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.

The Denver Nuggets Blueprint to 50-wins: Part II (RED FLAGS)

Before laying out the blueprint for Denver’s path to 50-wins we must first discuss the things that could be a detriment; if we refuse to address potential problem areas, we will be ill-equipped to handle them if and when they do arise.

POTENTIAL PROBLEM AREAS AND HOW TO MITIGATE THEM

The problem in adding Andre Iguodala isn’t that he’s a bad player. Because he is actually a very, very good player. I have never claimed otherwise. The problem in adding Iguodala to the equation and subtracting Afflalo and Al Harrington is you’re not addressing the areas where you’re weakest; rather, you’re making yourself worse. Three large causes for concern from last year remain: free-throw shooting, 3-point shooting, and turnovers. None of these are George Karl problems, mind you. They are those of NBA’s rising star executive, Masai Ujiri, acting team President Josh Kroenke, and the rest of Denver’s front office and scouting department.

  1. Free throw shooting:
    • The Nuggets were one of the worst free throw shooting teams in the league last year, as they went 73.5% from the line. Only Washington, Chicago, Cleveland, the Clippers, and Orlando were worse. Of those five teams, only Chicago, Los Angeles, and Orlando were playoff teams – outside of L.A., each was eliminated in the first round. Is it likely Denver gets even worse from the line this year? Yes. Last year’s numbers included Nene Hilario’s 33-game contribution. JaVale McGee, a categorically and catastrophically worse free-throw shooter (due in part to his fitness-induced asthma), only contributed about 16-games to their mean percentage. A full season of McGee, Faried, and Iguodala in tandem with the absence of Afflalo, Nene, and Harrington should prove to be their death-knell. Free throw shooting has cost this team games in the past. They will do so even more this year. How it continues to be a problem for this star-studded front office is one of life’s greatest mysteries.
    • Estimating potential free throw percentages for Denver this season is inherently difficult because the statistic itself varies so much – especially with a roster-full of sub-par shooters from the stripe. However, a full season of McGee and Faried, along with the addition of Iguodala and loss of Afflalo and Al Harrington would land Denver second-to-last in free throw shooting last season at about 71% (ahead of only the Clippers and Magic with Dwight Howard). I anticipate the number being even worse, seeing as how McGee’s percentage will likely land below the 50% used in that average.
      • Anyone with eyes can see JaVale’s fitness-induced asthma causing him trouble playing at George Karl’s pace at this altitude. When visiting the free throw line specifically, McGee can be seen slouching over on his knees trying to catch his wind. If a player cannot catch his wind, he cannot under any circumstances be expected to concentrate on free throws. Sorry. I guess you’d have to be an inherently understanding person to get that.
    • Fine. Free throw shooting is going to be a concern. That wouldn’t be such a huge problem if not for …
  2. 3-point shooting:
    • The Nuggets were one of the league’s worst three-point shooting teams last season, as they shot 33.3% from distance. Only the Grizzlies, Lakers, Jazz, Wizards, Kings, and Bobcats were worse. The first three were playoff teams (two of which were eliminated in the first round); the last three were not. Is it possible they get worse this season from long-range? There is no doubt about it whatsoever. And it’s going to be pretty, pretty difficult to get worse than Denver was last year.
    • As with free throw shooting, 3-point shooting is inherently difficult to predict because there is so much variance. But, if we take away Arron Afflalo and Al Harrington’s 3-point contributions from last year and average Iguodala’s career mark with the rest of his new Denver teammates, the Nuggets would finish with a likely 3-point shooting percentage of precisely 28.2%. That figure includes Jordan Hamilton’s limited career numbers as well as Gallinari’s career percentage (not his subpar showing last year). A composite mark of 28.2% from three would put Denver behind Charlotte last year for the league’s worst 3-point shooting. At least the Bobcats shot 74.6% from the free throw line.
    • Free throw shooting and three-point shooting might be among the league’s worst, but, it’s not something they can’t overcome, right? Right?
  3. Turnovers:
    • During the contracted 2011-12 season, the Denver Nuggets turned the ball over more than 24 other NBA teams. The only teams to turn the ball over more than Denver were the Cavs, Hornets, Pistons, Knicks, and Thunder. The Knicks and Thunder were the only teams to make the playoffs out of that group, with New York bowing out during the first round and Oklahoma City making a run to the Finals. The eventual NBA Champion Miami Heat turned the ball over only thirteen-times less than Denver over the course of the 2012 regular season. The only difference between first round fodder Denver and New York, and eventual Finals participants Miami and Oklahoma City, is one of talent. The Nuggets and Knicks in no way match up in relative talent with the Thunder or Heat.
    • As for the Cavs, Hornets, Wizards, Raptors, and Pistons (teams who similarly faced a problem with turnovers last year), only the Wizards would come close to Denver’s woeful 3-point shooting simulation from last season. As for free throw shooting, only the Cavs and Wizards would rival Denver during our similar simulation. This is a potentially catastrophic confluence of events Denver has brewing. It’s the Perfect Storm.
    • The addition of Iguodala in place of Arron Afflalo in terms of turnovers has been covered ad nausea in this space. But I more than expect Denver to turn the ball over with increased frequency this season because Iguodala is prone to that sort of thing in even the slowest-paced offenses. In George Karl’s run-and-gun fast break, this is going to be another potentially catastrophic cause for concern.
    • Another cause for concern with respect to turnovers is a full season of the inherent unreliability of JaVale McGee and Kenneth Faried.
    • The Nuggets can no longer play the same reckless basketball they’ve been known for in year’s past. They are not good enough individually for it to be a sustainable strategy. And if George Karl isn’t going to demand better of his players or install a more structured and regimented offensive game plan, then perhaps he isn’t the man for the job any longer.
    • In 2009-10, the Nuggets were able to minimize their turnovers because they had good players with good hands. When a roster gets chock-full of players with terrible hands, I take it to mean the front office or scouting department is not watching enough basketball. Because there is absolutely no use in drafting or trading for players who can barely hold onto the basketball. If you aren’t watching laborious film of players you intend on adding to your roster, you will face the consequences.

Free throws, 3-point shooting, and turnovers are the three biggest causes for concern entering this season and the addition of Andre Iguodala does not in any way mitigate them, for his presence makes it an even greater concern. However, irrespective of those areas, there remains an elephant in the room no one is discussing.

Opponent blocked shots:

  • The number of shots Ty Lawson, Kenneth Faried and JaVale McGee have blocked is incalculable. It’s either a dunk, or it’s a block. There exists very little in-between. During last year’s truncated schedule, the Nuggets had more of their shots blocked (439) than any other team in the NBA and over one-hundred more than the league average (336). The second-place Sacramento Kings had 16-less shots blocked over the course of their season; the third-place Cavaliers faced 30-less.
  • In fact, of the top-twelve teams to face the most opponent shot-blocks, seven didn’t make the playoffs: Sacramento Kings, Cleveland Cavaliers, New Orleans Hornets, Charlotte Bobcats, Minnesota Timberwolves, Detroit Pistons, and Houston Rockets. Those are some of the very worst teams in the league—all of whom performed better from the free throw line and 3-point line than Denver during our simulation. Furthermore, of the five teams to actually see the postseason (Denver, Indiana, Utah, Memphis, and Chicago), only the Pacers advanced past the first round.
    • The same holds true of 2010-11, where the numbers are even starker: Of the thirteen teams to face the most blocked-shots in the league, only the Grizzlies, Nuggets, and Pacers saw playoff basketball – with the Grizzlies the only team to advance.
    • In 2009-10, the numbers weren’t much better: Only six of the fifteen teams to face the most blocked-shots made the playoffs, and of those six only San Antonio and Utah (who defeated Denver) advanced past the first round. You will find this is true throughout history until the mid-1980s, when you could still be a moderately successful team while sustaining a league-leading number of blocks.
  • Why does Denver find itself the victim of so many blocked shots?
    • They force their undersized point guard to initiate their dribble-drive penetration offense. Because Denver is so bereft of shooting ability after the Afflalo trade, each and every defense Lawson faces is going to collapse on him once he enters the painted area; something they did more than enough before the Iguodala deal. On the occasions where Lawson finds himself near the rim, his size limits his abilities to convert a field goal and/or draw a foul. More often than not, he gets his shot blocked.
      • Last year alone, 9.2% of Lawson’s shots were blocked, according to Hoop Data. The league average is 5.9% among point guards. Per-40 minutes, 1.32 Lawson shots were blocked (with the league average among point guards at 0.802).
      • Tyreke Evans is the only other starting point guard to come close to Lawson in terms of having his shot blocked (8.3% blocked, 1.39 per-40 minutes). Russell Westbrook faces more blocks per-40 minutes (1.41) but a much lower overall percentage (6.5%) due to volume, I’d imagine. Cavs rookie Kyrie Irving has similar traits to Westbrook (7% blocked, 1.33 per-40 minutes).
      • It’s the percentage of Lawson’s shots getting blocked that give me greatest concern, because his job isn’t going to be any easier this season; it may become much more difficult seeing as Arron Afflalo’s spacing is lost. And without a mid-range game like those of Westbrook and Irving, it’s not going to get better for Ty. (In 2010-11, ten-percent of his shots were blocked; his rookie season, 2009-10, 11.5%.)
    • Their starting power forward Kenneth Faried is forced to assume the role of defensive stopper on the interior at one end and put back missed shots inside on the other. Because of the encumbrances his size produce, he invariably has his shots blocked by a bevy of bigger, longer opponents. It happens early. It happens often. And it becomes quite bothersome to the keen observer.
      • Last year alone, 13.9% of Faried’s shots were blocked, according to Hoop Data. The league average is 6.3% among forwards. Per-40 minutes, Kenneth Faried had 1.66 of his shots blocked (the league average is less than half that–0.806). He is a starting power forward in the NBA.
      • Among forwards, the only other player to see at least 40-games while averaging at least 22-minutes per appearance and face the same difficulties inside was Tristan Thompson (15.8% blocked, 1.97 per-40 minutes).
      • Other than those two players, no one else in the entire NBA really comes close.
    • JaVale McGee is not good. That’s pretty much all that needs to be said. Period.

Notes:

The number of blocked shots Denver sustained last year (439) averaged out over a full 82-game season equates to 545.42, which is well short of the 1991-92 team record of 593, when they went 24-58. The 2002-03 Nuggets, who won just 17-games, suffered through 538 blocks. The 1997-98 Nuggets, winners of just 11 total games, succumbed to 538 as well. The fact that Denver is the sole owner of this statistic, especially among their worst teams, is an awfully ominous indicator. However, it makes sense. When a team has a bevy of offensively incompetent players, all potential spacing is tossed out the window and defenses collapse on the best players to block all the shots they can muster. I anticipate Denver coming close to the team record of 593 this season — especially if the coaching staff and front office is intent on pushing square pegs into round holes by giving Faried and McGee heavy minutes in their rotation.

  • The 1991-92 Nuggets hold the team record for second-most blocks sustained in a season with 593. That team went 24-58 and is most comparable to the one Masai Ujiri has built in Denver this season. They did not shoot well from the 3-point line or the free throw line, nor were they proficient in holding onto the basketball (league-leader in turnovers). The only difference between that Denver team and the one George Karl will be coaching now is their respective offensive ratings, as this season’s squad is unlikely to have the league’s worst offense due to their superior passing, their ability to get to the line and draw fouls, and what is hopefully a better aptitude for holding onto the basketball. You just wonder if the free throw shooting and 3-point shooting is going to be poor enough to plunder that altogether. The 1991-92 Nuggets were middling defensively (which is where I’d imagine this one ends up as well).
      • To wit, that Nuggets team was the seventh-best in the league in offensive rebound percentage (34.%), another thing I expect the 2012-13 iteration to mirror.
      • They were also fourth-best in terms of turnover rating, having caused opponents to relinquish possession of the ball 14.7% of the time.
  • The 1993-94 New Jersey Nets sustained 582 blocks over a full 82-game season. That team went 45-37, bowing out of the first round of the playoffs against the Knicks. Unlike this year’s Nuggets’ squad, they were fairly proficient from both the free throw line and 3-point line. They also held onto the ball, as only two teams turned the ball over less (Jazz, Cavs).
  • The 1992-93 Phoenix Suns sustained over 500 blocks and still found their way to a number-one seed in the Western Conference. However, they were one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the league that season (third-ranked in the NBA) as well as an above-average team in holding onto the ball. They were a middling squad from the free throw line.
  • Other teams of note: 1990-91 Orlando Magic (654 blocks sustained), 1991-92 Denver Nuggets, 1984-85 Nuggets, 1983-84 Nuggets, ’82-83 Nuggets (611) and Bulls, ’81-82 Nuggets*.

Last year, Denver was able to shoot a slightly respectable clip from the free throw line because Arron Afflalo was so elite from that spot. Last year, they were able to shoot a slightly respectable clip from the 3-point line because Arron Afflalo was so sickeningly superb despite being the team’s only shooter. Last year, they were able to at least slightly minimize their turnovers because Arron Afflalo was such a good ballhandler in both the half-court and open-court. This year they will have no such luxuries because of the acquisitions of JaVale McGee and Andre Iguodala with the subsequent loss of Arron Afflalo.

The only two playoff teams from last year to be found at the bottom-third of the NBA standings in 3-point shooting and free-throw percentage are, you guessed it, the Knicks and Nuggets. Each was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs last year. Each will likely be eliminated in the first round again this year (if either is lucky enough to make it), as none of this translates to success – neither the short-term, long-term, or immediate term – in the playoffs or regular season. However, the Knicks, as opposed to the Nuggets, made a bevy of roster moves to shore up those areas in which they found themselves lacking last year. They signed Jason Kidd. They refused to extend Jeremy Lin’s gaudy contract proposal and brought aboard sharp-shooting point guard, Raymond Felton. They welcomed Marcus Camby back to the Big Apple. They will likely see an increase in both free-throw shooting and three-point shooting team-wide.

The Blueprint: How the Denver Nuggets can reach 50-wins

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Introduction:

  1. A player cannot simply replicate his numbers when moving from one team to the next by sliding in place of the starter for whom he’s been traded. Despite numerous projections from the game’s most renowned and well-respected experts, the game of basketball is much too complex for statistically driven forecasts to hold much weight.
  2. Iguodala’s impact in Denver defensively is going to be drastically reduced because of two factors:
    • Doug Collins’ 76ers were the third-best defense in the league last year. Not all of that was due to Iguodala’s presence. Some of it, for sure. But much of it had to do with with Philadelphia’s team philosophy on both sides of the court.
    • The 76ers’ roster was built from the inside-out by a coach who seemingly had much more say in the direction of his team than George Karl does in Denver. For example, Collins refused hiring an advanced analytics specialist until this past September when new team General Manager and 22-year veteran Sixers employee, Tony DeLeo, made it known he intended on doing so.  In terms of building Philadelphia’s roster before trading for Andrew Bynum, Collins chose Spencer Hawes and one of the most underrated bigs in league history, Elton Brand, as the team’s inside foundation. The reasons for this are many, with the main concern being that if a team can’t rely on its interior, it can’t rely on anything. The Nuggets’ roster as currently constructed, especially following the Nene trade, has for all intents and purposes been built from the outside-in. Lawson is the team’s engine; as Lawson goes, so goes Denver. Their hyper-fluid motion offense dependent on dribble penetration highlights this fact. Furthermore, the Nuggets cannot rely on their interior at either end of the court. Some of this is due to the unorthodox nature of their play (ie. constant fast-break, pressure defense). But a good portion of it is because the two bigs they deem most suitable to playing that style–JaVale McGee and Kenneth Faried–are as fundamentally flawed on the basketball court (particularly defensively) as you can get. A wing defender, no matter his abilities, will not be able to make up for McGee and Faried’s deficiencies inside.

Can this team live up to the lofty expectations members of the national media have bestowed upon it? What players work with Iguodala? How can each individual player actually produce what’s being predicted for them? And will it all add up to over 50-wins?

How the Denver Nuggets can win 50+ games:

To get the requisite production you’re accustomed to from Andre Iguodala you need to surround him with players similar to those that made him so effective — in terms of both skill-set and production. Because if there is one absolute truism it’s that Iggy is not LeBron James. Andre Iguodala can’t go anywhere and win games for you like the King. No one can. Living or dead.

As such, in order to make his transition as seamless as possible, we must cobble out of Denver’s roster–utterly transformed and stripped-down by trades over the last two seasons–different lineup pairings to make the Mile High City’s newest star shine. A player cannot simply replicate his numbers when moving from one team to the next by sliding in place of the starter for whom he’s been traded–especially a starter he’s not similar to in skill set. Expecting that to be the case is the very height of hubris-based ignorance. Too many things go into how a basketball team works. Thankfully, some of us are around to pinpoint potential problems and remedy them before they become a larger, more grave, concern.

When looking at Andre Iguodala’s career-arc we see that as an overall player the last two years were some of his most effective (even though he’s said those years in Philadelphia were among the least enjoyable of his career). In 2011-12, he had the second-lowest turnover rate, second-highest steal-rate, second-highest defensive rebound rate, and the third-highest effective field goal percentage of his career. In the 2010-11 season, Iguodala posted the highest assist rate of his career in conjunction with his second-lowest turnover rate and fourth-lowest usage. What was it about those teams that made him so effective?

The answer is in player, coach and the overarching philosophy surrounding both.

Philadelphia and Doug Collins:

Courtesy: GCOBB

To understand what made Iguodala excel during his last two seasons in Philadelphia, we must first take a look at Doug Collins’ coaching philosophy. Not only is it different from Iggy’s new coach in George Karl, it’s light-years apart.

One thing Collins was devoutly opposed to in Philly was messy, turnover-ridden basketball. It’s why he demanded a slower-pace and half-court setting befitting high-percentage (yes, even those of the mid-range variety) shots that minimized long rebounds leading to run-outs and fast-breaks. It’s the only way he saw a roster of his skill, youth, and talent level reaching optimum success. It was his job, after all, to figure out a way to win the most amount of games he possibly could with what he’d been given. And he hadn’t been given much.

Only five teams took less 3-pointers than the Sixers last season (Pistons, Bobcats, Grizzlies, Jazz, and Hornets). Likewise, Philadelphia turned the ball over a league-low, 10.9%, while playing at the NBA’s seventh-slowest pace. The second-closest team to Philadelphia’s league-lowest turnover rate was Vinny Del Negro’s Los Angeles Clippers, led by the best point guard in the game today, Chris Paul and its elder statesman, Chauncey Billups. The Clippers turned the ball over nearly two full percentage points more (1.8) than Philadelphia. To illustrate this discrepancy, a 1.8% gap between the Clippers and Orlando Magic/Miami Heat is separated by 21 different NBA teams.

Under Collins, the Sixers played a slow-down, methodical, possession-by-endless-possession, grind-it-out, defensive-minded game. Even still, Iguodala turned the ball over 13.6% of the time in Doug Collins’ offense. Arron Afflalo, the player Iguodala is replacing in Denver, turned the ball over just 9.35% of the time in George Karl’s break-neck pace the last two seasons. Some say Afflalo wasn’t as responsible for creating in the same ways as Iguodala. Others posture Afflalo was nothing more than a spot-shooter. These people would be wrong on both counts. Last year, with Afflalo as a primary option in Denver, he put up a 1.4% greater usage rate than Iggy and still turned the ball over 4.3% less.

Statistics in basketball — particularly those of the advanced variety — are having the negative side-effect of divorcing decision-makers from basic, fundamental, sound logic and common sense. Because any person in their right mind would have seen the aforementioned turnover statistic on its own and thought twice about making the trade. George Karl does not advocate winning games using ‘pretty’ basketball. Some of that has to do with the severe lack of talent he’s been given, but most of it has to do with him. Name another coach in the league that would encourage his players to turnover the ball more often rather than less. Messy basketball doesn’t equal winning basketball unless it’s being executed by elite or nearly-elite players (see: 2009 Denver Nuggets).

Team-building, the Denver Nuggets, and Pace:

One major mistake many general managers and team executives make in building their team is architecting it around a single over-arching philosophy. George Karl likes to get out and run in Denver’s altitude. Therefore, his front office has built around that run-and-gun dictum by signing a multitude of athletes to execute it.

There are a number of different problems you encounter when building a team through a philosophy-first approach like Denver is doing now. First, you prove yourselves to be gainfully incapable in a half-court setting unless your players are incredibly skilled and focused on sound fundamentals and consistency at both ends of the floor. Sound fundamentals and defensive consistency do not come naturally to a team as laden with youth as Denver. Those sorts of things develop over time, which is why the best ways of building a team combine youth and veteran alike (see: San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Memphis, Miami, Brooklyn, Boston). Secondly, when a team emphasizes pace over everything else in the way George Karl does, any and all fundamentals go right out the window because players are too focused on moving and not focused enough on detail.

Combine Denver’s lack of familiarity between teammates with their youth and George Karl’s laissez-faire run-and-gun philosophy and you have the makings of a disaster. Some might disagree and point me towards Oklahoma City and the success Scottie Brooks (who learned under Karl) is having with their high-paced and open offense. The problem with that argument is its outright refusal in recognizing the disparity in talent between the Thunder and Nuggets. Ty Lawson, Danilo Gallinari, Andre Iguodala, and Kenneth Faried do not in any universe equate to Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka — especially offensively. Serge Ibaka is draining 3-pointers from the wing this preseason. Kenneth Faried has a hard enough time holding onto the ball.

Oklahoma City is the benchmark. Sam Presti’s shrewd drafting has earned them that right. Everyone else is just pretending, with Denver captaining the ship. Outside of Kenneth Faried in 2011, the Nuggets haven’t drafted a starting capable player since Kiki Vandegwhe took Jameer Nelson in 2004. The fact Faried is undersized, can’t shoot, lacks a post-game, can’t defend, and is a below-average passer and catcher on top of it all, may require an asterisk besides the Manimal’s name in Denver’s draft history.

This is why it is imperative for teams desiring success to dispatch of this philosophy-first way of thinking. Draft the best players available so that you are able trade them for players who may end up being a better fit within your overarching philosophy later. If a franchise builds from within a half-court mindset first, they set themselves up for success beyond just the regular season. As the Spurs have so effectively illustrated over the last couple of years in transitioning to a more offensive-minded game plan, everyone can run. Half-court players can run just as much as athletes. It’s the level of execution that make the difference.

Tomorrow, I lay out the blueprint for Denver’s 50-win season. And I don’t even advocate for someone’s firing. Thanks for reading.

Context, size, spacing (and the Cosmos) matter in the game of basketball

Before moving forward I would like to address the entirety of the world that has had the (mis?)fortune of reading this blog. Have I been overly critical of Denver’s front office? Yes. Unfairly so? Possibly, yes. Bordering on psychosis? Maybe. Much of this criticism–actually, no, all of this criticism–is rooted in the Nene for JaVale McGee swap. Trading a good player for a bad player is bad basketball. It’s not because Nene was my favorite Nugget. It’s not because I still have a man-crush on the Brazilian (even though I do). It’s because trading an already good player for potential alone is foolish. I don’t care how many games Nene sits due to minor injuries. Trading a heady, professional with high on and off-court I.Q. for the absolute opposite is insane. And anyone who says most teams in Denver’s position would have done likewise is marking out. Period. JaVale McGee is not good. Nor will he ever become good. He, like J.R. Smith before him, doesn’t have the mental fortitude or aptitude to turn his raw potential into the goldmine it could become. It’s not Nene. It’s never been about Nene. It’s JaVale. It’s just, JaVale. If a guy doesn’t get “it” when he starts playing, he’ll never get “it” at all. You can blame Washington and Ernie Grunfeld all you want, just know ahead of time that a player makes his situation. The environment doesn’t have to make the player. Outside of a select few, every other Wizards teammate of JaVale’s didn’t have the same irrevocably disturbing habits. JaVale could have done better there in the same way he can do better here — starting with his eating habits. Having said that, I am also critical because I do not adjust to change very well–particularly change that manifests into JaVale McGee. Very few franchises have gone through as much change over the last decade as this one. In that same vein, very few franchises have also won as many games. It would be nice if the constant whirlwind of roster movement stopped for players, coaches, and fans alike. Just make sure to keep winning games, okay? And do something about JaVale. Winning doesn’t get old. At least I don’t think. JaVale already has.

When running a team in what is perceived to be one of the NBA’s smallest markets, a front office has to be smarter than pretty much all of its competitors in order to attain and maintain excellence. Their margin for error is so nonexistent that it puts everything they do under a microscope. Mistakes can’t happen. Draft picks must be thoroughly scrutinized. Potential trades require extensive discussion.

Throughout our study of Denver’s involvement in the Dwight Howard trade, it seems as if Nuggets’ management might not have abode by this proxy. As a result, they now have a roster chock-full of disjointed talent, skill overlap, little reliable shooting, and loads of athleticism. But boy, can they produce. They’re like a fantasy team in their production capabilities. This is why a lot of very smart people are picking them as a dark horse candidate to dethrone the Thunder from the Western Conference’s elite. They’re taking Iguodala’s career numbers as a Sixer, his rightfully warranted reputation as an all-world defender, coupling it with each individual Denver Nugget player’s career production, taking the same model from each individual NBA member team, and combining it all into one nice, messy, long equation; and voila, 58-wins.

CONTEXT MATTERS

The problem with applying this equation to basketball is that basketball is a game played in space by ten individual actors at one time. Each of these actors is not subject to variance like you’d see in every other statistical simulation because they are doing more than driving the numbers. They are the numbers. These actors are human beings. Each human being is not alike. Some are taller. Some are broader. Some are longer. Some are more skilled. Some are smarter. Some are dumber. Some are more clumsy than the other. They’re not a roll of the dice. They’re not a stack of cards. A team of players is not constant. Human beings themselves are not constant. We are fluid. Literally.

There’s a reason one player performs better or worse than another player in much the same way there’s a reason we know not to touch a hot stove. There’s a reason player A appears to be less efficient than player B. If player A’s teammates are not very good, he will have less space to apply his craft, and thus, appear to be inefficient in doing so. But we do not count a player’s teammates in each individual assessment. Because that would make the already insanely complex even more-so. That’s not random variance. That’s not a flaw in the player. That’s a flaw in the system by which each individual player is measured and, by extension, expected to perform. Spacing matters. Size matters. Context matters.

Player size is just one of many variables that influence the box score. When Pau Gasol is able to tower over Kenneth Faried for a rebound despite a fundamentally sound box-out by the Manimal, no one really notices. Faried earned himself a double-double in the box score, after all. When David Lee has the ball on the high-post and is looking down on Faried, Lee’s chances of making a simple jump-shot increase ten-fold because there is very little impeding his line of site to the rim. No one really notices this, though, because Faried’s going to put up 15-and-10. The fact he can’t stop an opposing player due to his size matters little. Production. Production. Production.

When Ty Lawson faces a hard hedge on a pick-and-roll that becomes a double-team and he turns the ball over because he’s not big enough or long enough to pass out of it, no one really notices. The box score shows he played great. When Kenneth Faried can’t stop an opposing player in space because he doesn’t take up enough of it, no one really notices. All they see is the 12-and-10. When Jerry Sloan inserts big man Kyrylo Fesenko into his starting lineup for game two of Denver’s 2010 first round playoff series against the Utah Jazz and the whole kit and caboodle turns in Utah’s favor, no one really notices. The box score says Nene played great and Fesenko proved ineffective. Nene produced, after all. It must mean he’s a center.

If you watch the Denver Nuggets as closely as I do you’d see these guys playing as hard as they possibly can. You can see and hear as Kenneth Faried screams in anguish during a box-out where he’s surrounded by two and three players twice his size against the Oklahoma City Thunder. You can see as Ty Lawson drives the lane against the Los Angeles Clippers only to be surrounded by a crowd of human flesh three-times his size hell-bent on keeping him from the rim. You can see the difficulty with which Lawson is faced when attempting his set jump-shot against a towering opponent’s close-out. People don’t understand the task Denver’s management is asking of these players–Lawson and Faried in particular. In a game overflowing with Goliaths, Denver is intent on running David into the ground. It makes me uncomfortable seeing such undersized players be asked to do so much.

Sure, they are professional athletes. But even the most finely-tuned athlete cannot make up for disparities in size. Play Ty Lawson 35+ minutes per night and see his body wear down from the unending punishment he’s likely to endure. Lawson puts his body on the line more than any player I’ve seen in a Nuggets uniform since Iverson. Play Kenneth Faried 35+ minutes per night and watch a young man’s body detonate before your very eyes. A player can only withstand so much before breaking down.

This is basketball. Basketball is a sport. An athletic competition between a team of individuals. When a wide-receiver towers over an undersized cornerback to grab a football, a color commentator is quick to point out how smart the quarterback was in picking out a matchup advantage and attacking it. When Kevin McHale’s Houston Rockets come out in April of last year and pound the ball into Luis Scola at the game’s outset because Kenneth Faried has little chance of stopping him, no one notices. After all, Faried put up 10-and-11 the night before against the very same team, right? That he could not contain Scola either night isn’t mentioned. Context matters. Spacing matters. Size matters.

Size matters just as much in basketball as it does in every other sport sans golf and tennis. And maybe ice-fishing. When the two most important players on a basketball team are as undersized at their positions as Lawson and Faried, you’re giving yourself no chance of competing against the league’s elite. And if people don’t understand how Lawson and Faried are undersized at their positions, I cannot help them. It’s basketball. One undersized player per rotation is fine. Two? You’re just asking for trouble. Production over size is foolhardy seeing as the very game they play is defined by the space in which it is contested. This isn’t rocket science. It’s simply physics. Inches matter.

I’m sure many will disagree. Many will say the game is defined by the scoreboard. Which is true. But what appears on the scoreboard is defined by what happens on the floor. And what happens on the floor is defined by the space in which it is played. The space in which it is played dictates how each individual actor engages in the activity. And what defines each individual actor is size, speed, skill, and smarts. Nothing is as simple as it seems. Especially not basketball.

TAKING INVENTORY

With that said, one thing you have to do after a major trade before moving forward is take inventory; see what you’ve given up, see what you’ve added to replace it, and then see what’s remaining to build around. That is all I have done over the last few weeks with the Denver Nuggets. They gave up a young, competent, insanely efficient, first-in-his-class shooting guard, for an all-world defender, first-in-his-class facilitator, and what history suggests to be a ‘meh’ shooter. History, like anything (including myself), can be very, very wrong from time-to-time.

My biggest fear is Denver nullified the trade’s potential success by moving the only player who makes Andre Iguoadala the player he is, while further hampering Danilo Gallinari’s growth as a point-forward. Throughout his career, Andre Iguodala has had the luxury of being surrounded by great shooters like Kyle Korver, Jason Kapono, Jrue Holiday, and Elton Brand. These are players who may not have always excelled from three, even though there were many, but did so from mid-range as well. As such, one reason Iggy’s assist rate is so high is because of those shooters. This theory could be false. Danilo Gallinari’s assist rate rose six points last year to a career high and it’s not like the Nuggets had a treasure trove of shooters. Well, except for the one. However, if Denver was going to trade anyone for Andre Iguodala, it should have been Gallinari, as Iguodala’s addition negates Gallo’s utility to a certain extent. The problem isn’t that Iguodala has no one to pass to. The problem is that Iguodala doesn’t have the shooters and floor-spacers he’s accustomed to. Arron Afflalo was one of those shooters.

Courtesy of Basketball-Reference

Courtesy of Basketball-Reference (apologies for the resolution–will be fixed ASAP)

Don’t be mistaken. Denver can, and likely will, still win some games. And they can win a whole hell of a lot of them. All is not lost (even though my doom and gloom over the last several months has made it seem so. I might be kind of nuts). I did, after all, pick them to miss the playoffs(!?).

In order to win, though, Denver’s coaching staff must take great pains in building lineups that complement each individual player on their roster. This is eminently more difficult than it seems because Denver is so undersized (at the game’s two most critical positions), there’s so much overlap in skill following the Afflalo-for-Iguodala swap, and two players for which they may be reliant are not up to par in the intelligence department. Player production isn’t something you pull out of a hat. Everything that happens on the floor dictates each individual’s stat-line. There’s a reason behind everything. Space matters. Size matters. Context matters.

There aren’t many games decided on player instinct alone. There are even fewer as complex as basketball. A baseball player knows exactly where he’s going to go when he knocks a hit into the outfield. Likewise, an outfielder knows before a pitch where he’s going to throw the ball if and when it comes his way. Basketball is not baseball. That’s why I love it. It’s totally and unabashedly random (with certain caveats). But that’s also why so few people actually get it. There are so many variables at play. A team can’t be built in a test-tube. Except, it kind of is.

I’ll reveal my test tube in the coming days and show you how the Denver Nuggets can force me into writing a public apology to Arturo Galletti of the Wages of Wins Network by winning over 47-games.

Until then, here’s a preview:

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 ….

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

According to ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh, two franchises in the NBA have seen their win percentage decline each of the past three seasons. Northwest Division rivals Denver and Portland are those two teams. The Portland Trail Blazers are a franchise that’s been besieged by injuries the last three years. Their whole roster has seemingly been turned over. They haven’t been able to control their misfortune (see Greg Oden and Brandon Roy, among others). The Nuggets, on the other hand, have welcomed this roster turnover with open arms – believing they’re smarter than everyone else by trading ball-stopper Carmelo Anthony, oft-injured Nene Hilario, and drafting rebounding machine Kenneth Faried. I guess the proof is in the pudding. Denver doesn’t think size matters in basketball, for if they did, they might have reconsidered drafting Faried a mere two years after acquiring undersized point guard Ty Lawson in a draft day trade with Minnesota. I guess they were on the verge of panic, otherwise they might not have leaped headfirst into the three-team talks involving Dwight Howard.

Explanation:

I am not entirely sure the basketball population at-large is aware of just how good Arron Afflalo is as a player. But you can know one thing for certain: Rob Hennigan took notice. He had his eyes on Afflalo from the jump. It’s why the Lakers, Sixers, and Magic included Denver at the very tail-end of their negotiations. As I explained in part one three weeks ago, Denver was at an inherent disadvantage during the negotiations. And they paid for it — in full.

Since the league’s inception in 1946, when it was actually known as the Basketball Association of America, there have been ten players to post a 3-point field goal percentage greater than 40%, a field-goal percentage greater than 46%, and a free-throw percentage greater than 80% with a minimum of 873 3-pointers taken. Players like Steve Kerr, Steve Nash, B.J. Armstrong, Brent Barry, Jeff Hornacek, Mark Price, and Craig Hodges grace this list. Ray Allen? Not on the list. Jason Terry? Not on it, either. Dirk Nowitzki? Nope. Kevin Durant? Can’t locate him. What about the best pure-shooter from the point-guard spot in the game today, Stephen Curry? Nope. Kyle Korver? As if. J.J. Redick? That’s a good one. Arron Afflalo? Fat chance of that–err, wait a minute. Afflalo actually is listed. He’s listed sixth, in league history. I don’t see soon-to-be max-contract guy, James Harden, in those ten. I don’t even see potential Hall-of-Famer, Chauncey Billups, on that chart. Eric Gordon, Kevin Martin, Monta Ellis, Dwyane Wade, and Kobe Bryant are also nowhere to be found. Arron Afflalo is, though.

To put these numbers in proper context I should explicitly state that in sixty-six years of American professional basketball there have been just ten players to post similar shooting statistics to Arron Afflalo. I have no idea how many players have played the game since 1946. It must total upwards of 20,000 (I’m sure someone far smarter than myself can give a much closer approximation). If there have in fact been nearly-20,000 players to suit up in NBA history, that would mean Arron Afflalo was a member of an exclusive class of player — the 0.05%. And Denver traded him. With little thought. With little pause. And with little fanfare.

I first released these findings on Twitter at around 10:30 pm on Friday, September 7. The backlash was fierce and fast. I was criticized for having too small of a sample size. I was criticized for picking and choosing my categories for measuring success. I was accused of being everything under the sun. Some even brought Tim Tebow into the discussion — implying I was “cooking the numbers” to make Afflalo look better than he is. I was harangued and harassed for the remainder of the evening and have continued to be so in the weeks since Denver made this trade.

Since my initial criticisms of the franchise became known months ago, I have had to defend my point of view under ridiculous attacks from seemingly everywhere. Anonymous people with anonymous IP addresses who I have reason to believe work within Denver’s front office have been leaving disparaging remarks on my blog. I was considering deleting my Twitter account altogether a month or two ago, as my mentions filled with incalculable threats from various unknown outcroppings around the ‘Net. I have had followers secretly tell Nuggets players via Twitter that I am speaking ill of them as people and professionals. The scrutiny I have been under is ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous.

I didn’t ask for this. I am not enjoying this. I have an undying love for the Denver Nuggets franchise because it saw me through some of the most difficult times I will likely ever face in my life. I don’t hate the team. I don’t hate the franchise. I don’t hate the players who suit up every night. I merely want them to be respected as the players they are and not asked to be players they are incapable of becoming.

All that said, in order to satisfy the ever-growing horde of detractors I am likely to face going forward, I reduced the sample size to include a minimum of 400 career 3-pointers made. Only two new names were added to the list, with one of them of particular note in the annals of NBA history:

Drazen Petrovic starred at shooting guard for the New Jersey Nets two seasons before being killed in an automobile accident at the tender age of 28. He was posthumously enshrined into the Naismith Basketball Hall-of-Fame in 2002, merely nine years after having his jersey retired by the Nets. New Jersey never overcame the death of Petrovic, outside of 2002 when Jason Kidd, Kenyon Martin, and Richard Jefferson led the team to a Finals berth.

Now, I should for all intents and purposes end my argument against the trade right here, right now. However, that would be doing a disservice to both Afflalo and the player he was traded for, Andre Iguodala. First, I will discuss Arron Afflalo and his contributions beyond shooting to Denver these last three years. Then, I will further explore what Andre Iguodala’s role should be going forward in Denver. Look for that tomorrow.

Thanks for reading.

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