On George Karl, Masai Ujiri, and what’s next for the Denver Nuggets

“If I give you a team that’s not super-talented, but, they care and try hard, I’m going to win 35-games with that team and you are going to love them. If I give you a super-talented team that doesn’t care that much, [and] that doesn’t try that hard, I’m going to win 50-games and you are going to hate them.”

– Kevin McHale on the Dan Le Batard Show paraphrasing the great, Red Auerbach

George Karl accepting his Coach of the Year Award

This quote is a corollary for George Karl’s entire tenure in Denver. When he was originally hired midway through the 2004-05 season, he led the Nuggets on a furious 32-8 finish with a super-talented core of Carmelo Anthony, Andre Miller, Marcus Camby, Kenyon Martin, and Nene Hilario. That team suffered a gentleman’s sweep at the hands of the eventual NBA Champion, San Antonio Spurs, in the first round.

The very next season, under a full-year of George Karl’s tutelage, the Nuggets again suffered a gentleman’s sweep, this time at the hands of the Los Angeles Clippers — a series and opponent that saw Denver favored. However, that team deserves a bit of a reprieve, as every member of their frontline (sans Carmelo Anthony) suffered through injury. Nene was lost in the first game for the entire season. Kenyon Martin and Marcus Camby each missed enough time to force Francisco Elson into starting 54 games. Ruben Patterson, DerMarr Johnson, and Greg Buckner each started 20, 21, and 27 games for Denver, respectively. Buckner, a league journeyman, played 1758 minutes that season — fourth-most on the team behind Anthony, Camby, and Miller. Elson, Patterson, Johnson, and Buckner seemingly fell off the Earth following their time in Denver.

Earl Boykins was huge for Denver

In 2006-07, the Nuggets again suffered through serious injuries, when Kenyon Martin was lost for the entire year during the season’s second game. Carmelo Anthony, Allen Iverson, Marcus Camby, Nene, and J.R. Smith once again provided a super-talented — albeit wholly unlikable — core that, according to most, underachieved. Like George Karl’s first Nuggets team, the 2007 iteration suffered a gentleman’s sweep at the hands of the eventual NBA Champion, San Antonio Spurs. What gets lost is Eduardo Najera (1658), Steve Blake (1642), Linas Kleiza (1488), Yakhouba Diawara (1177), and Reggie Evans (1127) each played significant minutes for Denver that season. Outside of Steve Blake’s brief stint in Los Angeles and Reggie Evans’ run in Brooklyn, none of those players have been seen or heard from since. Even Earl Boykins, at 30 years old, played 877 minutes that year.

The 2007-08 Nuggets, on the backs of Iverson and Anthony, were thought to be surefire contenders. That team, much like every single other Karl squad before it, befell to injuries, as Nene saw just 266 minutes in 16 games. Anthony, Iverson, Camby, and Martin formed a nice core. It’s just that 32 year-old Anthony Carter was their starting point guard. Carter (1960), Kleiza (1889), Najera (1664), and Diawara (542) each saw a significant chunk of minutes. None of them have been seen or heard from since. Only 22 year-old J.R. Smith had a future in the NBA. And he saw merely 1421 minutes that season — eighth-most on the team. The 2008 Nuggets were swept in a not-so-gentlemanly manner by the eventual NBA Finals runner-up, Los Angeles Lakers in the first round.

The only year where everything seemed to fall into place came in 2008-09, when Denver suffered no significant injuries. Those Nuggets made the Western Conference Finals. And if not for a few errant Anthony Carter passes, would have made the NBA Finals.

The 2009-10 Nuggets won 53 games and the Northwest Division. Outside of Kenyon Martin’s 58 games played, no Denver player suffered a significant injury. Anthony Carter only saw 859 minutes, as Ty Lawson proved to be just the change-of-pace backup Chauncey Billups needed. That team had similar dreams of its predecessor, and if not for George Karl’s cancer, might have made some playoff noise. Adrian Dantley, however, proved to be in way over his head, as the Nuggets lost in six games to the underdog, Utah Jazz.

The 2010-11 Nuggets — in my eyes the best Denver team outside of the Western Conference Finals squad — played the upstart Oklahoma City Thunder to five close games. If not for a phantom basket interference call on Nene in game one, they would have had a good chance winning the series. Every game was tight. That team could both shoot from three and the free-throw line. They had a threat on the interior in Nene and terrific perimeter defenders and scorers alike. Of course, that Nuggets team was forced to live through the entire “Melo-drama” trade fiasco. Raymond Felton, a 46% 3-point shooter during his short stint in Denver, was moved that offseason for the slower, more determined, and plodding Andre Miller. J.R. Smith and Kenyon Martin were allowed to walk.

Denver’s 2011-12 Nuggets’ team has been lauded for taking the Lakers to seven games in the first round, when that same Lakers team was quickly dispatched in five the very next round by the Oklahoma City Thunder. What gets further muddied in the annals of history is Ron Artest’s suspension (following his elbowing of James Harden during the regular season) cost him the first six games of that series. If Los Angeles had Metta World Peace from the series’ start, the Nuggets would have been lucky to see  game six. As it was, if not for a ridiculous performance out of JaVale McGee, Denver was lucky to see game seven.

Which brings me to the 2012-13 season …

The Denver Nuggets were surreptitiously dispatched from the 2013 NBA Playoffs by the Golden State Warriors last week. Nuggets fans and bloggers alike are rightfully upset. The best season in franchise history was supposed to be different. 57 wins, the third seed, and homecourt advantage was supposed to mark a difference.

Naturally, everyone wants to lay blame at the feet of someone. Unfortunately, for a team without a “star”, the easiest person to blame is the head coach. George Karl deserves some blame. But, there’s plenty of it to go around.

This team, like Karl’s first few Denver teams, suffered a devastating injury when Danilo Gallinari went down during the final week of the regular season. Many conveniently forget to mention that when writing the Nuggets’ 2012-13 season opus. Gallinari’s injury, while a convenient excuse, is a valid one. It put Denver’s entire rotation in flux and forced its head coach to give playoff minutes to players who wouldn’t have seen the court except in spot duty — players like Wilson Chandler, Anthony Randolph, Corey Brewer, and Evan Fournier.

In six playoff games, Corey Brewer saw 146 minutes. He rolled up a PER (player efficiency rating) of 7.2 in that time. In Wilson Chandler’s 205 minutes, he tallied a PER of 8.7. In Evan Fournier’s 53 playoff minutes, he posted an overall PER of 4.0, while averaging four turnovers and four personal fouls per-36 minutes. These numbers aren’t just bad. They’re bone-chillingly bad. Denver’s other 2012 draft pick, Quincy Miller, couldn’t see the floor as he is nowhere near ready for the rigors of the NBA (and may never be). All the while, Mark Jackson was able to rely on rookies Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green, and Festus Ezili (two of which were taken after Fournier).

Denver's Playoff Productivity 2013

Denver’s Playoff Productivity 2013 (Courtesy: Basketball-Reference)

Even players who would have seen court time with a healthy Gallinari struggled. JaVale McGee, a PER-darling during the regular season, posted a rating of 14.2 in 112 playoff minutes. Kosta Koufos, Denver’s most underrated and unheralded player during the regular season, tallied a PER of 10.1 in 100 minutes. Denver’s lone draft day victory in Stan Kroenke’s entire tenure as owner, Kenneth Faried, posted a PER of 15.6 in 145 minutes — a far cry from the 18 he posted as a rookie in 2012.

PER is an incredibly flawed metric, to be sure. However, for the sake of brevity, it is a good overall gauge of player productivity.

For comparison’s sake, the Houston Rockets — a team many consider in the same league as Denver where it concerns youth and potential — had only two players fail to register a double-digit PER. Jeremy Lin, playing an injury-riddled 84 minutes, posted a negative PER of -0.6. James Anderson’s 18 minutes produced an overall PER of -1.6. Every other player on their playoff roster, including rookie Terrence Jones, Aaron Brooks, and Greg Smith (someone who had no business on a playoff basketball court), posted PER’s in the double-digits.

The Clippers had four players — Ryan Hollins, Grant Hill, DeAndre Jordan, and Chauncey Billups — each fail to register double-digit PER ratings. Only in DeAndre Jordan do they have a future invested. One other small detail: They have the best point guard in the world in Chris Paul and one of the league’s brightest, youngest, stars in Blake Griffin.

The Lakers had five players — Antawn Jamison, Chris Duhon, Metta World Peace, Jodie Meeks, and Earl Clark — fail to register double-digit PER this postseason. Wilson Chandler will earn $6.3 million next season, $6.8 million in 2014-15, and $7.2 million in 2015-16. Jordan Hill and Chris Duhon will earn a combined $7.4 million next season in Los Angeles — the end of their guaranteed contracts.

The Chicago Bulls had four players fail to register a double-digit PER in Luol Deng, Marquis Teague, Daequan Cook, and Richard ‘Rip’ Hamilton. Deng lost 15 pounds while laid-up in the hospital following complications from a spinal tap procedure last week. Marquis Teague is Chicago’s fourth-string point guard, and only seeing time because Derrick Rose and Kirk Hinrich are both injured — leaving only Nate Robinson available.

Masai Ujiri wins Executive of the Year

Picture used courtesy of The Denver Post (Hyoung Chang)

Masai Ujiri is very worthy of the Executive of the Year Award he received this season. He built a terrific regular season roster that won a Denver franchise-record, 57 games. However, when it comes to the playoffs, his team-building leaves much to be desired. And he’s just as culpable as anyone when it comes to laying blame for Denver’s first round flameout.

After all, it was Ujiri’s front office that didn’t address their team’s woeful shooting concerns. Say what you will about Stephen Curry’s super-stardom, but the Nuggets lost this series at the free throw line, the 3-point line, and on the perimeter. Game six, decided by four points, featured a Denver team that went 13-of-21 from the charity stripe — including a 2-of-7 performance from starting front court mates, JaVale McGee and Kenneth Faried. Even if Denver had been fortunate to get more whistles, they might not have been able to make them count. What’s more? The Nuggets shot a horrendous 25% (7-of-28) from the 3-point line in game six, with Ty Lawson, Wilson Chandler, Corey Brewer, and Andre Miller going a combined 1-for-20. If not for Andre Iguodala’s herculean 5-for-8 effort from three (and Kosta Koufos’s flukey 3-point make), the four-point margin would have been much, much greater.

Of the sixteen playoff participants, only the Pacers (31%), Clippers (30.4%), Lakers (27%), and Bucks (26.1%) shot worse from 3-point range than Denver (31.1%) during the postseason. The Clippers were bounced in six while both the Lakers and Bucks were swept. Furthermore, only Chicago (71.6%), Houston (71.1%), Atlanta (68.2%), Milwaukee (63%), and the Lakers (60.8%) shot worse from the free throw line than Denver (73%) during the playoffs. Houston and Atlanta both lost in six. The Nuggets were lucky to not have been swept in the same fashion as Milwaukee and Los Angeles.

Denver’s woeful shooting concerns notwithstanding, it was the same front office that didn’t shore up the Nuggets’ porous perimeter defense — outside of the patchwork trade for Iguodala during the summer. I have been very critical of Ty Lawson’s defense, and rightfully so. But the truth of the matter is no team with the undersized Lawson, the aged legs of Andre Miller, and the fundamentally deficient Kenneth Faried, JaVale McGee, and Corey Brewer should expect to defend well — even with Andre Iguodala wreaking havoc on the perimeter.

Sadly, the lionshare of the blame will sit at the foot of the head coach. He’s the one that led them to 57 regular season wins. He’s also the one that led them to a first round playoff loss for the eighth time in nine seasons. And he is the one that prematurely changed his entire rotation following game two, starting undersized and still hobbled power forward, Kenneth Faried, at center.

Denver’s best five-man unit in the playoffs saw only five total minutes together in the regular season because of Gallinari’s reign of good health. Ty Lawson, Andre Iguodala, Wilson Chandler, Kenneth Faried, and JaVale McGee played 22 total minutes together in the series. After their game five victory, where said lineup saw fourteen minutes, George Karl only gave them eight minutes in game six. Part of that had to do with Faried’s aforementioned foul trouble. But, as a head coach, you absolutely have to find time for a lineup that scored 110.5 points per 100 possessions while allowing just 87.7. Golden State had too much trouble countering Denver’s length and athleticism with those five on the floor.

Why did it take until game five for Karl to deploy that lineup? And why, after seeing its effectiveness, did he only give them eight minutes in a potential series-clinching game six? Removing Kenneth Faried is understandable. But, it’s certainly not advisable. Not when your playoff lives are on the line. However, therein lies the rub: How can George Karl possibly give players like Faried and McGee playoff minutes when they’re such poor free-throw shooters and ball-chasing defenders? Coaches aren’t dumb to opponent weaknesses. Not anymore. Smart coaches like Gregg Popovich and Scotty Brooks (gasp!) would eat Denver alive if they used such lineups.

Denver’s second-best five-man unit in the playoffs only saw four minutes together in the regular season. That lineup included Andre Miller, Ty Lawson, Andre Iguodala, Wilson Chandler, and JaVale McGee. They scored 104.5 points per 100 possessions while allowing only 94.6 in their 26 playoff minutes. What’s interesting is they saw action in all six games — just no consistent court time in anyone of those games. Why not? Why aren’t George Karl’s most effective lineups being used more often?

The Denver Nuggets don’t need a new head coach. They need a specialist able to identify their best lineups and advise George Karl on them properly. Is it any wonder that they’ve struggled in the playoffs since seeing stat man and ‘George Karl’s brain’, Dean Oliver, leave the team to join ESPN? I think not. Second, they need to clean house of the knuckleheads and get serious about winning a championship — if that is indeed their goal. If Denver’s free-throw and 3-point shooting was the cause for losing game six, it was the knucklehead play of guys like JaVale McGee, Wilson Chandler, and Anthony Randolph that lost them game four. That’s not just the perils of youth. Every team is young. The problem is most serious teams don’t do stupid. The San Antonio Spurs don’t hoard dumb players like they’re going out-of-style. The Memphis Grizzlies don’t harbor a single player lacking in basketball I.Q. The same can be said of the Oklahoma City Thunder, Miami HEAT, Boston Celtics, Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets and every other team (outside of the New York Knicks) that saw their season extended last week. Blame George Karl all you want, but, those players certainly wouldn’t work for other coaches because they wouldn’t have them. Third, if Denver’s front office thinks they can get away next season without Andre Iguodala’s perimeter defense, then, they have another thing coming. With Iguodala on the floor during the 2012-13 regular season, the Nuggets allowed 100.5 points per 100 possessions — a mark good enough for seventh-overall in team defense. With Iguodala off the floor, that number jumped to 105.3 points per 100 possessions — good enough for 22nd-overall in team defense and not far from their 19th-overall (103.4 DRTG) finish the year before his arrival. Denver was the worst team at defending the 3-ball in playoff history. One less Andre Iguodala means pain. Lots and lots and lots of pain. Fourth, the Nuggets absolutely have to address their gaping hole in the middle. JaVale McGee isn’t the answer. He never was the answer. He should be wearing another uniform by November.

What’s good is a lot of Denver’s players are quite movable. What’s bad is they aren’t movable for much. First, I would recommend trading all of the knuckleheads for draft picks — because you aren’t going to get much of value in return for players who can’t play fundamentally sound basketball when it matters most. Second, I would do everything in my power to ensure Andre Iguodala returns for the 2013-2014 season. If it takes guaranteeing him roster changes and that he be consulted prior to said changes, then I would make such concessions. It is beyond imperative that he return — beyond imperative.

Looking at Denver’s payroll moving forward, JaVale McGee, Wilson Chandler, Andre Miller, Anthony Randolph, and Jordan Hamilton appear to be the most difficult players to move (considering their contracts and relative abilities — or lack thereof). Those five players eat up $25.013 million of Denver’s payroll next season. That’s a ridiculous amount, considering the salary cap is estimated to be just over $58 million. Around 43% of their payroll is guaranteed to players who have no business on a contending team. Andre Miller, for all his faults, can still be moved for something of value. The other four? Not so much. Kosta Koufos, Evan Fournier (his playoff performance notwithstanding), and Kenneth Faried appear to be the most valuable trade chips they have on the table, as Lawson and Gallinari are untouchable. Dangle Koufos, Faried, and Fournier just to see if there are any takers (there probably won’t be). Then go from there.

Denver Nuggets player payroll entering 2013-14

Denver Nuggets player payroll entering 2013-14 (Courtesy: Basketball-Reference)

The playoffs are won with matchups. And until the Nuggets organization figures that out, they will continue to suffer the consequences. The reason Denver advanced to the Western Conference Finals during the 2009 season was because they had advantages at point guard (Chauncey Billups), small forward (Carmelo Anthony), and center (Nene) that were very hard for opposing teams to counter over a seven-game playoff series. They haven’t had the same advantages since. That’s one reason why George Karl’s Nuggets have advanced past the first round only once in his nine years on the job. He just hasn’t had good enough players.

For insight into players Denver should target in the June Draft and during the summer free agency period, check back here every week, as scouting reports and detailed player evaluations are added. As always, thanks for reading.

*Stats for this piece were used courtesy of NBA.com/Stats and Basketball-Reference.com

Andre Iguodala’s case for Defensive Player of the Year and more …

Denver Nuggets’ guard/forward Andre Iguodala is deserving of the Defensive Player of the Year Award.

I’m not being a homer in saying that. Until yesterday I scoffed at the notion. But the simple facts are this:

  1. The Denver Nuggets had the 19th-ranked defense in the NBA last year. 
  2. The Denver Nuggets have not had a top-10 defense in the NBA since 2008-09.
  3. The Denver Nuggets finished this season with the 11th-best defense in the NBA, allowing 102 points per 100 possessions. (It should be noted a 102 defensive efficiency rating last year would have given them the 15th-best overall defense in the league — a far cry from their slot in 11th this season.)
  4. The Denver Nuggets allow only 100.5 points per 100 possessions with Andre Iguodala on the floor. They concede 105.3 points per 100 possessions with him off.
  5. Andre Igu0dala shares a good portion of minutes with Ty Lawson, Kenneth Faried, and JaVale McGee.
    • The Nuggets allow 104.2 points per 100 possessions with Lawson on the floor and just 98.4 with him off.
    • The Nuggets allow 102.5 points per 100 possessions with Kenneth Faried on the floor and just 101.3 with him off.
    • The Nuggets allow 102.4 points per 100 possessions with JaVale McGee on the floor and just 101.7 with him off.
  6. Kosta Koufos, Denver’s best offensive and defensive center, saw only 1817 minutes of playing time this season (placing him behind Iguodala, Lawson, Faried, Danilo Gallinari, Andre Miller, and Corey Brewer in minutes played).
  7. Gallinari, Denver’s best overall player, missed the final month of the season due to injury. Yet, the Nuggets didn’t miss a beat.
  8. Miller, the Nuggets’ best defensive guard outside Iguodala (and Corey Brewer), is 37 years-old and hobbling as we enter the playoffs.

Name another player who doesn’t reside in Miami able to cover all those holes by himself. You just can’t do it.

While likely winner of the Defensive Player of the Year Award Marc Gasol is Memphis’ defensive conductor, he has a whole lot more on which to rely. He’s got Tony Allen wreaking havoc on the wing. He’s got Zach Randolph occupying the opposite block. He’s got perhaps the most underrated player in the entire league, Mike Conley, playing point guard. If Conley isn’t the most underrated player overall, he’s certainly the most underrated defensively at the point. No starting point man outside Devin Harris comes close to his on/off defensive efficiency this season. Jeremy Lin’s backup in Houston, Patrick Beverley, is the only other one in their universe. And Beverley has only seen 712 minutes of playing time.

San Antonio’s Tim Duncan, another potential candidate, has Tiago Splitter on the opposite block and Kawhi Leonard on the wing. Leonard is so good defensively he could give Andre Iguodala a run for his money. The same goes for Indiana’s Roy Hibbert. He’s got David West’s help in the paint with Paul George and George Hill roaming the wing and perimeter.

The only guy who has a legit gripe is Chicago’s Joakim Noah. Noah shares the court with Marco Bellinelli, Carlos Boozer, and little Nate Robinson. Though the Bulls do have Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler on the wing, the loss of Taj Gibson to injury earlier this season put even more of the defensive burden on Noah. Tom Thibodeau’s system is amazing, but, it can only take you so far. Chicago has the league’s 5th-ranked defense, and in large part, that is because of Joakim Noah.

All that said, based on Denver’s defensive improvement in only a year’s time, my vote (if I had one) would still go to Andre Iguodala. On Iguodala and his activity level, lead CBS NBA blogger Matt Moore said it best:

He switches from pushing Chris Paul away from his right, to switching onto Blake Griffin to deny the post pass, then rotating to the corner shooter. He goes from denying the catch for the shooter to showing on the drive to deter the penetration to recovering and stealing when the ball gets swung back to the shooter. He strips, annoys, blocks, challenges and otherwise smothers the opponent when they decide to try to take him one-on-one.

And he does all of it with a cast of characters only the ‘Island of Misfit Toys’ could love. It’s like former Sixers’ coach Doug Collins says in this video clip, Iguodala “is an anchor”. He’s a defensive anchor in the same way Marc Gasol, Joakim Noah, and Roy Hibbert are in Memphis, Chicago, and Indiana, respectively. Except Iguodala is on the wing and responsible for larger swaths of space. This isn’t a matter of opinion anymore. It’s a matter of fact. And the facts support Andre Iguodala as the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year.

What about George Karl? Is he really deserving of Coach of the Year?

While some very smart people did in fact see Denver winning upwards of 58 games this season, let’s be real:

  1. George Karl has made JaVale McGee a halfway competent basketball player. If for no other reason than that, Karl should win Coach of the Year. 
  2. George Karl has handled Ty Lawson, Kenneth Faried, and JaVale McGee’s minute allocation so well that Denver has a nearly top-10 defense.
  3. He’s transformed Kosta Koufos into a quality starter at center.
  4. He’s guided a team that can’t shoot outside the paint to 57-wins.
  5. He’s guided a team among the league’s worst in free-throw and 3-point shooting to 57-wins.
  6. He doesn’t have an All-Star. He doesn’t have a post option. He doesn’t have a knock-down shooter. He doesn’t have a threat from mid-range. He’s won 57-games.
  7. He has extracted from Wilson Chandler the best (half)season of his career.
  8. He’s won 57-games with JaVale McGee playing 1433 minutes.
  9. Andre Iguodala had his worst season since 2007-08, Kenneth Faried experienced a sophomore slump, Ty Lawson had a severe regression for half the season, JaVale was JaVale, and Danilo Gallinari wasn’t the same player without a big who could finish (as his drop in assist rate can attest). And George Karl’s Nuggets still won 57-games.
  10. 57 wins with Kosta Koufos, JaVale McGee, and Kenneth Faried as his primary front court players.

The only other candidates I believe worthy of consideration are New York’s Mike Woodson (due to his work with Carmelo Anthony and especially J.R. Smith) and Golden State’s Mark Jackson (for completely revamping the Warriors’ defense after injuries to Brandon Rush and Andrew Bogut). All that said, George Karl should win his first Coach of the Year Award in a landslide.

So, just how good is Nuggets’ rookie Evan Fournier and does he have a case for being the steal of 2012’s NBA Draft?

Let’s get one thing perfectly clear: Evan Fournier has only played 428 total minutes this season. Even in French that’s a small sample size. Of the 30 first round draft choices he took the stage with last June, only nine have seen less court time — with one of those being Royce White. Of his 428 minutes, 224 have been played in the fourth quarter of games well in hand. You can understand how it might be difficult to extrapolate much from such a limited data set. That fact notwithstanding, it is even more difficult to not like what you’ve seen from Denver’s latest draft pick.

Coming into 2012’s NBA Draft, the biggest cause for concern with Fournier was his perimeter shooting. Per Draft Express:

Had he shot a better percentage from beyond the arc with Poiters this season, it’s reasonable to wonder if he would be considered a legit top-20 prospect in this deep draft.

In other words, Evan Fournier is actually a top-20 draft pick. If you take his age (he’s only 20) and advanced basketball I.Q. into account, he’s a top-15 or top-10 pick in last year’s draft (in the coming weeks I plan to do an in-depth analysis into exactly where Evan stacks up in comparison to his fellow draftees). You don’t need to be a scout to see Fournier’s talents. He’s been absolutely dynamite down the stretch.

Over his last nine games, he’s averaging 12.3 points on 9 shots, 2.2 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.4 steals, and 1.2 turnovers in just 22.8 minutes per night. In that same span, he’s been Denver’s best overall player in terms of offensive and defensive net differential. The numbers are astounding. In Fournier’s 205 minutes played over the last nine games, Denver is scoring 116.2 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor and just 105.6 with him off. Furthermore, they are allowing only 92.5 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor and an astronomical 106.8 with him off. That’s just ludicrous. Especially when you consider he was not known as a defender coming into the draft.

It is for all those reasons I was not surprised upon learning of his insertion into the starting lineup for game one of Denver’s first round playoff series with the Golden State Warriors. What Fournier does best is provide a sense of calm, trust, and intelligence to a regularly frantic Nuggets’ attack. He can be trusted to make the right play from opening tip to final buzzer — otherwise the head coach famous for not playing rookies would not be giving his 20 year-old sensation such responsibility.

I do not know what Fournier’s contributions will be against Golden State. No one does. But, if Denver is lucky enough to make a deep run in the playoffs, Evan Fournier will be a major reason why.

Viva France!

Cracking the Code: On JaVale McGee and the perils of potential in the misunderstood

Editor’s Note: I stated three weeks ago that I would be writing here every Wednesday and Friday — as Mondays were occupied by my new feature at Warriorsworld. Unfortunately, I have been unable to deliver on that promise. I’ve wanted to write about JaVale McGee for a while now, however, the task has required much more time than I ever anticipated. This is the reason for the site’s inactivity. I apologize for that. JaVale is an interesting individual and is deserving of the careful analysis I hope is provided here. Thanks for reading.

If you have spent any time following me on Twitter, you have a clear idea for my feelings on JaVale McGee. If you have spent any time prior to now reading this blog, you should have a clear idea for my feelings on McGee. And if you were (un?)lucky enough to read the March 25th edition of ‘Smooth’s Starting Five’ at TrueHoop affiliate, Warriorsworld.net, then you should have no doubt about my feelings with respect to Denver’s backup center.

I was particularly acerbic on March 25th, criticizing both McGee’s offensive and defensive impact, in addition to his on and off-court intelligence — or lack thereof. Of course, JaVale responded with his best game of the season the very next Wednesday night in San Antonio. As a matter of fact, it is likely his best game since last year’s playoffs against the Los Angeles Lakers. Part of this is a byproduct of playing against the Spurs. For some reason, McGee always seems to give San Antonio trouble. In three games against Gregg Popovich’s team, he is averaging 14.3 points on 9 shots, 7.3 rebounds, 2.67 blocks, 0.33 assists, 1 steal, and 1.33 turnovers in just over 19 minutes. Those numbers vary drastically from his regular season output to this point, where he’s averaging 9.3 points on 6.8 shots, 4.6 rebounds, 2.0 blocks, 0.3 assists, 0.4 steals, and 1.1 turnovers in just over 18 minutes.

While the surprise performance is a welcome respite from an otherwise ho-hum season, it is certainly nothing to get overly excited about. We’ve seen flashes of brilliance from JaVale before, only to be let-down soon after. It is par for the course for “The Great Adventure” as Corey Brewer called him in a recent article by Nuggets’ beat writer, Benjamin Hochman. If you’ve yet to read Hochman’s feature on McGee in the Sunday, March 31 edition of The Denver Post, it would behoove you to give it a look. JaVale opens up about his early Attention Deficit Disorder diagnosis and subsequent doctor recommendation he take Ritalin, of which he told Hochman: “I wouldn’t do it. I just didn’t want to take it.”

If only JaVale’s play was as productive as the amusement and curiosity he sparks in others. “I didn’t know you had ADD,” teammate Kenneth Faried quipped JaVale’s direction during Hochman’s interview. “I knew something was wrong with you, but I didn’t know it was that.” It’s an excellent article about a bizarre professional athlete trying to find his way in the NBA and very much worth your time.

That said, the Nuggets should have asked themselves two questions prior to trading longtime Nugget, Nene Hilario, for JaVale McGee:

  1. Is McGee’s fitness-induced asthma going to be a problem while playing George Karl’s pace in the cold, dry, thin air of Denver? 
  2. Is our offensive and defensive system structured enough for JaVale to reach his ultimate potential? Will his Attention Deficit Disorder be a stumbling block in George Karl’s freelance scheme?

In answering those two questions, we must ask further questions: First, did Denver know about McGee’s asthma condition? And if they did, why wasn’t it brought front-and-center as reason number one for not making the trade? How can you possibly expect a player with fitness-induced asthma to play at George Karl’s pace, regardless of altitude? Second, did Denver know about McGee’s Attention Deficit Disorder? And if they did, was a certified professional consulted in order to deduce the likelihood of McGee’s success in George Karl’s system? Treating ADD in children and adults is no easy task, regardless of whether or not the patient is willing to take prescribed medication. One thing absolutely necessary for those with ADD is daily structure. That means strict schedules, strict rules for organization, and strict rules for process and presentation. I don’t know if anyone has noticed before, but, George Karl is hardly strict on the basketball court.

I am not a doctor. Nor do I play one on TV. But I do have a lot of life experience. It is my educated guess that JaVale McGee’s Attention Deficit Disorder and fitness-induced asthma has created a perfect storm for his lack of success in Denver.

To be fair, JaVale has not had what anyone would necessarily deem a “bad year”. He is averaging career-highs in PER (20.8), block rate (8.4%), and usage (21.5%). His TS% and eFG% numbers are also career-highs, however, Andre Miller’s spoon-fed facilitation is much the reason for that. Conversely, McGee is averaging a career-low in defensive rebounding (16.3%), and, by extension, total rebound rate (14.3%). The reasons for that are twofold: First, it is likely he’s never played with a roster full of so many great rebounders. Second, he takes those teammates very much for granted when biting on pump-fakes to get potential blocks.

JaVale McGee advanced stats

JaVale McGee advanced stats (Courtesy: Basketball-Reference)

He’s a stat geek ‘s dream player. One look at his production per-36 minutes gives insight into why. If George Karl played him 30+ minutes per night, so the argument goes, the Nuggets would have a double-double machine on their hands.

JaVale McGee production per-36 minutes

JaVale McGee per-36 minutes (Courtesy: Basketball-Reference)

JaVale’s best stretch of play this season came largely during the month of November (for argument’s sake, I am also including his lone game in October), when he averaged 10.4 points on 8.3 shots, 5.7 rebounds, 1.6 blocks, 0.5 assists, and 1.2 turnovers in nearly 19 minutes per night. His body was fresh. His game was alert. And his numbers reflected it. He continued that run of good play into the final month of 2012, culminating in a December 7th contest with the Pacers, when he posted 20 points on 9 shots, 8 rebounds, 1 block, and two turnovers in just over 30-minutes of action. Two nights later, everything changed — and not for the better.

JaVale McGee 2012-13 Game Log for games played up to 12/7 (Courtesy: Basketball-Reference)

JaVale McGee 2012-13 Game Log for games played up to 12/7 (Courtesy: Basketball-Reference)

On December 9th, the Nuggets went into New York’s Madison Square Garden for a matchup with former franchise centerpiece Carmelo Anthony and the New York Knicks. Denver lost by six points in a game that was theirs for the taking. However, JaVale McGee’s 15:48 of playing time proved costly. He finished the night with 4 points, 3 rebounds, 1 assist, 3 blocks, 2 turnovers, 3 personal fouls, and a minus-12. In a six-point loss, those few minutes of McGee are what turned the tide. Having seen greater-than 20 minutes in only 12 out of a potential 52 games since the debacle in New York, he hasn’t been the same player.

Diving into his season splits, a curious pattern emerges. He plays extremely well on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays while excelling on either zero or two days rest. Anything greater than three days rest proves fatal. This pattern holds true going back to last season (due to lacking time commitments I was unable to research further back).

JaVale McGee - Daily split for the 2012-13 season (Courtesy of Basketball-Reference)

JaVale McGee – Daily split for the 2012-13 season (Courtesy: Basketball-Reference)

JaVale McGee split based on number of days rest for 2012-13 season (Courtesy: Basketball-Reference)

JaVale McGee split based on number of days rest for 2012-13 season (Courtesy: Basketball-Reference)

What’s even more interesting is that the best stretch of play of his career is widely regarded as coming during last year’s playoffs against the Lakers. Every playoff series is set up in a very structured, regimented fashion. He played poorly in games one and two in L.A., then coming off two days rest, blew the brakes of the Lakers in Denver. After a certain rhythm and repeatable structure had been attained in the series, (games fell on every other day following game three), he exploded again in game five in L.A.

JaVale McGee Game Log 2012 NBA Playoffs (Courtesy: Basketball-Reference)

JaVale McGee Game Log 2012 NBA Playoffs (Courtesy: Basketball-Reference)

The point I’m trying to make is that his performance starts improving once structure is forced upon him. If he responds to such external factors like the repeating process of a playoff series, who’s to say he won’t respond similarly to stimulant medication and even more structure? The NBA season is a marathon — and not particularly conducive to regularized routine. He needs help implementing routine if he doesn’t already have it, in addition to potentially helpful medication.

The problem with McGee is not in production. The problem with JaVale is in trust. Can he be trusted to make the correct, fundamentally sound play during his time on the court? Much of basketball — a team game — is predicated on coach and player trust. If you cannot trust a person from moment-to-moment in their regular everyday life, how can you do so on a basketball court? For it is often the efforts of the collective that determine the winner and loser. This is especially true in the case of Denver.

You can’t just tell a player of McGee’s temperament to “play random”. Because invariably, he will do so. Karl is famous for saying his coaching staff does not call plays. It is their dribble-drive motion offense that creates opportunities close to the basket (which is one reason the Nuggets lead the league in points in the paint). Such an unstructured offense is incredibly reliant on player instinct, player intelligence, and the ability to make the right read at the right time. The optimal reaction time in such an offense is akin to what a typical person might have when touching a scalding hot stove: Immediate. But because of his ADD and asthma condition, McGee is incapable of playing within that construct, which is why his minutes have declined with his production.

Different things motivate different players. However, what absolutely motivates every player is playing time and dollar signs. If JaVale can be convinced there is a direct correlation between his untreated Attention Deficit Disorder and his reduced productivity on the court (and by extension, his reduced playing time), then perhaps he can be swayed into reconsidering treatment options.

Being locked-in at work 24/7/365 isn’t feasible for anyone. But if JaVale can be even the slightest bit more consistent, it would do worlds for his self-esteem, his on-the-job productivity, his playing time, and ultimately, his bank account. JaVale is not — I repeat not — a dumb person or player. He just needs more of the right kind of help than he is getting. Sometimes it clicks for him. Other times it does not. However, if he doesn’t soon realize the opportunity he has been given, the right kind of help will vanish, and with it, so will the opportunity.

An Apology

Editor’s note: On Monday, March 11, I said there would be a Monday-Thursday writing schedule. Then I proceeded to miss last Thursday and this past Monday. In the time since, I agreed to write for ESPN True Hoop Affiliate, Warriorsworld.net. My first article, where I discuss Arron Afflalo, Kosta Koufos, and Kawhi Leonard, went up Monday afternoon. “Smooth’s Starting Five”, as it is known, will appear every Monday for the foreseeable future — or until they get sick of me, which could be sooner than later. Seeing how I will be there every Monday, I have decided to amend my writing schedule here at Smooth’s Hoops. From this point forward, articles will appear every Wednesday and Friday with a special Saturday edition popping up every so often. I promise (cross my heart and hope to die). Unless the WordPress Mobile app decides to lose a bunch of my content again. 

Well, this just got a lot more interesting. Thirteen straight victories? By the Denver Nuggets? I mean, thirteen (13) straight wins for THE Denver Nuggets? This doesn’t even seem real. And it’s certainly been no fluke. Maybe this isn’t the same movie after all. I certainly don’t remember THIS being in the plotline over the last decade.

47-wins. And they did it with room to spare, as thirteen games remain on their schedule. It figures Denver reached the 47-win mark on the road … in Oklahoma City … on the second night of a road back-to-back … after going into overtime the night before in Chicago … and extending their franchise-record 13-game winning streak in the process. It just really figures.

The funniest part of all is none of it still makes any sense — at least not in a traditional basketball sense. Outside of Andre Miller, they still have no post presence. Outside Danilo Gallinari, they still have no outside shooting to speak of. This team is so unconventional and unorthodox that they’re almost a classification unto themselves. Before we get into the how’s and why’s behind Denver’s resurgence, however, there is one thing I definitely need to get out-of-the-way:

To Arturo Galletti, Andres Alvarez, the entire staff at Wages of Wins, and, by extension, everyone associated with the Denver Nuggets organization, I humbly, courteously, and without pause, apologize for in any way leading fans astray into believing the team was anything but the same successful franchise it has been for a decade running. I was wrong.

Sure, the Nuggets will easily surpass the 47-win benchmark I set for them. But it didn’t look like it was going to be all that easy halfway through the season. It didn’t look like it was going to be all that easy as late as two weeks ago, for that matter.

Most of the concerns I had coming into this season have come to fruition. While the Nuggets will undoubtedly surpass 47-wins, they will do so while posting the league’s 25th-ranked 3-point percentage (34.2%) in tandem with a 29th-ranked free throw percentage (69.2%). In the case of the former, I predicted a three-point percentage worse than last year’s 33-percent. While there is still plenty of season left, I was probably wrong in that estimation. In the case of the latter, I was absolutely right. I estimated Denver to have a free-throw shooting percentage worse than last year’s potential composite score given each player’s career-mark, which would have landed them at about 71%.

Where was I wrong? Turnovers. I anticipated Denver to see an increase in turnovers with Andre Iguodala’s fast break style taking the place of Arron Afflalo’s straight-line to the basket. The Nuggets turned the ball over 14.1% of the time last year. Currently, this season, they’re doing so at a slightly less 13.6%. And that’s after starting the year more along the lines of what I had predicted. The fact Denver is among the top-ten teams in ball security is a testament to George Karl’s coaching and the fast break style he demands. Even though Andre Iguodala is, as I predicted, putting up a nearly career-high turnover rate (17.1%), the team isn’t getting bogged down in the half court as much this season to allow those turnovers to become a more pressing concern. Denver was second in pace last year at 94.2 (behind the Sacramento Kings). So far this year, that number has climbed to 95.0 (behind only the Houston Rockets).

The truth of the matter is this: Even the most statistically savvy prognostications didn’t see Denver winning this many games with Andre Iguodala having his worst season since 2008, Kenneth Faried facing a sophomore slump, JaVale McGee not living up to his hefty contract, and Ty Lawson (outside of the last two months) regressing to Darren Collison-lite. If production is the name of the game, then those games failed. Because I predicted each one of those things happening — from Iguodala’s struggles to Ty Lawson’s regression to a whole host of other things I haven’t even mentioned.

How could I get so much right yet come out looking so wrong? First, anytime you deduce someone’s knowledge down to a simple win-total, you remove all nuance from the argument. The simple answer is I overestimated the rest of the league. I anticipated the Lakers, Warriors, Jazz, Mavericks, and T-Wolves all being better than they ended up. I also thought the Western Conference’s supremacy over the East would be more exaggerated. Furthermore, I was of the mind that opposing teams would do a similar job defensively to Denver this season as they did during Allen Iverson’s brief tenure and use more zone strategies.

I was most definitely wrong, though. Let there be no doubt.

The Nuggets made some calculated gambles that paid off — gambles I wouldn’t have made. Trusting Kosta Koufos to become a dependable starting center after giving JaVale McGee a big contract. Expecting Danilo Gallinari to magically resurrect his shooting stroke while taking the ball out of his hands and preventing him from doing what he does best — play the point-forward. And believing Corey Brewer capable of stepping into Arron Afflalo’s shoes as a shooter from the corners and mid-range.

On Friday, I will dig deeper into the numbers and try to shed more light on how Denver’s resurgence all came about. There is still so much to discuss.

Thanks again for reading.

Danilo Gallinari, the Denver Nuggets, and Man’s Best Friend

As I said back on August 30, 2012 in part I of my three-part series on the Arron Afflalo trade, I do not enjoy making reason of chaos. This continues to be the case. There is just too much wrong with the Denver Nuggets for my personal lifestyle to keep up. This is the main reason why my writing has taken a dip of late. I have too many other commitments to be spending an incalculable number of hours processing and  illuminating the incomprehensible inadequacies of this organization and then postulating how I would have done things differently. And until an NBA team decides my abilities are worth their time and money, my abbreviated outrage on Twitter will remain.

That said, prior to the season starting, people were interested in my ideas on how the Nuggets could make their new roster of players work, rather than the litany of ways in which it would not. In response, I had to tell them there was no way of it working. Eight games into the season, we have seen a validation of my hypothesis. And that’s sad, mostly because people being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars per year (if not more) are being tasked with making decisions I am better able to make in a few hours from my laptop at home for nothing.

The word “compulsive” describes the repetitive, irresistible urge to perform a behavior. A dog who displays compulsive behavior repeatedly performs one or more behaviors over and over, to the extent that it interferes with his normal life. The behavior he’s doing doesn’t seem to have any purpose, but he’s compelled to do it anyway. Some dogs will spend almost all their waking hours engaging in repetitive behaviors. They might lose weight, suffer from exhaustion and even physically injure themselves. Dogs display many different kinds of compulsions, such as spinning, pacing, tail chasing, fly snapping, barking, shadow or light chasing, excessive licking and toy fixation. It’s important to note that normal dogs also engage in behaviors like barking and licking, but they usually do so in response to specific triggers.

Courtesy: WebMD

In what comes as a shock to many, the Denver Nuggets (with one of the league’s lighter schedules) are a middling team through eight games of the 2012-13 season. In what should come as zero shock to my faithful readers, I am not surprised. Now, with Denver struggling to keep their head above water, throngs of Nuggets’ fans have began calling for more trades. Surprise, surprise. The dog is chasing its tail again.

On June 22, 2012, I wrote:

At what point do the players traded stop being the scapegoat and the people in charge of moving them take responsibility? When is the franchise going to have any form of stability? When will their best players be identified and then be held onto for the duration of their careers?

Since June 22, the Denver Nuggets have done nothing to stem the tide of tail-chasing. Instead, they’ve involved themselves in yet more trades. And the dog goes round and round again.

During the NBA’s draft on June 28, Denver took swing-man Evan Fournier out of France with the 22nd overall pick. I guess Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, Arron Afflalo, Jordan Hamilton, and Corey Brewer weren’t quite enough to satiate their appetite for wing players. With only Kenneth Faried and Al Harrington on the roster at power forward, common sense would dictate Nuggets brass look for a backup power forward. Jared Sullinger, whom I advocated they take with their first overall pick (if they weren’t going to trade up for Iowa State’s Royce White — who I had no idea would refuse traveling with his team after signing an NBA contract), went to the Celtics immediately after Denver took Fournier.

The Nuggets further compounded their basketball inadequacies by taking Quincy Miller during the second round. I said on Twitter during the lead-up to the draft that if Denver decided to take Miller at any point I would “laugh my ass off in anger.” I was forever grateful they didn’t take him during the first round, but, became amused when they predictably did during the second. He’s a nice player — puts up nice numbers — until you actually watch him play, an activity by which it seems Denver’s front office very rarely partakes. How else would you explain drafting Kenneth Faried in 2011 and following it up by trading for JaVale McGee? Anyone who actually watches basketball knew those two wouldn’t mesh. Everyone except Denver, I guess. How else would you explain the Nuggets then trading their only shooter this past summer for yet another diverse wing in Andre Iguodala? Anyone who actually watches basketball knew that wouldn’t work. Everyone except Denver (Kevin Pelton, John Hollinger, and their echo chamber), I guess.

When NBA executives begin using the ever-elusive “productivity” to build their team, they’ve lost before even getting started. Which is why the cacophony of basketball illiterates is at it again. Everyone wants to trade Danilo Gallinari, one year removed from being what many called the third-best small forward in basketball (behind LeBron James and Kevin Durant; sorry Knicks’ fans, even ahead of Carmelo Anthony). Everyone wants to move Gallinari because he’s neither shooting the ball well nor getting to the free throw line with nearly the frequency he’s accustomed to throughout his career.

Fancy that. When the Nuggets traded their only shooter in Arron Afflalo this summer for Andre Iguodala, it forced Denver to move Gallinari into a supporting role as a shooter — something he’s not built to do. Not surprisingly, I made this point immediately following the trade. Not only did Denver hinder Gallo’s development first by trading Nene for JaVale McGee, they further compounded their basketball inadequacies by trading the only shooter on the roster for a player four-years older, four-inches shorter, and with a similar skill-set to their 24 year-old, 6-foot-10, Italian phenom. The ignorance is so breathtaking it’s palpable.

Danilo Gallinari is 24 years-old and in his fifth NBA season. Andre Iguodala is 28 and in his ninth NBA season. Danilo Gallinari is a 6-foot-10, 225-pound point guard in a forward’s body, who can rebound, dish, and shoot at an elite level in the right situation. Andre Iguodala is a 6-foot-6, 202-pound tweener at shooting guard and small forward. He can’t shoot well enough to be a prototypical shooting guard. And he’s not big enough to line up at small forward and be defended by bigger, taller, longer opposing players (like those he’d face in Gallinari and Durant). Danilo Gallinari averages about half the assists and half the steals of his new teammate, but he’s nearly ten points better than Iguodala at the free-throw line and nearly four points better from three. Gallinari also turns the ball over at nearly half the rate of Andre Iguodala. Their respective effective field goal percentages (EFG%) are naturally similar, however, Gallinari has a far superior true shooting percentage (TS%). Other than that, they’re objectively the same player. Gallinari is merely able to do the same things in a much bigger body, which, in basketball, is kind of a big deal. (Oh, another pretty big deal? Gallinari is just now entering his prime. He can still become a better player. Andre Iguodala is on the downswing. Age and size are kind of important in basketball. Shocking, I know.)

Gallinari and Iguodala through each’s first four years (Courtesy: Basketball-Reference)

Gallinari and Iguodala player comparison–2012-2013 season included (Courtesy: Basketball-Reference)

If those numbers aren’t enough for your brains to wrap around, here’s more:

According to 82games.com’s on-court/off-court statistics for the 2011-12 season, Danilo Gallinari had a better year (per 100 possessions) than Kevin Durant (see below), James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Dwyane Wade, Rudy Gay, Andre Iguodala (see below), Carmelo Anthony (see below), Nicolas Batum, Luol Deng, Paul Pierce, Josh Smith and countless others. Furthermore, Gallo’s on-court/off-court statistics are steady throughout his career. His 2010-11 season is somewhat skewed because it’s the year he was traded from New York to Denver. However, if you look at his 2009-10 season, it is better than Durant’s 2011-12 iteration — when KD is arguably as good as he will ever be.

2011-12 NBA season comparison (Courtesy: 82games.com)

2011-12 NBA season comparison (Courtesy: 82games.com)

How do Durant and Gallinari compare statistically? They’re scarily similar.

Danilo Gallinari – Kevin Durant through each’s first four years (Courtesy: Basketball-Reference)

Danilo Gallinari – Kevin Durant player comparison–2012-2013 season included (Courtesy: Basketball-Reference)

The NBA is fast becoming a league where every team has the same exact data at their disposal when making decisions. The front offices that find success are those that understand the data better than the rest, and hence, put it to use in a much more academic manner. Some basketball-stat folks are now saying they “aren’t quite sold on Danilo Gallinari”. Meanwhile …

So, to recap: the Nuggets traded a player they were asking far too much of in the first place (Afflalo) for a player who has the same skill set as the best young asset they received in the Carmelo Anthony deal (Danilo Gallinari). They then expected Gallinari to take over for Afflalo’s role shooting the basketball (something he’s not equipped to do), while moving Iguodala into Afflalo’s starting spot in the rotation. Then they expected Iguodala to manufacture the same production he’s historically known for, while being surrounded by a team of players not complementary to his skills in the least.

If any of that makes sense to you, then you would also be able to make sense of playing a 6-foot-11, 260-pound beast (and natural power forward) at center for nine years. If any of that makes sense to you, then you would also be able to make sense of a team trading that same beast (even if he is oft-injured) for JaVale McGee. If any of that makes sense to you, then you would also be able to make sense of a team offering a fairly generous contract extension to an undersized starting point guard who lacks both a mid-range jumper and floater — two skills found in nearly every starting point guard in today’s NBA and an absolute necessity if your franchise is in earnest pursuit of success. If any of that makes sense to you, you probably spend more of your time staring at a spreadsheet than you do basketball players playing basketball games. If any of that makes sense to you, then you would probably be fine making the decisions for a team that never gets out of the first round of the playoffs, because … you would be running it.

And if any of that makes sense to you, you would probably chase your tail incessantly as a dog until you collapsed from exhaustion. That’s why dogs have owners — to discipline them and ensure they cease with the compulsive activity. If and when they don’t stop the tail-chasing, the responsible dog owner has three options:

  1. Keep the dog, love the dog, and put up with the poor thing until it dies.
  2. Put the dog up for adoption, knowing full well that another family is unlikely to bring it into their home with its affliction.
  3. Put the dog down.

It might be time to put the dog down.

You set yourself back ten years (arbitrarily speaking) by trading Nene for JaVale McGee. You’ve set yourself back at least another five years by trading Arron Afflalo for Andre Iguodala. And you will set yourself back a further ten years beyond that (if not more) by trading Danilo Gallinari. It shouldn’t be that difficult to find and maintain success in the NBA, what with the dearth of talent that exists throughout the league. You just can’t be … the runt of the litter.

Is there a way to fix this roster and maybe get them winning more games this season? I do not know. If so, it would take a drastic change in direction and philosophy — something George Karl and his staff have never seemed to embrace.

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.

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.

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