I have been planning on writing about Linas Kleiza for about two months now. I never would have guessed that I would still be doing player season recaps in August.
There are a few Nuggets players who will get fans blood pressure up as soon as they hear his name and chief among them is Linas Kleiza.
Some fans will point to how he runs the floor, his ability to hit threes and his 41 point outburst as proof of his talent. Other fans site his porous defense, his inconsistency from behind the arc, his one dimensional game and the fact he seemed to take a step backwards last season as proof that he needs to go away.
Before we look at what Kleiza did last season, we need to consider what did not happen before last season. There were reports that the Nuggets were going to sign Kleiza to a four year, $25 million extension, but when it came time to make everything official nothing happened. After the lack of news made it obvious there was no extension Chris Tomasson reported that Stan Kroenke squashed the deal, but I think another factor was the imminent acquisition of Chauncey Billups.
Trading Allen Iverson for Billups saved the Nuggets a lot of money in 2008-09, but they committed to an additional $15.4 million in 2009-10 between Chauncey’s contract and the buyout of Antonio McDyess. It did not make good business sense to give Kleiza an extension when they knew they were on the verge of adding so much salary by bringing in Billups. The Nuggets did what any smart team should and chose not to negotiate against themselves and they correctly projected that Kleiza would probably not get an offer in the same neighborhood as a restricted free agent.
Kleiza was undoubtedly disappointed that the payday he had been hoping for and appeared to be within his grasp disappeared and understandably he started the season out slowly. With Carmelo Anthony suspended for the first two games of the season Kleiza had additional pressure on him to produce on offense. The result of the loss of his contract extension and the absence of Melo only averaged five points a game in the two games Melo missed and was a putrid 0-11 from three point land over the first three plus games of the season.
Starting anything 0-11 is not a good sign and Kleiza experienced a very up and down season offensively. There were some ups as including his first made three pointer in game four he went on to make 53 of his next 120 attempts, a conversion rate of 44.2%. He had an incendiary stretch from December 15 through January 7 where he hit 29 of 52 threes, 53.7%. Unfortunately, his 4-6 performance against Miami on January 7 was the high point of the regular season for Linas. From that point on he shot an atrocious 34-134, an embarrassing 25.4%. In fact, from February 6 through the end of the season Kleiza was 17-83, a heinous 20.5%, from downtown. After making two or more threes in 21 of the first 49 games of the season, he made two or more threes in only five of his final 33 appearances.
For a player who depends on the three to remain relevant it was bad news.
If you look at his 2008-09 shot chart Kleiza does his damage either at the rim or from behind the arc. Only 90 of his 646 attempts came in the nether region between the rim and the three point line.
The fact that Kleiza treats the realm between the arc and the hoop as if it was the Somme in July of 1916 bothers me (sorry, I have to start putting that history degree to some good use) and the fact that he has never developed a midrange game is disturbing. Instead of getting better, Kleiza was worse from midrange than the prior season. Out of his 90 attempts he only hit on 21 of them, 23.3%. In 2007-08 he made 41 of 113 attempts that were not layups, dunks or these which equates to 36.3%.
When Kleiza’s shot is not falling his one dimensional game becomes a no dimensional game. He is not a willing or capable passer, as pointed out above he does not have any kind of midrange game to fall back on and he was the one Nugget player who did not consistently raise his performance on defense. He did have acceptable defensive games here and there, but as a whole, he was by far the worst defender out of the Nuggets rotation players.
Looking at advanced stats it is even more difficult to make a case for Kleiza being a high quality player. Kleiza was a respectable 14th in rebound rate among small forwards and 21st in true shooting, but he was 27th in turnover rate and 57th in assist rate. Overall his well below average PER of 13.20 rates him 29th among NBA small forwards. In case you are wondering how he rates as a power forward, he would actually show up lower in every category.
The truly damning statistic for Kleiza is on display at 82games.com. The Nuggets are much better when he is on the bench than when he is on the floor. The Nuggets offensive efficiency with Kleiza seated in a folding chair is six points higher than when he is on the hardwood, 114.5 to 108.5. The Nuggets defensive efficiency does not fall off as drastically as their offensive efficiency does with Kleiza on the floor, but it is still worse, 108.9 to 106.7. Add it all up and the Nuggets are a total of 8.2 points per 100 possessions worse (they give up 2.2 more points per 100 possessions on defense and score 6.0 points fewer per 100 possessions on offense) with Kleiza on the floor than when he is off.
If you want to ignore all the statistical and visual data against Kleiza you can still try to make the argument that he still has a lot of untapped potential. I have contended all along that his potential has been miscalculated based on his surprisingly good play in his second season. Little was expected from Kleiza, a college power forward from Missouri who was drafted late in the first round. When he shot 37.6% from behind the arc his second year in the league it was only natural to expect similar boosts year after year. However, I have always believed that Kleiza hit his ceiling, or was at least very close to it, in 2006-07. If that is true, it is much easier to see why he has not built upon his second season and instead has almost been haunted by it.
The frustrating thing is it is nearly impossible to see something Kleiza added to his game for 2008-09. The only positive observations I can make about his play is that he did increase the number of times he drove with his left hand from zero to three or four and he became slightly more adept at tossing in the little running hook he likes to shoot when he cannot get all the way to the rim on one of his drives. Other than those two minor changes, it was mostly downhill.
And it was not just last year. If this was just a one year dip in his stats, I could perhaps get on the bandwagon that he still has upside to develop. However, it has been two seasons now since his breakout campaign and in both of those seasons he has regressed in at least one area of his game.
There is no doubt that the front office and George Karl like Kleiza. Denver has reportedly had the opportunity to trade him for players like Ron Artest and David Lee and have decided to keep him. He was the only Nugget player to play in all 82 contests. He played more minutes than Chris Andersen, Anthony Carter and Dahntay Jones. Even when he struggled during the second half of the season his minutes per game remained steady apart from a five game stretch in March where he was only on the floor for a combined 51 minutes.
By the end of the regular season it was difficult to build a case that the Nuggets should spend any of their limited resources on Kleiza. Then came the playoffs. I do not think there were any games that you could point to and say Denver would not have won that game without Linas, but he certainly shot the ball much better making 42.5% of his threes thus reasserting his offensive relevance. However, he did play in only 15.0 minutes a game and received the dreaded DNP-CD twice.
Fast forward to today and Kleiza is a restricted free agent. Despite the very real possibility that the Nuggets would choose not to match an offer nearing the mid level exception, not one team has made an attempt to try to pry him away. In fact only two teams have even shown interest in him. The Cavs, who have signed Jamario Moon to play small forward when LeBron is resting, and Toronto, who just signed Hedo Turkoglu to a massive deal last month. I guess I should say that there have only been two NBA teams that have expressed interest in Linas. Reportedly Greek powerhouse Olympiacos has an offer on the table to bring Kleiza to Europe.
Kleiza started playing up the European option as soon as his contract extension disappeared last October. I have no doubt that he will make the leap if the money is high enough. The problem is, as Josh Childress has discovered, going to Europe may make you more money in the short term, but it only delays your free agency issues to the next summer. Even if he goes to Greece and lights up every team he faces, he will still be a restricted free agent with the same one year, $2.7 million qualifying offer awaiting his return in 2010.
At this point the Nuggets seem content to call his bluff as there has been no indication that they have offered him a long term contract. There is a possibility that they have had sign and trade discussions with other teams, but if they have, I have not heard a peep about it.
In the end I think Kleiza gets a chance to earn his freedom and a bigger payday next summer by taking the qualifying offer. In this market $2.7 million is a nice contract, regardless of what you had hoped to get (check out item ten of this post, NBA jobs are drying up).
If Linas does come back to the Nuggets, he will get minutes and open shots. The front office likes him and George Karl likes him. Even if he ends up signing the qualifying offer and returning at the cheapest possible price, Denver has already invested heavily in him if only by holding onto him instead of trading him for a more talented player when the opportunity arose.
Even though it may be the worst case scenario for fans and player alike, look for Linas to be back in Denver launching line drive threes and attacking the rim with his right hand next season.