Iverson Goes to Denver

Yesterday I commented on the Iverson trade from the perspective of the 76ers.

Because Andre Miller has historically produced more wins than Iverson, a result we are also observing this year, it looks like this trade improves the 76ers. Miller does not solve all the problems in Philadelphia, but coupled with Andre Iguodala and Samuel Dalembert, he gives the Sixers a few pieces to build upon.

Today I am going to offer a few – somewhat random — observations on what this might mean for the Denver Nuggets.

Be forewarned. What you will see is typical wishy-washy analysis from an economist. So those looking for bold pronouncements might be disappointed.

First Impressions – the Wisdom of Red Auerbach

This trade allows the Nuggets to combine the NBA’s leading scorer – Carmelo Anthony – with the league’s second leading scorer.

When I saw this combination I was reminded of the following quote from a biographical sketch of Red Auerbach posted at ESPN.com.

Auerbach didn’t focus on the individuals on his teams. He looked at the “whole package.” While many of his players were outstanding, the Celtics were the first organization to popularize the concept of the role player. “That’s a player who willingly undertakes the thankless job that has to be done in order to make the whole package fly,” Auerbach said.
…. Auerbach said that the Celtics represent a philosophy that in its simplest form maintains that victory belongs to the team. “Individual honors are nice, but no Celtic has ever gone out of his way to achieve them,” he said. “We have never had the league’s top scorer. In fact, we won seven league championships without placing even one among the league’s top 10 scorers. Our pride was never rooted in statistics.”

A few weeks ago I posted the previous quote at the Sports Economist and in this forum. I went on to add that Auerbach had “bemoaned in an interview broadcast on ESPN Classic that the focus of today’s players is on statistics, as opposed to winning. In Auerbach’s view, Bill Russell was a great player because he didn’t obsess on his own statistics, but rather sacrificed his stats so the team could win.”

With the addition of Iverson, the Nuggets are in essence building the anti-Auerbach team.

There is Only One Ball

And there is one problem with this approach. An NBA team faces a serious constraint in the production process. There is exactly one ball. Anthony likes to take the ball and shoot 24 times per game. Iverson also likes to take the ball and shoot 24 times per contest. If both Iverson and Anthony take all these shots, the Nuggets will need to take more than 95 shots per contest to accommodate both scorers and everyone else on the team. Since the 1992-93 season the most shots taken by an NBA team is 90.6. It seems unlikely that the Nuggets can play at the tempo necessary to create shots for everyone, so someone is going to have to settle for less.

And here is where the data won’t help us. We can see that someone has to shoot less, but I do not see anyway to look at these numbers and know which player or players will sacrifice shots. We suspect that everyone will be asked to give a little. But we cannot know from the onset how players are going to respond to this request.

In a way, the Nuggets might be following the same path taken by Isiah Thomas in building the New York Knicks. The Knicks last year were a collection of scorers. Stephon Marbury, Steve Francis, Jalen Rose, Eddy Curry, Maurice Tayler, Quentin Richardson, and Jamal Crawford are all players who historically demonstrated an ability to put points the board. The rookies from last year – Channing Frye and Nate Robinson – also demonstrated this skill. Despite having expensive scorers at every position, though, the Knicks could not win.

In putting Iverson and Anthony together the Nuggets, like the Knicks, have assembled some serious scoring talent.  Fortunately for the Nuggets, they are not quite as burdened as the Knicks with players whose main focus is scoring.  The only players who are above average scorers (average in the league is about 0.400 points per minute) are Melo, Iverson, J.R. Smith, and Earl Boykins. Players like Marcus Camby, Reggie Evans, and Eduardo Najera have demonstrated that they do not need to score to contribute to team success. So perhaps the Nuggets will not have a huge problem adding another major scorer to the mix. One suspect, thought, that it is going to take a bit of effort to solve the shot allocation issue.

Melo Improves and then is Suspended

Initially mixing the talents of Iverson and Anthony will not be a problem. Anthony is suspended, so when Iverson first takes the floor (which will probably happen on Friday), he will be the primary scoring option on the team.

How good will the Nuggets be without Anthony? The first night without Melo the Nuggets defeated the Washington Wizards. This is the same Wizards team that beat the Nuggets by 29 points the previous week when Anthony was playing. This might suggest that the Nuggets are better off without the NBA scoring leader. At least, that was the take of Gilbert Arenas. In the AP Story of the game was the following quote: “They play better without Carmelo because the ball moves and everybody goes,” Arenas said. “They played well without him. It’s an emotional team right now. They will play hard. They are still a good team.”

In this game Camby scored 25 points on 9-13 shooting, grabbed 17 rebounds, and blocked seven shots. Andre Miller scored 27 points, on 50% shooting, and captured nine rebounds. The diminutive Boykins grabbed seven boards and made 14 of 15 free throw attempts. Such production was more than what we typically see from these players. In the case of Camby, his production is beyond the averages we see from any NBA player.

To get a better sense of what the Nuggets could expect without Anthony, let’s look at what these players did in the first 21 games. Across this sample we see a problem.

Before we get to that problem, let’s first note the changes in Melo’s game. Readers of The Wages of Wins and of this forum will have noted that according to Wins Produced, Anthony has not been a very productive player during his career.

In the World Championship games this summer, though, Anthony’s game appeared to change. Looking back at these games we see that Anthony actually played as well as LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Now LeBron and Flash were top ten players in the NBA last year, while Melo was a bit below average. So for Anthony to play at the level of James and Wade suggested that Melo’s game had improved dramatically.

This season Anthony has not played at the same level as James or Wade. Still, Melo has clearly improved and now he has joined the ranks of the above average NBA performers. After 21 games Anthony had produced 2.3 wins and posted a Wins Produced per 48 [WP48] minutes of 0.144. Average in the league is 0.100 and last year Anthony’s mark stood at 0.079. So relative to last year, Melo has improved quite a bit.

Much of the improvement is tied to his improved shooting from two point range. Last year he shot 50.6% from inside the arc. So far this year he is shooting 52.7% from two point range. His three point shooting, which was very bad last year, is still very bad (27.1%). Unfortunately, despite a persistent inability to hit long-range shots consistently, Anthony has actually increased the quantity of shots from beyond the arc. Overall, though, Anthony is an above average scorer.

Additionally, he has also improved as a passer and in his ability to generate steals. This gain has been offset by an increase in turnovers. And it’s still the case that he is merely average on the boards. Put it all together, and we again see a player that is above average, but probably not nearly as productive as his lofty scoring totals would suggest.

Unfortunately for Denver, the Nuggets do not have much to offer at the small forward position when Melo does not take the floor. The primary options are Linus Kleiza and Yakhouba Diawara. Diawara is a rookie this year and coming into this season Kleiza had only played 522 minutes. So we have not seen much of either player. The WP48 marks of each player, though, have been in the negative range. Again, our sample for Kleiza and Diawara is quite small. Still, if what we have seen reflects what we are going to see from these players in the future, then the Nuggets are replacing an above average player with players who are far below average. And when that happens, one can expect losses to happen more frequently.

With Kleiza-Diawara spelling Anthony, and Iverson taking the place of Miller, it is hard to see this team finding much success until Anthony returns. Of course over a stretch of a dozen or so games players can play much better or worse than their historical averages. So it’s possible that the Nuggets will suddenly embark on a ten game winning streak. Given what we know about these players, though, that’s not a likely outcome.

The Answer and Melo Together

It is hard to know what will happen with we see The Answer and Melo together at last. These two did play on the 2004 Olympic team together. Both players were below average that summer, and neither shot the ball very well. So that experience was not a good sign. And again, the Nuggets will also need to settle the issue of who gets to take the shots.

Looking past the issue of Anthony and Iverson, we do see one positive possibility. If the minutes of the departed Joe Smith are taken by Najera and Evans (and that is just one possibility at this point), the Nuggets should be just about as good with Iverson as they were with Miller. Even if that happens, though, I find it hard to believe this team will contend with the likes of the Spurs, Mavericks, or Suns in the Western Conference.

The Impact of Coaching Talent

There is a wildcard that the Nuggets can count upon, and that is coaching talent. In the crude forecasts I have offered over the past couple of days I assumed performance would be unchanged. A study I am currently in the process of completing suggests that George Karl is one of a few coaches who is able to get players to improve beyond past performance. So perhaps under Karl we can see better play from Iverson.

I would add that the Nuggets also employ Dean Oliver. Oliver is author of Basketball on Paper and inventor of a host of stats based tools teams can use to evaluate and allocate talent. If you need someone to figure out how to mesh the talents of Anthony and Iverson, one could do far worse than turning to the talents of both Oliver and Karl (and I am not saying this because Oliver is a friend of mine).

And with that thought, I conclude my random comments on this move by the Nuggets. I do not see how this makes the team immensely better off. But perhaps the coaching talent the team employs can make this work.

– DJ

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