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.

What’s Denver Missing in Timofey Mozgov?

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

A New Team:

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

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

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

The Beginning:

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

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

The Breakthrough:

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

Mozgov/Hibbert rookie season comparison

Mozgov/Hibbert comparison at age 25

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

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

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

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

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

Timofey Mozgov regular season output

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

Kosta Koufos regular season output

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

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

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

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