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:

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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