Does the Wizard have Melo’s Help and Karl’s Leadership?

Andres Alvarez graduated from Colorado State University with an M.S. in Computer Science. He is currently a GIS Analyst who likes to work on geeky stat side projects for fun, including the automated Wins Produced website (which we all appreciate).  He has been a Colorado resident his entire life and a Nuggets fan for most of it.

Last year the Denver Nuggets were two bad inbounds passes away from the finals. Many believed we were on track for a repeat performance and maybe one trade away from being crowned champions. This year the Nuggets regressed to a first round exit, raising a few interesting theories.

The first popular theory is that Carmelo needs help. This was accentuated by the fact that Melo said he needed help right before the Nuggets were bumped by the Jazz. The Wages of Win’s Journal, a typical detractor of Melo, stood up and pointed out that he was right.  At least if you were just counting this year’s playoffs. So we need to get Carmelo help, but where?

Another popular theory is the Nuggets needed George Karl’s leadership. Last year with him on the bench, the Nuggets made it to the Western Conference Finals. This year they won the division with him at the helm, but he had to step down for health reasons before the playoffs. The theory is that George Karl is a huge part of their success and his absence hurt them in the playoffs.

Well Melo’s help can be addressed in a very Wizard of Oz way. It was there all along! If only Melo had clicked his heals together three times and looked to his bench, maybe the team would have overcome their problems both this year and last. As for George Karl’s leadership, the answer is not as happy. In fact, maybe it was never there to begin with. 

The answer to both Melo’s Help and Karl’s leadership starts by looking at minute allocation. Looking at Table 1 we see that Denver had 6 players with at least 1,986 minutes this year. On the bench were three above average players in Andersen, Lawson, and Carter.  Andersen played much better than starters Martin and Nene. And in the backcourt, Smith and Afflalo both posted below average WP48 for their 2000+ minutes, while two above average guards in Carter and Lawson sat on the bench. To be fair, Lawson did have some injury troubles. Even a slightly below average Balkman, though, would have been a welcome change to an abysmal J.R. Smith (who apparently played at SF part of the time).

What was Karl’s leadership plan in 2010? He actually followed a very simple formula for his minute assignment. If you were paid more than $5 million you got at least 2,000 minutes of play. After that your minutes were assigned based on the coach’s assessment of you. In this case Afflalo got more minutes for being a “defensive presence”, Andersen for being an “energy player” and Balkman was put in the dog house for not learning the team’s offensive schemes.

What about 2009? Surely Karl must have had the Nuggets stocked full of leadership to get so far. Perhaps, but he still left a lot of Melo’s help on the bench.  Looking at Table 2, we notice that 7 players played 1,750 minutes or more. Andersen, though, played fewer minutes than Nene, Martin and Kleiza. Not only that, Renaldo Balkman played a meager number of minutes despite having the best WP48 of all the players on the team! Finally JR Smith played well last year, but we notice he split a lot of his minutes with Dahntay Jones, whose net contribution to the Nuggets wins was zero.

Essentially, Karl’s method in 2008-09 was the same as we saw in 2009-10.  If you were paid 4.985 million dollars or more, you got more than 2,000 minutes.  After that you were again assigned minutes based on the coach’s assessment of you; Kleiza was an “offensive threat off the bench”, Carter was a “smart veteran presence”, Dantay Jones was a “defensive presence”, Andersen was still an “energy player” and Balkman had a bad attitude limiting his minutes.

Karl’s leadership seemed to amount to two things. First and foremost was pay. In an almost stubborn attitude of “We paid for it, we may as well use it”, he heavily relied on the second or third best option for at least two positions in both 2009 and 2010. His next method was if the player had a good role player term. It was maddening as a Nuggets fan to see Balkman, a WP48 powerhouse, benched for not being an “offensive threat”; while seeing Dahntay Jones and Aaron Afflalo get minutes for being “defensive presences”. What is worse is that Karl’s nice coaching terms for his bench player’s minutes did not actually seem to correlate with their performance.

So despite Melo’s help being there all along, it is possible that Karl’s leadership stopped it from seeing the light of day. Dantley apparently stuck to this plan and potentially hurt the Nuggets. However, the West was crazy this year with only Portland – because of significant injuries — actually being an easy first round opponent. It is impossible to know if the Nuggets fortunes would have changed with a better record.

In closing there is some light at the end of the tunnel. Carmelo may seek his help elsewhere if the Nuggets do not improve this upcoming season (and Melo is really doesn’t produce enough to justify his pay). A healthy Portland, OKC and LAL could ensure this. Kenyon Martin’s contract also comes off the books at the end of the year. The Nuggets can therefore potentially free up cap room for next summer or get a good deal from a team looking to dump salary.

All of this, though, might require Coach Karl to allocate minutes differently.  At least that’s what I hope as a man behind the curtain.

Please note the author does not hold any ill will towards George Karl, and wishes him a full recovery.

- Andres Alvarez

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