, Mozgov’s shooting numbers didn’t reach their ultimate potential. George Karl and Mike D’Antoni have similar coaching philosophies for sure, as both prefer a running style. Where the two differ, however, is Karl allows his players more freedom to play to their instincts. Neither have a particularly sound coaching style for winning playoff basketball, but only D’Antoni has the infamous “seven-seconds-or-less” value system. If Mozgov gets into a situation where the game is allowed to slow down for him, he is going to blossom into the big-time player he is destined to be. But, like most things, it’s totally environment-dependent. D’Antoni was a bad fit. George Karl was slightly better. Anywhere a highly structured offense already exists should be optimal. Because it’s all there. His defense improved dramatically from his rookie year. His offensive game struggled a bit, but not in such a way that it can’t be improved. After watching every possession with which he was involved last season, I see a few things happening for him going forward:

  1. His visits to the free-throw line should reach their rookie levels and then exceed them as he’s not been one to get the benefit of the doubt from officials. There were countless times where a whistle should have gone his way but didn’t.
  2. Because of this, I imagine his offensive rating to greatly increase, as he’ll be responsible for reduced turnovers and more visits to the line. Every instance where he could have been shooting free-throws but a foul went uncalled, Mozgov was credited for a turnover. This has a doubly negative effect on his offensive rating.
  3. If he’s given more minutes, I imagine his visits to the free-throw line increasing, as officials are apt to give players they see the benefit of the doubt more often than those they do not.
  4. Seeing as how his TS% and usage rate increased concurrently, I see no reason why his percentages from the floor cannot sustain.

In the sixteen games where Mozgov played more than eighteen minutes (playoffs included), the Nuggets went 11-5. Further, in the twelve games he played twenty or more minutes, Denver went 8-4. For a Nuggets team that went 41-32 last year (playoffs included), Mozgov’s contributions are undervalued, at the very least. But Mozgov is still a great player to put alongside Kenneth Faried, as he, like Nene, spaces the floor, which will allow the unskilled rebounder to float.

Timofey Mozgov regular season output

Conversely, in the nineteen games Mozgov’s teammate Kosta Koufos played eighteen or more minutes, the Nuggets went 10-9. Koufos, for all intents and purposes, is more productive. Mosgov though, is clearly more important. And this is where the disconnect continues to linger in the Nuggets’ front office. Where they see production, I see smoke and mirrors. Where they see nothing, I see potential greatness if given the proper coaching and opportunity. This is why I didn’t even bother comparing the two players head-to-head. Because there is no comparison.

Kosta Koufos regular season output

Production will win you games against the dregs of the league. Skill AND size will win you games against the league’s best. And it will do so consistently. This is why Denver will continue to struggle on the periphery. In the lone game last season where Mozgov saw the floor for over thirty minutes, he was a terror. If a 16-7-3-1-1 performance against the New York Knicks’ Tyson Chandler doesn’t set off any light bulbs, nothing will.

That said, Mozgov’s days in Denver are likely over. They don’t know what they have, and thus, will let it walk. This is why Nene was traded for JaVale McGee. This is why their draft addressed no areas of specific need, of which there are many. This is why they may miss the playoffs next year. Because the times they’re content standing pat with what they have are the times they should be making moves. The times they’re making moves are those where they should be standing pat.

Editor’s note: There was much more to include in this study. If you have any further questions, please leave it in the comments section or follow me on Twitter. Thanks for reading.

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