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.

Why the Andre Iguodala trade doesn’t make Denver better: Part I

Editor’s note: I do not enjoy making reason of chaos. As you may have noticed, it’s been nearly two months since my last post. I’m still writing daily  (as has been the case for well over a year now), however, it has become even more difficult to figure out where to take this blog as I unravel and digest everything the Denver Nuggets organization does on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. I apologize for the inconsistencies of my posting. 

This is part I of a series (of parentheses and em-dashes–this is a joke that will make sense later, I assure you) in which I examine why the Andre Iguodala trade doesn’t make Denver better. 

If you have been following me on Twitter at all for the past six months, you would be well aware that I am not in very much support of Denver’s roster moves. If you had read any parts of my previous two posts, you would find the same opinion throughout.

They traded a disgruntled “star” in Carmelo Anthony because each had had enough of the other. They included Chauncey Billups in the deal to maximize return trade value, even though he clearly wanted Denver his final basketball destination (which wouldn’t mean much if it were any other player, except that Denver is Chauncey’s home and he’s kind of a local legend and still incredibly productive to boot) and the Nuggets thought an as-yet untested and very undersized Ty Lawson (more on Lawson’s place in history in future posts) was ready to lead them into the future.

The very next season they re-signed Nene Hilario, Arron Afflalo, and Danilo Gallinari to long-term deals. Injuries set in during the months of February and March (as they typically do in every season, but, even more-so in a lockout-shortened slate where guys are playing as many as five games in six nights) and Denver panicked, trading Hilario for league laughingstock, JaVale McGee. (As an aside, unless there is acute attention paid to minute allocation during the season such as that employed by San Antonio with aging Hall-of-Famer Tim Duncan, injuries will pileup – especially with players as seemingly fragile as Nene.)

After signing his new contract last December, Nene had indicated in every available media outlet that he, like Billups, wanted Denver to be his first and last stop in the NBA – despite seeing teammate Carmelo Anthony make nearly twice the money for half the work most of his career, despite being forced to play nearly a full decade out of position, despite never being allowed to flourish due to playing out of position, despite playing with a ball-stopper in Anthony and an unconscionable chucker in J.R. Smith, despite playing alongside head-cases Kenyon Martin and Smith for most of his career, and despite being the very model of consistency and professionalism on and off the court. Denver management, feeling no loyalty to either Nene or Billups after living through one of the most tumultuous decades any NBA city has ever experienced, moved them in trades with very little feeling or remorse or nearly the return such players should garner. It is business, after all. Then, following yet another unsuccessful NBA Draft in June (because, let’s face it, the Nuggets haven’t drafted well since Kiki Vandeweghe took Jameer Nelson in 2004) where they acquired France’s relatively unknown Evan Fournier and another project in Baylor’s Quincy Miller, the Nuggets saw every other team in the Western Conference improve. Feeling a playoff berth next season slowly slipping through their fingertips, they panicked again, and traded the since re-signed Afflalo for Philadelphia’s Andre Iguodala. Why do I feel they panicked, you ask?

  1. There is a very clear track record for doing so.
  2. They were never once involved in the Dwight Howard talks until the final days when major players (Orlando, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia) needed a fourth team to take Andre Iguodala.
  3. The league’s worst-kept secret is Denver’s lust for Iguodala – going at least as far back as two years ago when they were fielding offers for Carmelo Anthony. Every trade proposal they considered in the early-stages of talks with New Jersey revolved around Iguodala coming to the Nuggets. Now, fast-forward two years: The Lakers, Magic, and especially the Sixers knew of Denver’s infatuation with Iggy and took advantage by beautifully orchestrating a four-team deal involving the newly-minted gold medalist. I know Sixers President Rod Thorn and general manager Ed Stefanski knew about the Nuggets’ yearning for Iguodala (Thorn was in his first days on the job when Denver made overtures for the small forward in the Carmelo swap), and by extension, so did both Orlando and Los Angeles.
  4. No one necessarily had use for Iguodala’s services, least of all Orlando. Because what utility could the Magic have for a 28-going-on-29 year-old swingman who can’t score and relies entirely on his athleticism for success? Remember, Rob Hennigan was tutored in the San Antonio Spurs organization. Orlando is in the midst of a full rebuild. Acquiring a nearly-30 year old NBA veteran ‘tweener’ who’s on the decline to anchor their team is foolhardy. And God knows Los Angeles has enough help on the wing. Denver was the only team that would take Iguodala.
  5. The Nuggets didn’t put enough thought into the move itself because they weren’t involved until the final stages of talks – something that speaks very loudly to a franchise getting hoodwinked. For this reason and those mentioned above, Denver gave up its best remaining player and elite NBA shooting guard, Arron Afflalo.

I said last January on Twitter – much to the dismay of all my followers – that there were only four players I’d take over Arron Afflalo as my starting shooting guard. They were: James Harden, Eric Gordon, Kevin Martin, and Monta Ellis. Kobe Bryant wasn’t included. Dwyane Wade wasn’t, either (people were especially steamed about Wade’s exclusion). If I had to do that list over again today it would include James Harden. And end with James Harden. Klay Thompson will be on this list by the time the New Year rolls around, I have no doubt. However, I do not include Andre Iguodala in the field of potential shooting guards for one reason: He can’t shoot. From anywhere (outside of last year’s near-40% showing from behind the arc). Having the ability to shoot is kind of in the job description for a shooting guard. And for this reason, he has been used as point-forward out of the small forward position for the majority of his career. A point forward position I (wrongfully) assumed Denver was grooming Danilo Gallinari to take over. After all, the point forward is actually what pre-draft scouting reports listed him as coming out of Italy in 2008. As if drafting France’s Evan Fournier wasn’t a curious enough choice given he’s yet another versatile wing best used as a point-forward because he cannot shoot, Denver makes a trade for one more?

I mean, what does Denver have against shooters? (More on a player they missed in Summer League who could have easily made their roster but was ignored in future posts).

With this wealth of information as pretext, I will use my ensuing posts as explanation into the incalculable number of ways this was a bad trade for Denver, how much it frighteningly resembles the Nuggets’ last trade with Philly for another ‘A.I.’, and how they’re building a Fantasy Basketball Team instead of a real one. I assure you all of  this will be thoroughly backed-up by quantitative evidence. I promise.

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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