What Might Have Been in Denver

When the NBA merged with the ABA in 1976, four ABA franchises – the Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers, New Jersey Nets, and San Antonio Spurs – were added to the NBA.  Of these four, Denver was the most successful that first season in the NBA.  The Nuggets won 50 regular season games and were the only ABA survivor to win a playoff series (or a game).  When we look at efficiency differential – offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency – we see that Denver had a mark of 4.53 in 1976-77.  Only the Portland Trail Blazers – the eventual league champ (and team that eliminated Denver in the playoffs) – posted a better differential (5.00).  Such an inaugural season certainly suggested that Denver’s future in the NBA would be quite bright.

Although that might have been the suggestion in 1977, reality has been quite different.  In terms of efficiency differential, the 1976-77 team remains the best in the NBA history of the Denver Nuggets.  To put this point in perspective, Denver has only posted an efficiency differential in excess of 3.00 twice [1987-88 and 2007-08].  And only two more seasons saw a mark in excess of 2.00 [1984-85 and 2004-05]. 

If we turn to wins, a similar story is told.  Denver’s best NBA season – in terms of wins – occurred in 1987-88.  That year Denver won 54 games.  In only three other seasons – 1976-77, 1984-85, and 2007-08 – did this team reach 50 victories. In contrast, the team has reached 50 losses eight different times. In sum, despite a promising start, NBA basketball in Denver has not generally been very successful.

Losing Camby

And that brings us to this season. After 35 games, Denver has a record of 23-12.  With a winning percentage of 65.7%, the Nuggets are currently on pace to tie the NBA franchise record for wins in season. When we look at efficiency differential the results are not quite that promising. Denver’s differential is currently 3.30, a mark that suggests 50 wins are a possibility.  Although this mark is quite good relative to Denver history, it lags far behind the top teams currently in the NBA.

Of course, given the move the Nuggets made this summer, it seemed unlikely the 2008-09 team was likely to challenge the best in the NBA or even the best in Denver history.  In July the Nuggets sent Marcus Camby to the LA Clippers for a Wal-Mart gift certificate (or something like that). Camby led the 2007-08 Denver Nuggets with 21.0 Wins Produced.  Apparently Denver’s plan was to replace Camby with Nene Hilario, who missed most of the 2007-08 season.  In 2006-07 Nene posted a 0.158 WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes], which would be worth 8.7 wins in the time allotted Camby last season.  In other words, the move from Camby to Nene would cost the Nuggets about twelve victories.

This decline was partially offset by the addition of Chris Andersen and Renaldo Balkman, two additions designed to make-up for the loss of Eduardo Najera.  Last year Najera produced 1.3 wins with a 0.038 WP48.  As Table One indicates, Andersen and Balkman are both above average talents, and their addition cuts the cost of losing Camby about in half.

Table One: The Denver Nuggets in 2008-09 after 35 games

What’s interesting about this season is that Denver really hasn’t decline at all.  Their most productive player is gone and the team’s efficiency differential – as the above numbers indicate – has only declined about 0.30.  In other words, the team is about what they were last year.  So how is this possible?

Adding Billups

As noted last November, the trade of Allen Iverson for Chauncey Billups looked to be enough to completely offset the loss of Camby.  We can see this if we look at the relative performances of each player.

Here is what Chauncey Billups produced from 2002-03 to 2007-08 [the six years he played in Detroit].

2002-03: 0.220 WP48

2003-04: 0.177 WP48

2004-05: 0.209 WP48

2005-06: 0.268 WP48

2006-07: 0.252 WP48

2007-08: 0.304 WP48

And here is what Allen Iverson did across this same time period.

2002-03: 0.086 WP48

2003-04: 0.020 WP48

2004-05: 0.152 WP48

2005-06: 0.127 WP48

2006-07: 0.072 WP48

2007-08: 0.134 WP48

As one can see, Iverson at his best didn’t match Billups at his worst.  If we look at averages, Billups has posted a mark of 0.238 while Iverson’s average stands at 0.104.  In words, Billups has been consistently very good while Iverson has struggled to surpass the average mark (average WP48 is 0.100).

When we look at the individual stats -which I did at the time of the trade (and also last summer) – we can see where Billups excels.  The key for Billups – as illustrated by Table Two — is avoiding mistakes.  Specifically, Billups doesn’t commit many turnovers and he tends to hit his shots.  In contrast, Allen Iverson (and Isiah Thomas) is essentially the opposite player.

Table Two: Comparing Chauncey Billups, Isiah Thomas, and Allen Iverson

Billups ability to avoid mistakes makes him like a quarterback who doesn’t throw interceptions.  Although this is a valuable skill, avoiding an interception is not as memorable as throwing a touchdown pass.  Likewise, not committing a turnover is not something people tend to remember. Consequently, people who only watch basketball  tend to be a bit confused about the relative value of Billups and Iverson (while those who watch basketball AND look at the stats tend to be a bit less confused, at least about basketball).

A Denver Dream

The Camby move was clearly motivated by money.  Camby’s combined salary in 2008-09 and 2009-10 is $15.65 million.  By sending Camby to the Clippers, and acquiring the talents of Andersen, Balkman, and Billups, the Nuggets have managed to assemble a team that is essentially as good as what we saw last year. This team, though, costs somewhat less.

Although this might make sense from a business perspective, fans of Denver have to wonder what would have happened if the Nuggets had kept Camby and still acquired Billups?  The above numbers suggest that Denver could right now be on pace to win more than 60 games.  This may not have been enough to challenge the Lakers, Celtics, and Cavaliers.   But it would have easily been the best team in Denver history.

As it stands now, Denver only has one of the very best teams in franchise history.  And if a few players improve slightly, it could still be the very best team in NBA franchise history.  The path to this mark, though, will be much harder with Camby producing all those wins for the Clippers.

- DJ

The WoW Journal Comments Policy

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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