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.

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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