Everyone needs to pay attention to the Nuggets right now
As an analyst, I love it when players change teams. I know, it goes against the very core of what fans do, and I feel that typical pull as well, but when a player changes teams we get to see what he really meant to his old team, as well as what he can do in a new situation. This is why I’ve been looking forward to Carmelo Anthony being traded ever since the rumors of his discontent surface. He in particular has always had a reputation among the general populace as a superstar that there was never any statistical basis for.
He is a very skilled scorer, but has never utilized it do produce great efficiency. The rest of his game has never had the breadth of impact the top tier of stars have. And then this season, a weird conversation began happening based around the idea that he makes his teammates shooting skyrocket. I commented on this and on him generally in my Carmelo Conundrum piece. The most amazing fact was that if you actually looked at his effect on teammates shooting efficiency, it was negative. While true superstars tend to indeed help their teammates get easier looks, Melo didn’t.
So now, Anthony is traded to New York, and we’ve seen the new look Denver Nuggets for 10 games. You probably already know that the Nuggets are doing well and find it interesting even before you get to the entertainment aspect of things (Denver just plays some pretty, pretty ball now), but I don’t think it’s obvious to people how glaring the success has been.
In that span, the Nuggets are outscoring opponents by 13.2 points per game. Yes their strength of schedule has been slightly weak (-0.2), but that doesn’t come even close to accounting for the Nuggets performance. The Nuggets have looked like a championship team. Here’s a table from nba.com for perspective. These are the league leaders in +/- over the past 10 games:
Basically only the streaking Kobe Bryant prevents a complete sweep by 4 Nuggets. Unreal.
How about the Denver Nuggets’ shooting now that they are without Melo every minute of every game? Through the roof. For the entire season, the Nuggets’ eFG% is 52.6%, but over the last 10 games they are at 54.7%. Basically just what the +/- numbers said only a bit more so. In case you aren’t appreciating the scale of this accomplishment, consider this: That 52.6% number leads the entire league. The Nuggets had the best offense in the league with Melo on their team, despite clearly having a down year from him, and now they’re doing even better.
Let’s also look at this at the angle generally of needing a volume scorer specifically or a superstar generally to achieve a great offense. In the trade of Carmelo Anthony, their leading scorer, the Nuggets also traded their 2nd leading scorer, team leader in assists, and other recent all-star Chauncey Billups. Their leading remaining scorer was the under-appreciated and ever-efficient Nene who has scored 15.1 PPG for the season.
Since the trade, Nene is their leading scorer. What’s he averaging? 15.3 PPG (and he is tied with JR Smith there). Pretty damning to the notion of a “points over replacement player” stat, eh? The absence of the 2 big scorers didn’t cause 2 other, inferior players to take their place. The scoring just got more distributed. All this time people wondered why Nene was so passive as a scorer – with that shooting efficiency why not shoot a bit more? Well, thus far coach George Karl has seemed completely content for Nene to do about what he was doing before as his team’s offense just gets stronger without any scoring star.
Now, I think 10 games is enough time to clearly say everyone needs to watch this team, but of course it is a small sample size. We’ll want to re-evaluate what’s gone on here, and see if the success holds up. If it does hold up however, that will mean that the best offense in the league runs without any major offensive stars during the year where the Miami Heat and New York Knicks have formed superteams based on offensive stars, while at the same time, the story of the year in the league on defense has been Tom Thibodeau‘s Bulls defensive domination without any clear defensive stars. It will beg the question of whether the NBA would produce higher quality teams if it was more coach-oriented than star-oriented.