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Stats Tuesday: Some random thoughts on the Denver Nuggets in 2012-2013

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Denver Nuggets logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Denver Nuggets have emerged as a popular sleeper pick among the statistical community. John Hollinger picked them to finish 2nd in the West (ahead of the Thunder and Lakers), Basketball Prospectus picked them to finish 1st in the West, and the Wins Produced/Wages of Wins picked them to finish 2nd. The Nuggets last year finished 6th in the West last year with a 38-28 season, equivalent of 47 Ws over 82 games. Where does the extra optimism come from?

The line of reasoning for such Nuggets break-out essentially breaks down to:

  1. The Nuggets were dominant offensively last year (3rd ORTG) despite injuries to Danillo Gallinari and Nene slightly derailing them early in the season, as well as one of their most productive offensive players in Kenneth Faried not getting minutes early.
  2. They were however disappointing defensively (19th DRTG). However, they added one of the very best defensive players in the league in Andre Iguodala, as well as another great athlete in Wilson Chandler.
  3. With a shored up defense and elite offense, this is a combination worthy one of the league’s best.

I have a few objections to this Nuggets’ improvement. One is I could see them taking a step back offensively. The Nuggets lost their best shooter in Arron Afflalo. The combination of Afflalo and Gallinari was devastating offensively not only because they both scored efficiently, but they ranked among the best in the league at spacing the floor at SG/SF. Add losing Al Harrington at PF and the Nuggets now have much less spacing. Andre Iguodala, Wilson Chandler and Kenneth Faried, expected to take most of Afflalo and Harrington’s minutes, can all be played off by help defenders. The Nuggets’ beautiful offense relies on maximizing the amount of shots at the rim or 3pt range, while minimizing the amount of 2pt jumpshots. Losing this shooting hurts both their shots at the rim or 3s. Less 3s for this team is self-explanatory, while without needing to guard the 3pt line as much, this will free up defenses to protect shots at the rim and prevent the Nuggets from getting to the FT line. Because the Nuggets have to take a shot every possession, every less shot that they get from 3 or at the rim/FT line, will have to replaced by a 2pt jumpshot. I wouldn’t expect the Nuggets to be as much the masters of minimizing 2pt jumpshots as usual this year.

As for the defensive improvement they should get better, but I wonder if last year’s mediocre defensive team is partly by design. The Nuggets played at the 2nd highest pace in the league last year and will likely be even faster this year with Iguodala, Chandler and more minutes for Faried and Javale McGee. Fast teams typically have a hard time defending for a reason. A player may rush out in front of the play to score a transition point, but if the shot misses, he’ll then be behind his defensive matchup going the other way. Teams who score transition points often give them back defensively, too, for this reason. The Nuggets are also a team who relied on forcing turnovers to start fastbreaks off them to score, finishing 7th in Def. TOV% last year. A worrisome sign is that they finished 27th in defensive eFG. It’s possible that the Nuggets gambling for turnovers that they could turn into quick offense, left them out of position to guard players straight up. To try if this could be true, I listed all the teams with more than a 10 rank difference between their defensive eFG and defensive TOV% and ordered the difference between them. Positive numbers means the def. eFG is higher than def. TOV%, negative means TOV% is higher. I also included the pace of the teams:

Los Angeles Lakers (6th def. eFG, 30th def TOV%) +24  Pace: 20th

Toronto Raptors (5th def. eFG, 27th def TOV%) +22  Pace: 25th

Oklahoma City Thunder (4th def. eFG, 23rd def TOV%) +19  Pace: 6th

Philadelphia 76ers (3rd def. eFG, 19th def TOV%) +16  Pace: 24th

Chicago Bulls (1st def. eFG, 26th def. TOV%) +15  Pace: 28th

Orlando Magic (14th def. eFG, 24th def. TOV%) +12  Pace: 29th

Minnesota Timberwolves (18th def. eFG, 29th def. TOV%) +11  Pace: 4th

San Antonio Spurs (15th def. eFG, 25th def TOV%) +10  Pace: 7th

Average pace: 17.88th

Milwaukee Bucks (16th def. eFG, 5th def. TOV%) -11  Pace: 3rd

Memphis Grizzlies (13th def. eFG, 1st def. TOV%) -12  Pace: 18th

Washington Wizards (20th def. eFG, 8th def. TOV%) -12  Pace: 9th

New Jersey Nets (29th def. eFG, 17th def. TOV%) -12 Pace: 23rd

Portland Trailblazers (25th def. eFG, 12th def. TOV%) -13 Pace: 16th

Detroit Pistons (24th def. eFG, 10th def. TOV%) -14 Pace: 27th

Sacramento Kings (30th def. eFG, 14th def. TOV%) -16  Pace: 1st

Denver Nuggets (27th def. eFG, 7th def. TOV%) -20  Pace: 2nd

Average pace: 12.38

There seems to be some correlation between pace and teams who have a higher defensive TOV% than defensive eFG. The 3 highest pace teams are on the -10 list, while 2 of the 3 slowest teams are in the +10 one (the slowest team, New Orleans, finished with a +9 in favor of defensive eFG). However the more useful information is that Denver is a clear outlier in the difference between def. eFG and def. TOV%. This would imply at the very least, that a coaching style and influence has a part in this unique defensive style of play.

Do I know the Nuggets style of play hurts them defensively? No, but I do know it’s likely it helps them offensively. And I’m of the mindset that whenever a coach gets his team to play particularly defensive compared to the normal style, it can be expected to hurt them offensively, and likewise a particularly offensive team does so at the cost of defense. Teams can only get so far as their talent level and if there was a particular style of play better than another, everyone would use it by now.

I expect the Nuggets to be good this season. But in a way, the Nene for Javale McGee trade may be coming back to bite them. The McGee trade is one you make when you’re thinking about the long term and not short term, with his youth and upside. However if the Nuggets knew they could pick up Andre Iguodala, perhaps they wouldn’t have been so quick to move into retool/long term mode instead of win now/short term mode. Imagine a lineup of Ty Lawson, Andre Iguodala, Danillo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried and Nene? Now that’s a team that I could see having a serious shot at a top 3 seed in the West this year despite not having a superstar. As it stands, I believe they may be that one all-star player short.

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Written by jr.

October 23, 2012 at 9:36 pm

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