Sunday, October 28, 2012

Denver Nuggets 2012-13 Preview

Denver, in a full year without Carmelo Anthony, the supposed best one on one scorer in the league, was 3rd in the league in offensive efficiency. The season before they were 1st, but it was only with half a season of Carmelo. The season before that? 5th.

Regardless, I think the change that will affect their future the most is McGee for Nene. A hardly respected player, Nene has a history of performing well in advanced metrics, and aside from his injury issues it's hard to argue against a quick-footed big man who can score inside and hit his foul shots. His rebounding isn't imrpessive, but when he's on the court his team rebounds better, which could be an artifact from certain lineup combinations or it could be that he legitimately aids his team by other techniques than directly rebounding like blocking out. You don't need any stats to realize his value: he's a quick, big body who spins well and has a nice touch inside. He's strong enough that he can kill small frontcourt players, but if you put someone big on him he's a mere traffic cone.

The Nuggets traded the now 30 year-old PF/C for JaVale McGee, a stringy 24 year-old seven-footer with an incredible wingspan and surprising athleticism. Note that the Washington Wizards, a terrible team who finished second from the bottom in the east, played better with JaVale McGee off the court (seriously), even though it's not like Dwight Howard was backing him up. Of course, young players are notorious for terrible +/- numbers and impact on teams so Denver is assuming he'll develop and utilize his obvious skills, but that assumption is a giant one in the world of sports. It's still a gamble, which is something Bill James discussed at the last MIT Sloan conference: the development of young players. We have no idea if McGee has actually matured into a real player after a summer of Hakeem, and no one can claim otherwise, even McGee himself.

There's another problem: how much is Gallinari going to play? His sophomore season he played over 2700 minutes, but the next year with back problems it was down to 2100 and last season 1351 minutes. He's known as a sharpshooter, but he's slumped in recent years to low 30's in percentage from three; his real value is driving to the basket and picking up foul shots. It might be because he's so lily white, but few consider he's an elite penetrator. His rate of free throws compared to his field goals, in fact, is very similar to a few Gerald Wallace and Andrei Kirilenko's seasons. His most impressive season, 2011, ranked 11th in FTA/FGA (excluding players with too few FGA's) where the only non-center player ranked ahead was Warrick. If Gallinari can play heavy minutes the Nuggets can eke out a few more wins; but the more sensible projection is modest playing time, hedging the bet on his injuries.

The Nuggets' greatest strength right now is their point guard due of Lawson and Andre Miller, two very different players. Lawson is an extremely quick small guard with an accurate outside shot he should utilize more, while Andre Miller is an ancient point guard without a reliable jumper but with a potent post game he uses to terrorize small guards. Faried was a steal for his draft place, and many are expecting a breakout season but I'm afraid he falls in line with the numerous other slightly undersized "energy" power forwards (the Carl Landry award) -- they'll play well right away because of their athleticism, but they typically peak early and are limited defensively. Nonetheless, he's a spectacular athlete. And now with Iguodala the Nuggets have yet another passer and ball-handler. In transition this team could be scary.

Even though the Nuggets have moved on from Carmelo, his name remains a ghost, an echo of hope of title aspirations and alternate scenarios. As I've written about before, I don't think Carmelo boosts an offense like the mainstream media do, and before the trade I noted how the Nuggets were excellent offensively *despite* him. Throwing together a quick chart below, I plotted Denver's offensive and defensive efficiency ratings versus the league average in every season since Carmelo's first year. I also included the total minutes each season from Iverson, Carmelo, Nene, and Gallinari; the axis on the right "minutes" refers to the players. Note that the further defensive efficiency (the blue line) is under the league average, the better the defense is.

It's a bit of a mess, but one can see how the team steadily improves from 2008 and on, peaking in 2011. It's hard to track that to Carmelo, who was traded halfway through 2011, since in 2012 in limited minutes from Gallinari the offense didn't tank. In fact, it seems like most likely a mix of coaching and development from everyone, as Nene came back from injuries in 2009 to 2011 to put up some of his best seasons. Both Carmelo and Nene played huge minutes in 2004, but Carmelo was a rookie and Nene was a second-year player. Iverson's a curious case. He didn't kill them -- in fact, there's evidence he helped them a decent amount -- but they also didn't miss him. I've followed the Nuggets throughout the years because they've always been a curious team from enigmas like JR Smith to the one-on-one scoring savant Carmelo, whose points per game suggests a certain value but nothing else besides his underrated rebounding does. (Side note: Carmelo Anthony as a power forward is potentially a much better player, but Amare is limiting that as a part-time gig.)

John Hollinger projects the Nuggets will win 59 games, second in the west, shocking a few people. He did the same last season: he predicted 46 wins (53.4 win equivalent in an 82 game season) only to see them fall to 38 wins (47 win equivalent). Sure, injuries are an excuse, but no one should be surprised Nene and Gallinari will pick up injuries, and Faried was a nice surprise. Basketball-Prospectus, however, is picking the Denver Nuggets for the best record in the west with 58 wins. Hollinger and Prospectus both use models (I believe) that rely heavily on box score stats, but unfortunately for them that's a blind spot for JaVale McGee: as I've said before, the terrible Wizards played better when he was off the court ... by a lot. Even if you assume McGee makes one of the largest +/- increases in recorded history, which is even more unprecedented at his age (he's not a teen player adjusting to the league), they still don't pick up enough wins. They essentially traded Nene and Afflalo for JaVale McGee and Andre Iguodala, and I can't see why that's that makes them substantially better. Denver's had one of the best offenses in recent history, with or without Carmelo, and with Nene gone it's time to see why.

Model win total prediction:

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