How Good Are the Post Carmelo Anthony Era Denver Nuggets?

As painful as it is to part with an All-Star in the prime of his career I fail to see how it is better to cling to him at the cost of crippling the franchise for the next five seasons.

That was my assessment of the future prospects of the Denver Nuggets when they offered Carmelo Anthony the three year, $65 million extension that he would ultimately sign as a New York Knick.  Personally, I believed Carmelo was doing the Nuggets a favor by refusing to sign that extension.  I projected the immediate future would be bleak, but with the talent on the roster Nuggets fans need not fear a reprise of the dark and dreary 1990’s.

After the trade there was little doubt in my mind that Denver would remain a playoff team as they received several talented players from the Knicks in exchange for Melo and Chauncey Billups.  The post trade Nuggets were certain to be an unselfish team that played hard and with purpose.  However, with no All-Stars on the roster their ceiling would seem to be limited to a feisty team destined to be outclassed by more talented opponents.

Fast forward to Tuesday, March 22, 2011 and the Nuggets are 10-4 since parting ways with their two best players.  That may seem impressive, but the win loss record is only a hors d’oeuvre to the story the advanced statistics tell.

The only major statistical category where the Nuggets have dropped off since the trade is True Shooting Percentage.  With Carmelo the Nuggets had a TS% of 57.5%, since the trade the team has a TS% of 57.0% likely due to the fact the Nuggets are shooting about three fewer free throws a game.  In every other statistical category Denver has improved and in some cases dramatically.

Despite the slightly lower TS% Denver has managed to actually increase their league leading offensive efficiency rating from a very impressive 110.1 points per 100 possessions before the trade to 110.5 after.  It is proof that there is more than one way to skin a cat.  The Nuggets are proving five talented players who share the ball and work together can be just as effective as a team featuring a primary scoring option who draws a lot of attention from the defense.

While the Nuggets have maintained their high output offense despite playing a radically different style the real change has come on the defensive end.

After years of posting top ten defensive efficiency ratings, regardless of the common perception that Denver was a sieve on that end of the floor, the Nuggets plummeted into the bottom ten on defense in 2010-11.  Before the trade Denver was posting a horrific 107.8 defensive efficiency rating.  Post trade they have sliced a full ten points per 100 possessions off of that sickly rating.  As a point of reference, only two teams have a defensive efficiency below 99.0 for the season and those teams are Boston and Chicago.  It is not fair to compare Denver’s 97.8 rating over their previous 14 games to what teams have done over 70 games, but it does put the Nuggets’ defensive improvement in perspective.  They have been an elite defensive squad.

The bottom line is the Nuggets have not only been winning, but winning big.  Nine of their ten wins have been by double digits and those wins have come against playoff teams such as Boston, Atlanta (twice), New Orleans and Memphis.  Stat geeks will tell you margin of victory is the best indicator of a team’s quality.  Therefore it is no surprise that with a plus 12.3 scoring margin after the trade Denver is climbing the charts in Professor Hollinger’s statistical models.  Based on the Pythagorean Wins formula Denver’s 12.3 margin equates to an expected total of 69 wins if it were to be maintained over the course of the season.

In Hollinger’s power ratings the Nuggets are now the third best team in the NBA climbing to that point from being a fringe top ten team in just 14 games.  As a result his playoff odds show Denver has a 10.0% chance of winning the finals making them the fourth most likely team to win it all behind the Bulls, 24.3%, Lakers, 16.2%, and Heat, 11.4%.

The stats may exaggerate the quality of this team a little bit, but the transformation has been dramatic.  The question is how does a team that was a mere playoff afterthought trade their two best players in exchange for a handful of role players from a .500 team and go on to play dominant basketball?

I would narrow it down to two factors, effort and fit.

Never underestimate the desire to prove people wrong.  The Carmelo trade brought two different groups of strangers together who all had the same goal, to prove they could win without Carmelo Anthony.  The remaining Nuggets players had seen a promising season taken hostage by Anthony’s trade demands.  The Knicks were shipped out from the team they wanted to play for because they were deemed to be less appealing to the Knicks than the idea of landing Carmelo.  The mutual desire to prove they can win brought these two groups of players together.

The evidence can be seen on defense.  Few teams work as hard defensively from start to finish as the Nuggets do and as everyone who has ever played basketball can attest, the foundation to good defense is effort.  The increased effort has led to a renewed unselfish attitude of accountability.  Even though the cohesion is not there yet, you will periodically see two players running at a shooter or blown assignments, it is clear that every Nugget on the floor feels responsible for preventing the opposition from scoring.  A bucket is no longer someone else’s fault, but everyone accepts blame.  You can also see the increased effort in Denver’s rebounding stats.  Their defensive rebound rate has increased from a mediocre 75.7% to a stellar 80.8% which is mind boggling.

In addition to increased effort, the Nuggets now have a roster that fits together very well.  After trying to build a team around Carmelo Antony for seven seasons with varying degrees of success, Denver has finally built a complete roster by sending Anthony packing.  Denver is at least two deep at every position and possess a number of players capable of playing multiple positions.

Their bigs are good on the pick and roll, a new staple of Denver’s no superstar offense, and the guards are good at running the pick and roll.  The penetration of Ty Lawson opens up the perimeter for players like Wilson Chandler, Arron Afflalo, Danillo Gallinari and J.R. Smith who are all effective from behind the arc.  The kicker is all four of those players are also very good slashers and finishers as well and can take advantage of a disoriented defense by either making the three ball or driving to the rim.

Most teams attempt to avoid major shakeups during the season as it provides very little time for the players and coaches to figure out how to make things work.  Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the Nuggets’ recent performance is how quickly these players have gelled.  The Nuggets can thank Melo for not only wanting out and allowing them to build this new team, but also providing the motivation for these players to excel together.

While their incredible performance will be difficult to maintain Denver will prove to be a tremendous case study come playoff time.  Can a team of good players who play hard, smart and together succeed in the playoffs against teams with multiple All-Stars?  Judging by the numbers Denver is posting, I believe they have a shot at turning conventional NBA wisdom upside down.

Statistic

Pre-Trade

Post-Trade

Scoring Margin + 2.4 + 12.3 *
Pythagorean Record 47.5 – 34.5 69.4 – 12.6 *
Pace Factor 97.5 96.9
Offensive Efficiency 110.1 110.5 *
Defensive Efficiency 107.8 97.8
Field Goal Percentage 47.5% 47.9%
Opponents Field Goal Percentage 46.0% 44.2%
Effective Field Goal Percentage 52.5% 53.0% *
Opponents Effective Field Goal Percentage 50.2% 47.9%
True Shooting Percentage 57.5% 57.0% *
Opponents True Shooting Percentage 54.3% 51.9%
Defensive Rebound Rate 75.7% 80.8% *
Offensive Rebound Rate 23.6% 25.2%
Overall Rebound Rate 50.4% 54.2% *

* – Denver would lead the league in this category over a full season

Update: Today we had an explosion of praise for Denver as former Nuggets advanced stats guru Dean Oliver, who is now head of quantitative stats for ESPN.com, filed a post on TrueHoop about Denver’s post-trade excellence and Tom Haberstroh wrote up an analysis of the Knicks and Nuggets pointing out how Denver is actually the team focused on winning now (Insider required) while the Knicks are looking towards the future.  Both focus on Denver’s incredible defensive improvement.

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  • Ernie

    I don’t want this team to breakup this summer. It seems that lowering KMart’s contract should allow that to happen. Is this not a realistic hope given that so many commentators have thoughts on moving parts, specifically Felton?

    • Kalen

      Well Ernie, it’s possible but it’s going to be tough. In all likelihood we’ll lose at least a few key guys, and my guess is Felton, JR and K-Mart will be on the top of that list.

      Felton has already stated how unhappy he is coming off the bench, but because we’re playing so well he’s keeping quiet about it. I just see no way he continues to accept a back-up role when he’s been a starter all his life and is getting paid starter money. And to be honest, it’s probably in our best interest to trade him as well because he’ll carry a lot of value going into this offseason. Ty is ready to be THAT GUY. He’s young, extremely talented and in great physical condition; he can play 35-40 minutes per night from here on out so that doesn’t leave much room for a back-up anyways.

      As for JR, I can’t see him (much like Felton) continuing to accept a back-up role when other teams will be paying the same price to make him a starter. The bad relationship between him and Karl is well documented, so it makes no sense from his standpoint to continue the off-and-on doghouse status he maintains here when he wouldn’t have to deal with that in other places. JR does love Denver though, and he’s said multiple times he’d like to continue playing here, but it’s tough to imagine that happening once we re-sign Afflalo.

      What worries me about K-Mart is the fact that he’s such a rare commodity, title contenders are going to be lining up left and right for his services. We’ve still got a great chance to re-sign him, but I’d bet someone will be willing to way overpay him (what a surprise!) strictly on the mentaltiy and physicality he brings on the defensive end.

      Other than that, Chandler and AAA we can match and Nene seems to be our number one priority, not to mention he’s been extremely vocal in wanting to remain a Nugget because this is where his family is stationed and it’s been his home for so long.

      That’s just my opinion on the contractual status of all our free agents. We could definitely re-sign everybody as we’ll likely have the cap room, but I’m just not sure everybody will want to re-sing. Maybe we’ll do a piece on this in the near future to give you guys a better understanding of what will go on in the off-season.

  • magster

    “The Carmelo trade brought two different groups of strangers together who all had the same goal, to prove they could win without Carmelo Anthony.” Great point.

    This could be a once in a lifetime team in the NBA, one where the superstar gets a 32 win base upon which an entirely new roster has no choice but to build on that base for a playoff run — deferring their own dreams of stardom to the summer while buying in 100 % now to team ball, coming off the bench and defense.

    The team will fall apart most likely lose a couple of pieces over the summer once the egos don’t need to be repressed any longer (cough cough Ray Felton, cough) but they all know what this unique mixture is capable of in the short term.

  • Todd

    As a Kings fan about to lose my entire team to another city, i cant help but smile as carmelo flounders in his new city, and the Nuggets thrive. I love it, and I for one will be rooting for the Nuggets all playoffs long from my home in Sacramento!

    • Frontrange

      Kings fans are great .. .along with Portland, Utah and Golden State, they consistently are the best fans in the league. It a travesty to leave that fan base.

  • Kalen

    Great read Jeremy. Many excellent points.

    This team is truly special. If we had homecourt throughout the playoffs there’s no doubt in my mind that we’d do some major damage. We might anyways without it, but we all know how much homecourt means to this team.

  • Charlie

    Great minds think alike – Dean Oliver who sadly left the Nuggets for ESPN just posted a column making some similar

    http://espn.go.com/blog/truehoop/post/_/id/26699/with-melo-gone-good-times-in-denver

    My view on this team changes daily and I’ve seen us get better most every game win or lose. The quality of basketball we are playing is the most refreshing to see as I can believe in having a foundation for winning going forward.

    Like Kalen I am just so naturally skeptical of the Nuggets on the road. Always in the back of my mind is despite being in the playoffs the last seven years, we are essentially a inexperienced and wide-eyes post-season squad. Gallo and Chandler have never been to the playoffs and Lawson was barely in the rotation when we hit the playoffs last year (Thanks Adrian Dantley)

    I just love that the Nuggets are trying to build a winning culture and a solid brand of basketball through the way they are playing. I look at the West this year and a top 4 playoff seed is just there for the taking. OKC has benefited from that by having a stable team and it could have easily been us in my mind.

    But at every point in the season you can look at the teams like the Suns, Grizzlies, and 76ers who have had similar 15 game runs as the Nuggets. With the limited time we have left I think we need to just keep playing better and that alone will entail a really good season for us.

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  • Joel

    I am most certain we can keep nene and kmart as in a post current cba world they probably wont be able to get much money anyway. JR i can live with watching go though i would prefer him to stay. WC and AAA should be resigned as well. But what i would like to have happen is to trade felton next season for another big and a back up pointguard to replace him. Our oldest players are all bigs and Harrington and Birdman are not gonna keep us at a high level for long. All of our guards and sf’s are young and really talented it would be nice to get some young and talentd bigs. Plus felton will have a high trade value since his contract is low and he has playing really well this year. All things being said however nothing will happen until the season is over and if we do well in the playoffs it will put denver in a much better place to resign who they want.

    • Kalen

      Agreed Joel. Doing good in the playoffs this year is crucial. Like Charlie said, we’re tying to build a winning culture here in Denver (this is obvious) and doing well in the playoffs will go a long way in helping players with the fruition of this concept. If Chandler, K-Mart and JR see that we’re on the right track it’s only going to be more motivation for them to re-sign and want to be here.

      Felton should be traded for a first rounder or another big. Someone like Dalembert (who’s a free agent by the way) would do wonders for this team.

      • CCH

        Dalembert over mozzy?!