Misplacing the Best in Denver

Across the past few years the Nuggets have had three problems building a championship contender.  First, the Nuggets have put their money into unproductive scorers (i.e. Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson).  Second, the players who do produce wins for this team have a history of injuries.  Finally, and perhaps the strangest trend, is that the Nuggets have an odd habit of giving very good players to the 76ers.  Consequently, this team has not quite performed as well as Denver fans may have liked. 

Today I want to review the recent history of the Nuggets, a review that will highlight these tendencies.  Then I will discuss where this team might be heading.

Reviewing 2006-07

After 23 games in 2006-07 the Nuggets record was 14-9.  Such a pace would result in 49 victories over an 82 game season.

And then the Nuggets sent Andre Miller and Joe Smith (and draft picks) to the 76ers for Allen Iverson. Carmelo Anthony was suspended for 15 contests the game before this trade occurred. Consequently Iverson’s first 14 games in Denver were played a bit shorthanded and the Nuggets only went 6-8.

When Anthony returned to the line-up it was expected that Denver would take-off.  After all, Denver now had two of the top scorers in the league on the roster.  But this isn’t what happened.  Over the next 34 games the Nuggets were only able to post a 15-19 record.  Such a pace would only result in 35 wins over an 82 game season.  Given that the 76ers clearly improved without Iverson, it was beginning to look like Denver made a mistake acquiring The Answer.

But over the last eleven games of the season Denver awakened.  The team only lost one game, and defeated such giants as San Antonio and Dallas.  Iverson fans suddenly felt vindicated.  If the Nuggets could win 91% of its contests it would win 75 games in an 82 game season.  Clearly having the two best scorers on one team meant you had the best team ever.

On further review the Nuggets success at the end of the season was a bit of a mirage.  The Spurs did not play Tim Duncan, and when Duncan did arrive for the playoffs the Spurs dispatched Denver in five games.  Looking at the Dallas game we see that Josh Howard – a player who finished second in Wins Produced on the Mavericks — only played seven minutes for Dallas.  Additionally, the Nuggets wins over Minnesota and New Orleans were eased by Kevin Garnett not playing for the Timberwolves and Tyson Chandler not taking the court for the Hornets.  Finally, Denver’s one loss was to the Grizzlies, the worst team in the NBA last season.

In sum, the eleven games at the end of the season probably didn’t paint a very realistic picture of this team.  Perhaps a better picture can be painted if we look at the productivity of the players Denver employed last season.

Odd Trends in Denver

The productivity of the Nuggets across each of the last two seasons is noted in Table One.

Table One: The Denver Nuggets in 2006-07 and 2005-06

When we look at these past two seasons we see that the star is not on offense, but defense.  The 2006-07 defensive player of the year – Marcus Camby – led Denver in Wins Produced each of the past two seasons.  Actually, he has led the Nuggets in Wins Produced each of the past four seasons.  In all, Camby has produced 58.2 wins – or 33% of the team’s Wins Produced – since 2003-04. One should note that prior to 2003-04, injuries had held Camby back.  In seven seasons he had never played more than 63 games in a single season and averaged only 50 per year.  But the last four seasons Camby has been fairly healthy.  Yes, he has missed at least ten games each year.  He has averaged, though, 66 games per year and consequently his Wins Production has been outstanding.

In 2005-06 Camby was joined at the top of Denver’s Wins Produced rankings by Andre Miller.  Miller produced 33.1 wins for the Nuggets in his three full seasons in Denver.  After he departed in the Iverson trade, second place in Wins Produced on this team was taken by Reggie Evans. And like Miller, Evans was shipped to Philadelphia for a player of lesser value (Stephen Hunter).  Yes, apparently Billy King (general manager of the 76ers) has something on the brain trust in Denver.

The loss of Miller and Evans doesn’t leave the cupboard bear in Denver.  Anthony and Iverson, although not as good as widely believed, are capable of being at least average players (average Wins Produced per 48 minutes is 0.100).  And average, as is often noted here, is “not bad.” 

Beyond the scorers, the team also has Nene Hilario and Kenyon Martin.  Heading into last season, Hilario had only produced 11.1 wins in his career and posted a below average WP48 of 0.088.  Like Camby, injuries appeared to be part of the story with Nene. Last year, though, Hilario took a leap forward and posted a WP48 of 0.158.  He only averaged 26 minutes per game in 64 games, so his Wins Produced was just 5.6.  Still, if healthy, Hilario looks like someone who can help.

Joining Hilario and Camby in the frontcourt is former number one pick overall, Kenyon Martin.  In Martin’s last year in New Jersey he produced 8.7 wins and posted a 0.184 WP48.  But this player has yet to show up in Denver.  As a Nugget Martin has posted a 0.081 WP48 and only produced 6.6 wins across three seasons.  And last year he missed all of 62 minutes due to injury.  Still, if healthy, it’s possible that Martin can be quite good.

Reading along you might have noticed the themes mentioned at the onset.  The Nuggets have a collection of good players.  Often, though, these good players are either sent to Philadelphia or lost to injury.  If Denver could stop sending its better player to the Sixers, and it could somehow keep these better players healthy and productive, the Nuggets might be a team that could surpass 50 wins in 2007-08.  Injuries in the frontcourt, though, and this team -despite Melo and The Answer – might begin to disappoint their fans.

Changing Performance

Before closing, let’s ask this question – who is the smartest guy in the NBA?  This is a hard question to answer.  It might be Wayne Winston, creator of adjusted plus-minus and a consultant to the Mark Cuban and the Dallas Mavericks.  But another candidate is Dean Oliver.  Dean – author of Basketball on Paper — currently works with the Denver Nuggets. 

Much of the work on NBA statistics tends to focus on how productive a player is (or has been).  Wins Produced is a statistic that answers the “how” question.   Although Oliver has chimed in on this issue, his focus tends to be on “why is the player productive?”  And his work on this question threatens to wreck our ability to forecast in the NBA.

In looking at a team for 2007-08 I assume that what we saw in the past is what we will see in the future.   For most players this is a pretty good assumption.  Player performance in the NBA – unlike what we see in baseball and football – tends to be pretty stable.  Dean, though, is trying to figure out how to change performance.  And if successful his work might simultaneously help Denver win more games and ruin our ability to see the future in the NBA.  Dean’s work is something to keep in mind as we watch the Nuggets this next season.

By the way, you will note I limited my candidates for “smartest guy” to two stats people.  Although this obviously reflects a bias of mine, it also probably reflects the list of people I know who work in the NBA. 

Okay, I know more than two people in the NBA.  Really.  I probably know about five people (it might even be six).

– DJ

For a discussion of other teams see NBA Team Reviews: 2006-07

Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

The equation connecting wins to offensive/defensive efficiency is given HERE

Wins Produced and Win Score are discussed in the following posts

Simple Models of Player Performance

Wins Produced vs. Win Score

What Wins Produced Says and What It Does Not Say

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