The Rotation: Metamorphosis of the Nuggets
The Rotation is a weekly study on the NBA by one of our All-Star voices. In rotation this week is Tom Ziller.
Every time Allen Iverson moves, his new and old teams change irrevocably. A.I. is the type of singular player that demands incredible adjustment, from a team's playing style to the needs of its point guards to the defensive system used to the mix of jumpers and interior moves used to ... everything. A.I. is not a player you can "fit" into your scheme. In gaining or losing Iverson, you have to draw the scheme from scratch.
Since swapping Iverson for Chauncey Billups, Denver has certainly seen a metamorphosis. But Mr. Big Shot isn't The Answer, nor the answer. The truth behind the Nuggets' rise traces also to Chauncey's new friends, Nene and Carmelo Anthony.
In dismissing 2007-08's Nuggets (and the near identical core which returned to start this season), we forget how incredibly tough the West had been, that despite only an eighth seed and a first round sweep Denver did win 50 games. This is to insist that Iverson played well -- really well -- in Denver, and that the Nuggets' core beyond Iverson had plenty of talent, realized and potential.
But under salary pressure and with an ultimately flawed mix, Iverson became the card Denver could play on the trade market. Remember: every time A.I. gets traded, his new and old teams change irrevocably. The results in Detroit have been mixed. But in Denver, the swap for Billups has worked remarkably well, it seems. The Nuggets have the fifth-best point margin in the league, sit in second place in the West at 14-7, and have run up a 13-4 record with Billups. The change has been good.
Looking deeper, we realize Billups' new teammates have as much to do with the improvement as he does.
The following chart documents the changes in the Nuggets' performance from 2007-08 to this season. We're using the "Four Factors" -- shooting, turnovers, rebounding and foul-drawing -- and their defensive counterparts. Dean Oliver (ironically now Denver's director of quantitative analysis) derived the Four Factors for his seminal tome on advanced basketball metrics Basketball on Paper. They are the elements which define the success of an offense or defense.
The factors are organized in order of importance, from top to bottom. Shooting and shooting defense are the most important elements of offensive and defensive success. Turnovers and rebounding are roughly equivalent in import at the league level. Fouls (expressed by FT/FG) are the final factor. The arrows used indicate Denver's statistical movement from last year to this one in the given category. For example, Denver's shooting has gotten marginally worse this season, expressed by the short leftward movement. On the other hand, the team's shooting defense has improved dramatically, from average to very good.
When you boil it down, there were two distinct personnel swaps between the seasons: Iverson for Billups, and Marcus Camby for Nenê. Of course, Nene was a Nugget last year, but he barely played due to a knee injury and a trying bout with testicular cancer. Camby was traded for nothing this summer, freeing up minutes for Nene and Kenyon Martin, who played quite a bit last season.
Billups has helped in a few tangible areas. Perhaps most importantly, he's relegated Anthony Carter to a smaller role, which has significantly helped. Carter averaged 28 mpg last season; since the Billups trade, Carter has played less than 23 mpg. Carter fit George Karl's sprint style executed with the A.I./'Melo pairing well, but wasted too high a portion of his possessions with turnovers. The case has been the same this season. On the other hand, Billups has been perhaps the surest-handed point guard of the decade -- he's averaging fewer than two per game with Denver, despite huge duties.
But we can't explain Denver's metamorphosis without giving major credit to Nene and 'Melo. The Brazilian has turned into a prolific dunking machine, converting everything he gets at the rim. Examples A, B and C:
That's helped reward Nene with an absurd 63% field goal clip and a league-leading .671 True Shooting percentage. (Joel Pryzbilla isn't on pace to qualify for the FG% crown thanks to a low number of FGAs.) Nene has also sliced his turnovers and maintained a career high block rate while controlling his fouls. This is the Nene everyone drooled over earlier this decade. This is the Nenê the Nuggets overpaid for. And folks have recognized it, giving the Brazilian daps for the realization of his potential. Teams would line up to take his $10 million contract today.
'Melo, on the other hand, has seen criticism for a precipitous scoring decline this year. Two seasons ago, Anthony averaged almost 29 points per game. This season, he's under 21. Smart people have questioned his status as a so-called franchise player, wondering if he's more a fiddle (second) or banana (third) than top gun. Of course, the complaints about 'Melo over the past five years have concerned his defense and rebounding, that he has ignored those two important elements to focus on dropping 30.
Now 'Melo does what everyone has wanted, his scoring dips and ... no one is tossing laurels. Anthony is second in the league in rebound rate among all starting small forwards (behind Shawn Marion). His rate eclipses those of LeBron James, Andrei Kirilenko and Paul Pierce by a substantial amount. That's huge for Denver. A wing who crashes the boards at that rate lets your fleet bigs (Nene, in this case) spring out into transition for easy running jams.
Anthony's defense has been stout by statistic, otherworldly (in a relative sense) by anecdote. Denver's slowed pace with Billups in town has, it seems, allowed 'Melo to keep up his energy in opposition of the league's small forwards. Against Denver, small forwards have a .456 effective field goal percentage this season. Last year, the measure was .509. In Anthony's personal matchups at the three, opponents have an eFG of .419. Last season, it was .527. The dude is defending his tail off.
The worry about 'Melo's injured offense can be softened some, too. The slower pace and Nene's larger role have conspired to drop Anthony's FGA frequency about 17% off its 2006-07 peak. Of course, 'Melo has missed many more shots this year, too: his FG% is .409, down from .492 last season. But most of these have been missed at the rim. According to NBA.com's Hot Spots data, he hit 61% near the rim last year and only 51% this season. Do you think 'Melo is going to keep missing those ducks all year? Two-point FG% is a highly variable stat; it will bounce back before long, and Anthony's scoring average will make a leap.
When it does, Denver will look even more dangerous. If the Nuggets stick around the top of the standings, Billups will watch the metamorphosis become a dark horse MVP candidacy. While Billups has been tremendous for Denver through a quarter of the season, perhaps his most valuable contribution has been in leading Karl to abandon the reckless running style, which has allowed Nenê to finally blossom and has helped open 'Melo's defensive wings.