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.
At first glance, I never saw an agonizing stretch of difficult games that I was dreading. After reflecting on it some more I think the most difficult stretch will be from March 23 through April 1. The Nuggets have a five game eastern conference road trip that takes them to New York, Boston, Toronto, Orlando and then drops them in Dallas. Five road tilts in seven days. Then as an added bonus they return home to play Portland on April Fools’ Day, although they do get two days of rest. That late in the season the pressure will be palpable and wins will be precious commodities.
I thought it was kind of odd that I could not find more imposing segments. When I reflected on why that was I came up with two reasons. There are fewer teams to fear. Heading into 2008-09 I did not look forward to playing teams like New Orleans, Utah, Houston, Phoenix and Dallas. Now, those matchups are not so scary. There are not eight 50 win teams in the west anymore. The road has become a little easier. The other reason for my lack of consternation is for the first time in a long time I believe the Nuggets are capable of being a top five team. That is a nice feeling to have.
There were two other things I noticed looking at the schedule that I thought were interesting. I had lamented the fact that the Nuggets had 22 back to back games and on only six of those occasions will they play a team who had played the night before as well. After a little research I have discovered there are 22 occasions where the Nuggets play an opponent who is coming off a game the night before. Lo and behold out of those 22 instances there are only six games where the Nuggets had to play the night before as well.
While 22 is a big number, it appears the league has kept things pretty even at least within the Nuggets schedule.
The other discovery I made was that this is the first season since 2000-01 where the Nuggets do not play a home and home series with someone. There have been times where there was a day off between games against the same opponent, but in every season since 2000-01 the Nuggets have played at least one team twice in a row. I am not sure what that means for the fans, but I guess the advance scouts do not get the benefit of a repeat game that does not require additional scouting.
“ok people I love all of my fans im sorry but this will be my last tweet you know why but it is what it is love all an take Care!”
And like that, he’s gone. J.R. Smith has closed his JR_Smith1 Twitter account and in doing so has missed an opportunity to make a difference.
If you are not aware of the controversy that grabbed the attention of basketball fans everywhere, even Bill Simmons tweeted about it calling it a “crazy-bizarre” story, J.R. Smith had been tweeting gang style. The act of replacing the letter ‘c’ with the letter ‘k’ in his messages is reportedly something connected to the gang known as the Bloods.
J.R. could have taken this opportunity and used it to spread the news that he does not support gangs and would never again do anything that could be construed as supporting gangs. Unfortunately, there was a problem with that route. It would have required an apology or at least the act of admitting a mistake or error in judgment.
In place of trying to make a difference in the lives of young people who deal with the pressures of gang life he basically said, screw you to everyone with a capital ‘C.’ He took his Twitter account and went home.
This is not the first time J.R. has been accused of gang related activity. In the Western Conference Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers some people believed he was flashing gang signs after hitting a three.
At this point instead of making a positive impact J.R. is doing the exact opposite. The absence of an explanation or any kind of remorse only strengthens the belief that J.R. is at best supportive of gangs and at worst an active participant in one.
For all his improvement on the basketball court, it appears J.R. still has a great deal of growth remaining in his personal life. Coming from a young man who was just released from prison after serving time for the death of his best friend in an auto accident brought about by J.R.’s own irresponsible actions I hoped for more.
I have been one of J.R.’s biggest supporters and have constantly defended him. Barring some kind of apology, it will be very difficult to do defend his hurtful behavior.
The NBA will release the 2009-10 schedule at 11:00 AM Mountain time. Check back here soon thereafter for a complete analysis.
Sactown Royalty has posted a link to the Kings 2009-10 schedule and Sacramento is one of the Western Conference teams the Nuggets only play three times (twice in Sacramento (12/28/09 and 01/09/10) and once in Denver (02/01/10). It took the NBA about 20 minutes to disable the link to the Kings schedule. Some poor IT guy is getting fired over that one.
Denver Stiffs is reporting the Nuggets open up at home October 28 against the Utah Jazz on ESPN and then travel to Portland the next night to play the Trail Blazers on TNT.
Update: The Nuggets play at Portland on Christmas as the last of five games to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.
Update (11:16 AM): Denver has 23 sets of back to back games. Update to the update (11:26): They actually have 22. Sorry for the mistake. I have never seen a team have more than 21 sets of back to back games and my educated guess as to the league average would be around 18 or 19. I have not looked at any other team’s schedule to see if other teams are playing more back to back games, but 23 22 seems like a very high number.
Update (11:18 AM): Here is the complete schedule for you to check out for yourself.
Update (11:32 AM): The four Western Conference teams the Nuggets face off against only three times are the Sacramento Kings and Houston Rockets, who they only play once at home, and the Los Angeles Clippers and the Dallas Mavericks who they only play once on the road.
Update (11:39 AM): There is only one home stand longer than three games and it is a four game sequence from November 27 through December 3 where the Nuggets will face off against New York, Minnesota, Golden State and Miami. Denver has four road trips of four or more games including a six game trip in early November and a five game trip at the end of March that takes them through New York, Boston (back to back), Toronto and then finishes up with a back to back in Orlando and Dallas. Ouch. That five game trip lasts only seven days.
However, after that the Nuggets only have two more road games in April at Oklahoma City and Phoenix.
Denver is one of two teams, Sacramento is the other one, who will end their season on April 13.
Update (12:15 PM): The Nuggets have 22 games on ESPN, TNT or ABC and another seven on NBATV.
10/28 Utah ESPN
10/29 @ Portland TNT
11/13 LA Lakers ESPN
11/20 @ LA Clippers ESPN
12/03 Miami TNT
12/25 @ Portland ESPN
01/08 Cleveland ESPN
01/17 Utah ESPN
01/21 LA Clippers TNT
01/31 @ San Antonio ABC
02/05 @ LA Lakers ESPN
02/11 San Antonio TNT
02/18 @ Cleveland TNT
02/21 Boston ABC
02/25 @ Golden State TNT
02/28 @ LA Lakers ABC
03/07 Portland ESPN
03/18 New Orleans TNT
03/24 @ Boston ESPN
04/01 Portland TNT
04/08 LA Lakers TNT
04/13 @ Phoenix TNT
All four contests against Portland and the Lakers are on national TV as well as both games against Boston and Cleveland. That accounts for 12 of the 22 games right there.
Update (1:28 PM): As I mentioned above the Nuggets have 22 games where they have played the night before. From what I have heard that is tied for the fourth most back to backs in the league (Charlotte, Chicago and Detroit all have 23). What makes it worse is on 16 of those 22 back to back sets the team Denver plays on the second night will have at least one day of rest. That leaves only six instances of those 22 back to backs where the Nuggets are playing a team who played the night before as well.
The Nuggets have announced that all games broadcast on Altitude will be in HD apparenlty what few games are on Altitude 2 will not be in HD. That means Nuggets fans will probably get 75 or so games in HD next season. Last season most road games were broadcast in standard D.
With the news that the NBA is going to allow teams to place advertisements on their practice jerseys and looking forward to the day where ads will show up on the game jerseys I decided to help match all 30 NBA teams with an appropriate corporate sponsor.
Atlanta Hawks – Gold Club (time for a comeback and if you do not know why, check out the link)
Boston Celtics – Cheers
Charlotte Bobcats – University of North Carolina Alumni Association
Chicago Bulls – Abe Froman Sausage King of Chicago (the first of the scenes missing from Youtube I was hoping to link to in this piece)
Cleveland Cavaliers – Callahan Auto Parts
Dallas Mavericks – Bob Loblaw
Denver Nuggets – Walmart (might as well make it official)
Detroit Pistons – Toyota
Golden State Warriors – Mopeds.com
Houston Rockets – M*A*S*H (believe it or not, this was the best Youtube had to offer, just criminal)
Indiana Pacers – Jenny Craig/Crest/Irish Spring (Hoosiers need more of all three of these things)
Los Angeles Clippers – Bluth Company
Memphis Grizzlies – Spatula City
Miami Heat – Del Boca Vista
Milwaukee Bucks – Kohl’s Department Store (but somehow Herb has to show a loss for both the Bucks and the retail chain, actually half of that equation will probably be pretty easy)
Minnesota Timberwolves – Gustafson Oldsmobile (2:14)
New Orleans Hornets – City of Venice Tourism (when God puts water in your streets, make chicken salad)
New Jersey Nets – Febreze (my garden never smelled like New Jersey does!)
New York Knickerbockers – Kramerica Industries (I bet you thought I was going to go with Van de Lay Industries, sorry about the sound, but it was the only Kramerica clip I could find)
Philadelphia 76ers – Dunder Mifflin (local paper company finally hits the big time, that Michael Scott is going places)
Phoenix Suns – Zastava Koral
Portland Trail Blazers – Apple (I bet Paul Allen loves his iPhone)
Sacramento Kings – Blue Oyster Cult (they need more cowbell in Sacramento)
San Antonio Spurs – Rascal Scooter (I think Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili will be riding these on the court before the end of the 2009-10 season)
Toronto Raptors – Barney
Utah Jazz – Antonym Finder (brought to you by Synonym.com)
Washington Wizards – Red China
My August Free Agency Update post was a big hit around the NBA. The Minnesota Timberwolves have signed Mavericks center Ryan Hollins to an offer sheet, reportedly $7 million over three years, and as I surmised with 15 contracts on the books for 2009-10 the Mavs will not match it. Cuban tweeted the following:
“congrats (sic)to ryan (sic) hollins (sic). wish (sic) him the best w (sic) twolves (sic).”
Now there are reports that Shelden Williams is going to sign a one year minimum salary contract with the Boston Celtics.
Either the Nuggets have something up their sleeve or they are bound and determined not to spend money this offseason.
The Denver Nuggets lone inspiring move so far this offseason was to acquire Arron Afflalo from the Detroit Pistons. In fact Bill Simmons had the following to say about Afflalo coming to Denver:
Now this is how you run a team. You let someone else overpay Dahntay Jones (Indiana, $11 million, four years) and replace him with a short-term guy with the same skills (defense and 3-point shooting) for one-third of the price. I might dump Morey for the Wark (Denver’s Mark Warkentien) as my role-model GM soon.
Say what you want about Simmons, he knows enough about basketball to get a reportedly 700 page book published on the topic so if he is that bullish on the swap of Jones for Afflalo that cannot be a bad thing.
I would argue that not only is Afflalo cheaper than Jones, he is better on both ends of the court, but do not take my word for it, see for yourself.
I am impressed with the fact that the Pistons were comfortable putting Afflalo on both J.R. Smith and Chauncey Billups and he did reasonably well against both, although Chauncey did score some points on him. The two areas Afflalo needs to improve in is absorbing contact and not giving up space, which can be a matter of balance, and trusting his ability to move his feet so that he is in position to challenge the pull up jumper.
Offensively he is a far more talented player than Jones. He will not throw down any explosive dunks, but when he puts the ball on the floor it is not a sign that the possession is about to end badly.
Afflalo is the kind of player who rounds out a contending roster and I expect Nuggets fans to fall in love with him early in the season.
There have been a great many free agents who have been named on this site as players one or more of us would like to see the Denver Nuggets pursue. Out of all the players who have been bandied about the Nuggets have not signed…not a one of them. In fact, the Nuggets have only been mentioned in discussions for two that I can remember, Grant Hill and Channing Frye.
The market is thinning and players I thought the Nuggets might have been able to go after in August on the cheap are getting snatched up. Players like Drew Gooden, who received a much nicer deal from Dallas than I expected him to get, and even Ike Diogu are getting snatched up left and right. Today Brian Windhorst of the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that the Cavaliers have offered Leon Powe a contract. Powe is injured and likely will not suit up until after the New Year. I was hoping he might be a guy the Nuggets could have looked at signing not long before the season, yet he is up in the free agent queue before we hit August.
The bargains come out of the woodwork after everyone else has spent their money and we have reached that point. The only teams who have not used their mid level exceptions that still appear willing to do so are the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Clippers. The Nuggets did a pretty good job in late July last season signing Chris “Birdman” Andersen and Dahntay Jones and trading for Renaldo Balkman all after the twenty-fourth.
I think we can all agree that the area the roster is in most need of a boost is the fourth big man, no offense intended there Malik Allen. There are still a bevy of big bodies available, but not just any large man will do. We do not need or want Pavel Podkolzin. The chances of the Nuggets nabbing a player who can pull off a Chris Andersen resurrection type season are slimmer than Andrei Kirilenko, but it is still a possibility.
I have already mentioned Shelden Williams in previous posts as an option for a bargain basement big who can rebound as well as anyone having posted a rebound rate of 17.3 or better in two of his first three seasons. As a point of reference Birdman led the Nuggets in rebound rate last season with a 17.6. Williams’ biggest problem is he does not have great hands and has little offensive game. With the lineups the Nuggets can put on the floor I do not think a lack of scoring from their fourth big will be overly damaging.
A player that intrigues me who I have not mentioned as of yet is Ryan Hollins. Hollins is a very active, although slight, big man. He is not a scorer, but does have very good hands and brings great energy. Above all, he is long, athletic and only 24 years old. The bad news is he is a restricted free agent whose rights are owned by the Dallas Mavericks. The largest first year salary the Nuggets can offer anyone is $2.1 million and I suspected the Mavericks would match that in a hear beat. However, the Mavericks have painted themselves into the corner after signing Drew Gooden and Tim Thomas. They now have the maximum 15 players under contract. Greg Buckner does reportedly have a partially guaranteed contract, I do not know what date that contract becomes fully guaranteed, but I have seen in a couple of places that the guaranteed portion of his salary is $1.06 million. The Mavs may want to hang onto Buckner though as a de facto expiring deal as it is only partially guaranteed for 2010-11 too.
If Denver signs Hollins to an offer sheet Dallas would have seven days to either waive/buy out a player or pull off a two for one trade to clear up a spot in order to match the contract. Mark Cuban has certainly shown his willingness to spend is back and he may bite the bullet and pay 16 players this season. Then again, he might decide that Hollins is not worth it. Also, the Mavericks have James Singleton and Gerald Green as free agents from last season who they may be interested in retaining. Hollins may be getable.
Moving further down the list we have Johan Petro. Petro showed flashes of competence and I have yet to hear his name surface in any rumors…at all. Denver should be able to get him at a significant discount from his qualifying offer of $2.85 million.
After Petro we get down into the Mikki Moore/Brian Skinner/Sean Marks/Stromile Swift territory and that is a place I do not want to go although each of those guys have at least a little something going for them (Moore – energy, Skinner – beef, Marks – smarts, Swift – athleticism).
The only other “big man” I would be interested in for Denver is Steve Novak. Novak is 6’10”, but there is no way he can be considered a big. The only evidence we need to prove that is to look at his 6.2 rebound rate in 2008-09. As a comparison J.R. Smith posted a 7.7 rebound rate. Case closed. However, Novak does one thing that gets your attention, drain threes. He broke into the Clippers’ lineup in January and hit some very big shots over the second half of the season. He had a four game stretch in March where he made 24 of 40 attempts including two 7-11 games.
In my mind Novak could be a cheap replacement for Linas Kleiza, he does not run the floor like Kleiza does (although Kleiza frequently does not run the floor like Kleiza either), but he is a much better three point shooter and I think would be a nice end of the rotation specialist. Novak is a restricted free agent, but no one knows how much Donald Sterling will green light to keep him in L.A. My guess would be not much especially if the Clippers sign Allen Iverson or Ramon Sessions.
While it is frustrating to watch the other teams in the west adding players to their rosters, there is still hope for the Nuggets to add a meaningful piece to the roster so do not lose hope.
We need better from the Denver Post
After going eight days without a peep about the Nuggets we get this. The headline of the article is “It’s Down to Kleiza or Carter.” Chris Dempsey never says anywhere in the article that the Nuggets can or will only sign either Kleiza or Carter. They might retain both or they might let them both, but apparently the headline writer has it all figured out.
The sad thing is Dempsey is the one that is made to look bad as his article is branded by the inaccurate headline.