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

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Introduction:

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

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

How the Denver Nuggets can win 50+ games:

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

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

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

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

Philadelphia and Doug Collins:

Courtesy: GCOBB

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

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

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

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

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

Team-building, the Denver Nuggets, and Pace:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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