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.
|Scoring Margin||+ 2.4||+ 12.3 *|
|Pythagorean Record||47.5 – 34.5||69.4 – 12.6 *|
|Offensive Efficiency||110.1||110.5 *|
|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.