A Zen-Like Vision for Denver

Much has been said about Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony in this forum.  Given the story told – Melo and The Answer are overrated – one might expect me to note that the 76ers without Iverson have won more playoffs games the past two seasons than the Nuggets have won with The Answer.  But that’s not the purpose of this column.  This column is being offered as a beacon of hope… to Denver fans. Yes, I think the Nuggets with Melo and Iverson have a reason to be hopeful about 2008-09. 

Reviewing 2007-08

This story begins with Table One, which reports what the Nuggets did in 2007-08 and what this team could have expected given what their players did in 2006-07.

Table One: The Denver Nuggets in 2007-08

Given what these players did last season the Nuggets should have only expected 33 wins.  The team, though, won 50 games.   The team’s Wins Produced summed to 51.0.  All in all, there was some improvement in Denver.

One could argue – contrary to what we see in Denver’s sports media – that George Karl must have done an excellent job of coaching.  Although Karl’s influence cannot be discounted, we can assign some responsibility to the players.  Specifically, we can actually go through the individual player’s numbers and see which players improved.

Although Denver employed 17 players this past season, nearly 17 of the 18.2 additional Wins Produced can be tied to only four players: Allen Iverson, Carmelo Anthony, Anthony Carter, and Linas Kleiza. In other words, most players didn’t change at all.  But what of the four that did?

Allen Iverson’s performance returned to essentially what we saw in 2005-06. So Iverson playing a better (and I mean just better, he is still not one of the game’s best) is not a surprise.

Kleiza was in the negative range his first two seasons. He’s still below average, but he has managed to raise his production into the positive range.  Although this small leap was unexpected, it’s not surprising to see a young player get a better.

Unlike Kleiza, Carter is not a young player. This past season was his 9th year in the league, and he had never been above average in any previous campaign.  Of course, his minutes have been quite erratic(less than 1,500 minutes over the past four seasons).  So perhaps what we are seeing is just the benefit of Carter getting to play.

The Surprising Melo

And then we have Melo. Anthony had played more than 11,000 minutes before the start of the 2007-08 season. Despite lofty scoring totals, his total production had frequently hovered around the average mark.  In other words, Melo was not quite the star people believed him to be.

But as I said at the start of the season, despite all his experience (which again didn’t result in an outstanding level of productivity), Anthony is still only 23 years of age. Had he stayed at Syracuse (where he put up some good numbers) for all four seasons, the 2007-08 season would only be his second year in the league. So maybe we should not be surprised to see such improvement. 

Okay, let’s be serious. We should be surprised. Just take a look at these numbers.

Table Two: The First Five Years of Melo

Anthony was below average his first two seasons.  Then in year three and four his numbers managed to creep above the average mark. 

For year five – this last campaign – Table Two reports both the first half and second half numbers.  In the first half we see another small leap forward.  Although his shooting efficiency was a bit off his 2006-07 pace, Melo was managing to grab a few more rebounds.

And then we have the second half of 2007-08.  Suddenly Melo is hitting his shots.  He is also rebounding.  Plus his turnovers are down.

When we put it all together, we see a player who transformed from being little better than average in the first half of 07-08, to a player that was finally fulfilling the vision people had after looking at his Syracuse numbers.  In sum, if the second half is not a mirage, Melo might finally be a star.

Hope in Denver

And that should give Denver fans hope.

And here is more hope.  When we look at the Nuggets in 2006-07 we see that Nene Hilario was an above average big man.  But Nene only managed to play 266 minutes in 2007-08.  If he can be healthy and productive in 2008-09, the Nuggets can put the following line-up on the floor:

PG: Anthony Carter [above average in 2007-08]

SG: Allen Iverson [above average in 2007-08]

SF: Carmelo Anthony [well above average in second half of 2007-08]

PF: Nene Hilario  [above average in 2006-07]

C: Marcus Camby [one of the five most productive players in 2007-08].

These five players – given what they did in the time frame listed above – would combine to produce 54 wins next season.  Yes, without getting much of a contribution from Kenyon Martin or J.R. Smith (two players who can be just below average), the Nuggets could join the Western Conference elite in 2008-09.

A Zen-Like Vision for Denver

The vision I laid forth assumes Denver does basically nothing this off-season.  And that’s going to be hard to do.  Carmelo Anthony – like Tracy McGrady – has never won a playoff series.  Plus, Melo and the Nuggets exited the 2008 playoffs without winning a game.  So it seems clear to some that something must be done.

But I don’t that it’s that clear.  We basically have two samples.  In the playoffs Melo and Iverson were below average (as was everyone else on the Nuggets not named Camby, Kleiza, or J.R. Smith).  But in the regular season, this team won 50 games and showed it was just a shade below the top teams in the West.  The playoff sample is only four games, or less than 5% the sample we see in the regular season.  Given the size of the playoff sample, I think it should be heavily discounted.

This leaves us the regular season and the argument advanced above.  If Melo’s second half performance is a good representation of what he will do next year (and that is a big IF), and Nene can be healthy and productive, this team will improve in 2008-09.  And that means the Nuggets will be true contenders.

Of course, if the Nuggets do something silly – like get rid of Marcus Camby – then Denver is probably going to take a step back next season.

So that’s my story.  If Denver does nothing, I think they can make progress.  If they try and make “progress”, Denver will probably slide back.  In sum, Denver is facing a “moment of zen.”  Do nothing and thrive.  Do something and slide (or some such “zen-like” statement).

– DJ

Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

The Technical Notes at wagesofwins.com provides substantially more information on the published research behind Wins Produced and Win Score

Wins Produced, Win Score, and PAWSmin are also 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

Introducing PAWSmin — and a Defense of Box Score Statistics

Finally, A Guide to Evaluating Models contains useful hints on how to interpret and evaluate statistical models.

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