How Good are the Nuggets Without Carmelo

The Carmelo Anthony trade has been frequently discussed from the perspective of the Knicks.  But what about the supposed “losers” in the trade?  How did this trade impact the Denver Nuggets?

When the trade was announced I offered the following “quick” thoughts on the Nuggets.

  • Denver really should have insisted on Landry Fields. 
  • Replacing Melo with Chandler and/or Gallinari only would cost the Nuggets about two wins this season.  So yes, this is a small step back.  But it appears rather small. 
  • Felton offers less than Billups, but again…. Billups is old (34 years old).  Felton gives the Nuggets a player who is a bit less productive, but eight years younger.
  • Who is going to play small forward for this team?  The team now has Chandler, Gallinari, and Gary Forbes.  Plus, J.R. Smith and/or Aaron Afflalo appear to have swung to the small forward spot this year.  Not real clear how those minutes get allocated.
  • The Nuggets now have three above average big men (Nene Hilario, Chris Andersen, and Kenyon Martin) and three big men who produce in the negative range (Al Harrington, Melvin Ely, and Mozgov).  Interesting to see how those minutes get allocated.

In sum, it is not clear who is going to play for Denver.  It is possible to come up with a line-up where this trade doesn’t really hurt Denver that much. But it is possible for this trade to really hurt, especially if Mozgov – the player they supposedly insisted upon – actually plays.

To summarize, when the trade happened I thought it was possible that Denver would still be about as good.  But since it was unclear how minutes were going to be allocated, it was unclear how this trade was going to impact the team.

Denver has now played seven games since Melo departed.  In those seven games, Denver is 5-2.  The team’s efficiency differential in those seven games is 10.4, a mark consistent with a team that would win more than 65 games across an 82 game season.  With Melo the team’s efficiency differential was only 2.5, a mark consistent with a team that would win about 47 games across an 82 game season.  So clearly, losing Melo has made the Nuggets much, much better.

Okay, it has only been seven games.  We really can’t offer an evaluation of this trade that is based on such a small sample.  But what we can do is see how minutes have been allocated by the Nuggets.   

As noted, we didn’t know how minutes would be allocated before the trade (or at least, I didn’t know).  Now that we can see minutes played, we can go back to what we knew about player performance before the trade and project the impact of this move.  The following table details this analysis.

On the left we have how these players have performed in the seven games since Melo left.  Again, the team has an efficiency differential of 10.4.  So it is not surprising to see WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes] marks that are quite good for many players employed by the Nuggets.  So far, ten players (of the 13 employed) are posting above average marks (average is 0.100) since the trade. And six players are beyond the 0.200 mark.  Obviously if this could be sustained, the Nuggets would be an amazing team.  Once again, though, seven games isn’t much of a sample. 

So let’s examine this trade with the performances of the players in 2010-11 before the trade.  This analysis is presented on the right.  And as one can see, eight of these players were above average before the trade happened.  So Denver has some “good” players. But none of these players exceeded the 0.200 mark (although Nene was close).  So this team, given performance before the trade and the minutes allocation after Melo left town, could expect to be about a 50 win team.  Now before the trade the team was only a 47 win team.  So the Nuggets – with and without Melo – are about the same. 

Of course, that fits the general story that Carmelo Anthony is not really a “star”. Yes, he is an above average player.  But he is not LeBron James (or even close). Again, Melo does score a large number of points.  However – as is often noted – this is because he “takes” a large number of shots. 

And I want to emphasize the word “takes.”  Some people argue that shots are “created”.  But I think that is not the correct way to look at it.  The Nuggets averaged 80.0 field goal attempts before the trade.  The team has averaged 82.9 field goal attempts after the trade.  As we note in Stumbling on Wins, a player’s shot attempts tend to come at the expense of his teammates.  In other words, players tend to “take” shots from their teammates.  And when players like Melo depart, other players get to take those shots.

Let me close with two more observations…

  • First, there isn’t much of a link between shot attempts and shooting efficiency (at least, not in the sample of 30 years of player data we looked at in Stumbling on Wins).  Yes, it could be the case that if Nene Hilario suddenly took 30 shots a game he would be less efficient.  But this isn’t what happens when a player like Melo departs.  What happens is every player just takes a few more shots per game.  And I don’t expect small changes in shot attempts to have large impacts on shooting efficiency.
  • My final note is about Al Harrington.  This past summer, Harrington was signed by the Nuggets to a $34 million contract.  Entering this season, Harrington had played 23,953 minutes in his NBA career and only produced 6.5 wins.  Yes, Harrington is very far below average.  And at the moment, he is scheduled to be the third highest paid player in Denver in 2011-12.  So I expected Harrington – who has shown the ability to score (because he likes to “take” shots) – would get minutes — and shots — with Melo playing elsewhere.  But so far, that isn’t happen.  Since the trade, Harrington is still very far below average (as he was before the trade).  But he is playing almost ten fewer minutes per game.  So the negative impact of Harrington has been mitigated. 

Once again, I don’t expect what we have seen from the Nuggets after seven games to continue.  But, if Harrington can stay on the bench — and the players who have offered above average production in the past continue to produce — the Nuggets can still be a playoff team.  Again, that is about what they were before Anthony departed.  And that means the Nuggets were not exactly the “loser” in this trade.

- DJ

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