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

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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.

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 ….

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