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.

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.

What’s Denver Missing in Timofey Mozgov?

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

A New Team:

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

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

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

The Beginning:

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

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

The Breakthrough:

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

Mozgov/Hibbert rookie season comparison

Mozgov/Hibbert comparison at age 25

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

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

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

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

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

Timofey Mozgov regular season output

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

Kosta Koufos regular season output

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

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

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

What’s Wrong with Denver? And Where do We Go from Here?

Where does Denver go with the twentieth pick?

Following the surprising trade of longtime power forward/center Nene in March, their needs are wide-ranging.

There is currently one player on the roster that is absolutely untouchable. And that is Danilo Gallinari. He is a great player. But like every great player, he needs other great players surrounding him to maximize his potential. Trading Nene killed any and all potential growth Gallinari was to experience because it expedited his only solid pick-and-roll partner. When Denver was hot in late January, it was on the heels of Gallinari and Nene spearheading their attack. Gallo’s talents are best utilized when he’s manning the point-forward position. Nene was the only big on the team with the hands and skill capable of running with Gallinari, as evidenced by the following:

This is why after the trade, Gallo’s utility went downhill. He was being put in situations unsuitable to his talents — as a post-player and isolation scorer. As such, this is the problem we run into with far too much frequency in Denver over the last decade: Players being put in uncomfortable positions and situations not relative to their talent.

Exhibit A:

Nene Hilario was drafted out of Brazil in the 2002 draft. A 6-foot-11, 250 lb. phenom was ushered into Denver after a superb draft day trade by then Nuggets’ General Manager Kiki Vandeweghe. (The fact they also drafted Nikoloz Tskitishvili in the same year is something we’ll gloss over for the time being.) Where Denver, and most of all, Kiki, went wrong is when they followed that up two seasons later by signing Kenyon Martin to a max contract. The draft picks traded for the rights to Kenyon’s contract ended up being meaningless. Martin’s new contract, however, was not.

In July 2004, with Nene coming off two healthy seasons of great basketball, and at the mere age of 21, it seemed like a silly move to make Kenyon Martin one of the highest-paid players in the league. With Kenyon aboard making max money and Nene on the shelf for brief parts of the year, Martin was pushed into the starter’s role at power forward during the 2005 season. Marcus Camby (who had also just been re-signed) was perfect at center for a team led by the lax defense of prized-pupil Carmelo Anthony. But when Martin laid claim to the starter’s role at four, Nene was on the outside looking in. And Denver couldn’t trade Kenyon’s contract. They were absolutely hamstrung by it. Could they have handled it any better than they did? Could they have traded him to someone and gotten a schmuck back in return (in much the same way they did Nene for JaVale)? Could they have moved Martin to the bench while Nene and Marcus Camby formed one of the most dominant front courts in the game? Maybe. But hindsight is 20/20. Given the situation, they probably handled it to the best of their ability. Moving the highly volatile Martin to the bench would have upset an already tepid locker room even more. Moving him out of town would have been preferable. After all, they did this very thing to a great  player just six years later.

The Kenyon signing was bad for everyone. But they handled it the best way possible. The NBA is a player’s league. As such, the players earning the most scratch will find the most time.  Also, rarely is anything as easy as it seems.

However, there seemed to be no backup plan should this situation with Martin not work out. Which, during the 2006 playoffs, appeared to be near-certainty.

Exhibit B.

Denver trades floor general and team glue-guy Andre Miller to the Philadelphia 76ers for guard Allen Iverson. This was a blockbuster deal in 2006 that brought much attention to the Mile Hi City. Who was going to get the ball in crunch-time? Iverson or Carmelo? How were they going to share one ball? Who’s team was it going to be? All of these questions and more were asked during the initial stages of the trade talks and beyond. What Denver ended up doing with this trade more damaging than anything else was ignore the fact they were moving their only NBA quality point guard for the volatile Iverson.[1] In their haste, they made a string of bad judgments that eventually caused major ripple-effects for the next half-decade:

  1. Iverson was brought aboard and almost immediately took ownership of the team as Carmelo sat out a 15-game suspension for his participation in the brawl in New York on December 16, 2006.
  2. Iverson’s need to have the ball in his hands to make plays left Anthony out in the cold, and thus, hindered his development as the premiere offensive threat he was destined to become. Carmelo was at one time talked up to be an MVP candidate; especially at the beginning of that 2006 season, when George Karl had his Nuggets cruising.
  3. Denver had seemingly no backup plan in the works for their newfound hole at point guard as they took nearly a full month to find Miller’s replacement in the Milwaukee Bucks’ Steve Blake. Blake was a good temporary stop-gap. But was he the answer long-term for Denver? Most certainly not.
  4.  Anthony Carter was brought in that April for the playoffs. He was retained in the summer for the veteran’s minimum. Chucky Atkins was also signed that summer in the hopes that he would take command of the team’s starting point guard role. He never materialized as questions about his health took more time to answer than whatever scant amount of minutes he found on the floor. Heady young point guard Mike Wilks was signed, then released, then re-signed, then released.
  5. The whole 2007 season was played with Anthony Carter at point guard. Anthony Carter would have been lucky to get off the bench in most NBA cities. Yet here he was starting at point guard for a franchise that had Marcus Camby, Carmelo Anthony, Allen Iverson, and Kenyon Martin in its arsenal (along with Nene Hilario and J.R. Smith off the bench.) Would you hire a 15 year-old with his learner’s permit to park your ’69 Shelby GT Mustang? Of course you wouldn’t. You’d be fucking insane to. And so Denver once again had a player contributing where he should not have even been considered an option.

Backup plans? Contingency plans? Anything?

Exhibit C.

Three games into the 2008 season saw the beginnings of what could have become a franchise-changing trade. Denver was able to move Iverson to the Detroit Pistons for hometown hero Chauncey Billups. The Chauncey Billups era was on. Denver had finally found their point guard. He was going to remain in Denver until he retired and then move into the front office in an advisory role. It was going to be the perfect storybook ending to what would hopefully become a Hall-of-Fame career. The addition of Billups had an almost surreal and immediate impact on Denver’s fortunes. Everyone moved back to their natural positions. Chauncey was the guard who could score and facilitate. Dahntay Jones was a defensive stopper. Kenyon Martin (as unskilled and passably awful as he was on offense) was the defensive quarterback. And Nene Hilario and Carmelo Anthony would flourish on the offensive end with Chauncey getting them the ball in their spots for maximum success. Chauncey was the vice-president to George Karl’s bench presidency. He wasn’t going to be as sneaky-good as Andre Miller was. But he was going to provide the team with the necessary structure to make up for whatever George Karl lacked from the sidelines. He made certain there were diagramed plays called out of timeouts (something I’m still not certain George Karl has taken the onus of implementing). He made certain the matchup advantages were there for Denver to capitalize on when they arose. He brought a thinking-man’s game to Denver. Where Andre Miller was more laissez-faire, Chauncey was more cerebral. The pull-up jumpers in transition he was so famous for were something Denver greatly needed, as they were a manifestation of his thinking on the floor — automatic and natural.

Denver made the 2009 Western Conference Finals. But rather than keep the team that brought the most success to Denver in twenty-five years, they jettisoned Dahntay Jones for nothing. His physical presence and defensive leadership from both the court and the bench were sorely missed the next year when George Karl fell ill to cancer. Arron Afflalo, a seemingly large upgrade, was brought in from Detroit in Jones’s stead. That is all fine and good, but, why mess with what brought you your greatest success?

Backup plans? Contingency plans? Considering every possible potentiality? I’m sensing a theme here.

Exhibit D.

Marcus Camby is traded to the Los Angeles Clippers for 2010 second round pick (Willie Warren). Denver, once again, had moved one of their better pieces in the hopes that their prized-big man Nene would just slide over to center in Camby’s absence. They not only made this trade with that in mind, they moved Camby for absolutely nothing. Knowing Chris “Birdman” Andersen was waiting in the wings (no pun intended) they made the move with Andersen’s bench role firm. Camby was gone. Nene was now going to play center – not his natural position. (The fact that the Washington Wizards, immediately after acquiring Nene, made a move to get Emeka Okafor at center so they could move Nene to his natural position at power forward is also something we’ll gloss over for the time being).

What now?

What could have been? When is Denver going to be held accountable for these decisions? When are those in charge of making these decisions going to have to answer for them? Why was Nene constantly put in situations where he was unable to maximize his success? Why was he always allowed to be the scapegoat when success didn’t materialize for him or the franchise even though he was never in his best possible position?

How does a Western Conference Finals team get totally dismantled in less than three years?

Why is Carmelo Anthony traded even though every indication early in the 2009-10 season showed he wanted to remain in Denver? What changed for him? Did he catch wind that some in the front office wanted him traded? Did he then feel like maybe his services were no longer appreciated in Denver and decide New York was a better option?

How in God’s name is Nene moved a mere three months after signing a new contract even though he’s coming off his three healthiest seasons as a pro? He missed some games during a lockout-shortened season. Now is the time to usher him out of Denver? Why did the Denver front office freak out and trade him for a project at center in JaVale McGee?

Why was Chauncey Billups included in the Carmelo Anthony trade when the players that made the trade bigger were simply filler? Why was Wilson Chandler included when he should barely be getting off the bench for a team in the NBA? Is Chandler another in a long line of players who are only successful in Mike D’Antoni’s system? Why was he then granted a new contract in Denver and then not able to play for the duration of the season after getting hurt? Can he not be traded like Nene was for similar reasons?

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 for being so and held onto for the duration of their careers?

What are they doing? Is Ty Lawson truly the point guard of the future for the Denver Nuggets? Is JaVale McGee truly the center of the future for the Denver Nuggets? Given that he was only allowed twenty or so games in a lockout-shortened season to showcase his talents, I’m not sure we are in any position to answer that question. Can Danilo Gallinari reach his greatest success without a viable big man to run pick-and-rolls with in the rotation? What is this team doing with Timofey Mozgov – the guy supposedly holding up the Carmelo trade in the first place? The Russian big man with the most skill of anyone on the roster is being ill-used and ill-fitted to maximize his own potential. Is he being coached to become a post-option? And what about Kenneth Faried? Is he a starter in the NBA? Can his superior rebounding abilities allow his massive deficiencies in other areas to be overlooked? Those questions and more will be answered on Monday in part two.

Because how can any player possibly be drafted if we don’t know whether or not they’ll be used correctly in the first place?


[1] Andre Miller was more than just Denver’s point guard. He was what made the whole damn show work. He’s as quiet and understated a player as you will find in the NBA. And that’s fine. But it’s also something that works to his detriment. Because you can’t always see what he’s doing on the floor with your eyes or hear it with your ears. It’s more subtle things with Miller. It’s finding JaVale McGee for an alley-oop from three-quarters down the floor. It’s drawing a defender his direction on a fast-break and putting a pin-point pass in the chest of Al Harrington as he’s sitting under the bucket wide-open. It’s all these subtle nuances to the game that not everyone sees that make Andre Miller so valuable. His ability to see mismatches before anyone else on the court even has the wherewithal to call them out. His quick decisions to post up a smaller guard and work opposing players into a frenzy with a succession of pump-fakes and pass-fakes and hop-fakes. His ability to get to the line at will. His aplomb for working officials into calling the game more in his favor. All of these things make Andre Miller beyond valuable to any and every team he’s ever been a part of. It’s why he has such staying power. It’s why he’s still in demand. And it’s why whoever signs him next will reap the benefits of it beyond their or anyone else’s comprehension. It’s also why he won’t be back in Denver next season. He is too old in age and demanding in salary for Denver to change philosophy on a whim for his pleasing. He will move on to a brighter city and hopefully achieve his greatest glory by getting the one thing that’s always eluded him: a championship ring.
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