How JaVale McGee’s game changed after the trade, and what that may bode for his future

Sometimes, the grass really is greener.

When JaVale McGee was traded to the Denver Nuggets mid-season, the opportunity to escape from the highly dysfunctional atmosphere of the Washington Wizards organization and make a new start must truly have been a breath of fresh air.

One hardly need look further than former Wizards beat writer Jay Glassie’s scathing takedown of Ted Leonsis and Ernie Grunfeld to understand just how toxic the organizational environment was in Washington. Glassie, who actually quit covering the Wizards because he had gotten so fed up, goes into great detail explaining what he call the “incredible losing culture” of that organization. Many NBA fans are familiar with the headline-making incidents from that time period, most infamously when Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenton reportedly pulled guns on each other in the locker room in December 2009, but behavioral and PR issues weren’t the only problems going on there. Those seeped deeply into basketball territory as well.

And for a young, raw, immature player in need of structure, discipline and veteran leadership, this clearly was infertile soil to be rooted in. McGee at one point asked Grunfeld “for a big man coach, and Grunfeld said he could have one if he paid for it himself”. It’s stunning that Washington would spurn cultivating one their most prized young assets, turning their backs on the opportunity to develop his game and facilitate his ambition to improve.

In vivid contrast, the Nuggets have sent McGee (who will soon be joined by Kenneth Faried) to join Amare Stoudemire in a personal training session with Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon. [You can see photos of JaVale and Amare working out with Hakeem on Facebook here]. For McGee, landing in an organization that puts a premium on player development and personalized training is an exciting chance to improve his game and turn around his reputation as the NBA’s main source of comic relief.

But what, in his short time with the Nuggets so far, has he made of this opportunity? Has the change of scenery really paid off in terms of him playing better basketball? And can all of this set him on a better track for a brighter future?

In analyzing the changes in McGee’s post-trade performance, it’s probably important to resist the urge to put too much stock in the statistics. He only played 20 regular season and 7 playoff games with the Nuggets, joining the team amidst the condensed, lockout-shortened season, leaving few opportunities to practice with his new teammates. 20 games is a small sample size, so the numbers need to be taken with a grain of salt. But there are some differences between his Wizards and Nuggets stats which seem big enough at least to suggest that they could be meaningful as signs of things to come in McGee’s development.

And before even getting into the numbers, we already have a good deal of anecdotal evidence that JaVale has been improving in Denver. For one thing, he hasn’t really contributed any more eye rolling footage to his lengthy blooper reel collection. Although he still looked rather quirky on the court at times (which may partly just be a function of his lanky appearance), he seems to have settled into a less frenetic mode of play.

In his first game with the Nuggets, played at home against the Detroit Pistons on March 21st, McGee played the hero, putting back a game-winning tip-in off a missed Arron Afflalo free throw with 5 seconds remaining. [You can watch the highlight reel I put together of JaVale’s first Nuggets game here]. This was an exciting introduction, and seemed to be a harbinger that he could indeed benefit from a new start in Denver.

Then there was his playoff debut against the Los Angeles Lakers. While he wasn’t very consistent over the full seven game series, he had two outstanding performances against the formidable Andrew Bynum/Pau Gasol frontcourt in games three (16 points, 15 rebounds, 3 blocks) and five (21 points, 14 rebounds, 2 blocks), which garnered him recognition and praise on the national stage.

So the smell test reveals some indications that JaVale is getting better, but do the statistics back it up? The answer seems to point mostly to yes, but there is a little on the negative side of the equation as well. McGee’s rebounding and shot blocking both declined after being traded. His rebound rates and block rate were slightly down across the board, and he pulled down 1.5 fewer boards and swatted 0.5 fewer blocks per 36 minutes (stats from Basketballl-Reference.com):

There may not be any clear answer for why this part of his game slipped. An easy assumption would be that playing alongside Kenneth Faried might depress his rebounding numbers, but from the 5-man floor units at 82games.com, it appears that he actually spent considerably more time playing alongside Al Harrington than the Manimal, so that wouldn’t make much sense. (Unlike former Nugget Marcus Camby, Al has ever been accused of grabbing rebounds from his own teammates – or pretty much anyone else). Another possibility is that playing in a more controlled manner impacted his aggressiveness.

But overall, the differences are small enough that it’s hard at this point to chalk them up to much more than the kind of deviation we might expect from sampling error. A few other changes in McGee’s game – both good and bad – might also be considered too minimal to read too much into. Both his assist and turnover rates dropped slightly, which is pretty much a wash, and in any event can most likely be attributed to him handling the ball less in general. JaVale’s PER slightly increased, from 19.6 to 20.5, and even though his minutes per game dropped quite a bit, from 27.4 to 20.6, his usage rate stayed nearly the same. All of which pretty much adds up to move along, nothing to see here.

Things get much more interesting, however, when we break down McGee’s shooting. If you zoom in on the difference in McGee’s shot attempts and effective field goal percentage by shot location before and after the trade, it looks on the surface to be a formula for a decrease in his overall shooting efficiency. Jump shots were the only area in which his eFG% increased, but he took less of them. In the other locations (all near the basket), his attempts either increased or held steady, but his eFG% dropped:

Yet despite increasing the percentage on a shot he took less, and decreasing the percentages on the shots he took more, his overall TS% and eFG% actully rose by roughly 5% and 7.8% respectively. Somehow McGee managed to take more shots he got worse at, and fewer shots he got better at – and on top of that, drop his already woeful .500 free throw percentage to a horrific .373 – and still come out of the tunnel shooting more efficiently:

Of course, there’s a catch here, which is that those jump shots were so much less efficient to begin with than his inside shots, that even as his jump shot percentages increased and inside shot percentages decreased, a wide gap remained (stats from MySynergySports.com):

In the shot location numbers we looked at earlier, McGee’s jumpers decreased by 7% and his combined inside shots increased by 7%. The “cut” and “post-up” categories in the chart above seem to roughly correspond to those differences, and from watching JaVale play I think it’s safe to infer that most of his jumpers are taken off post-ups. So the “Differences” columns here confirm a similar picture.

But the red meat is in the points per possession. In Washington, a whopping 32.2% of McGee’s shots were post-ups, and yet he was only making them at a clip of 0.71 PPP. His most efficient shot, at 1.35 PPP, was the cut, but he took it only 18.9% of the time. Obviously, in the ideal situation, a player will increase his share of good shots and decrease the bad, but the opposite of this was happening with the Wizards.

After joining the Nuggets, a much better balance was achieved, as cuts replaced post-ups as the shot JaVale took most often (27.7%) and post-ups were reduced to a 25.8% share. And although points per possession dropped from 1.35 to 1.24 on his cuts, that’s still highly efficient, and the fact that he was utilizing it much more, combined with the improvement in his post-ups from 0.71 to 0.91 PPP, made all the difference.

Everything about this situation screams that a world of credit must be given to the Denver Nuggets scouting and coaching staff. They clearly knew the exact prescription necessary to maximize McGee’s efficiency on the offensive end. They knew if they got him, they could make him better. His transition to Denver was not only a healthy change of environment on the organizational level, it was like a transfer from Greendale Community College to Harvard University in terms of the quality of education and coaching he’s receiving.

Given that Masai Ujiri and the Nuggets raised the bar on what to expect from McGee by signing him to a 4-year, $44 million contract, the fact that they seem to have started him on a much better course moving forward is welcome news.

I expect that as he progresses through his first training camp and preseason with the Nuggets, becoming more familiar with his teammates and the system, that much of the slippage in rebounding, blocks and some of his shooting percentages will return to the trajectory they were on over the course of his first 3 ½ seasons in the NBA. Working with Hakeem this summer, and having Andre Miller back around to throw him more of those easy lobs won’t hurt, either.

If McGee plays about 27-28 minutes per game next season, I’d figure that 14-15 points, with 8-9 rebounds and 2-2.5 blocks per game, at a PER of around 22, is realistically within reach as his game develops, he becomes more fully integrated into the team, and the Nuggets coaching staff continues to maximize his efficiency.

[The statistics in this post are from Basketballl-Reference.com, 82games.com, and MySynergySports.com.]

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Joel is a long time Denver Nuggets (and Broncos) fan from Colorado who's been living in Japan since the mid-90s, and blogging about the Nuggets since 2008. You can contact and follow him on Twitter: @denbutsu.
  • tskitishvillain

    This is a great read. Thanks for putting it up. Next though, can you write about how Mozgov is the reincarnation of the legendary Arvdas Sabonis? No need for numbers either, just go with gut feelings and exclamations.

  • Landry

    I’m just glad we got McGee a fantastic big man coach to teach him how to post a guy up because Isiah Thomas was just turrible. Additionally I don’t get why people hate on George Karl? He can coach bigs. He has had an athletic freak in a 6’10” Shawn Kemp as a 22.5 PPG scorer. It’s not like he doesn’t know how to coach a big, I mean Nene was soft, K-Mart shot a line drive, and Melo hogged the ball to much to feed the Bigs in the C-Melo Era.

    But mostly I’m glad we did the Nene trade because he had started to miss free-throws since the Melo days dropping from the high 60’s% to an abusrd 47% in the playoffs. I mean seriously during the OKC series nobody, starting with Nene could not hit a FT to save our lives. I mean Kendrick Perkins just fouled anybody in the paint we still couldn’t exploit his 1)Foul Trouble 2)Free Points??. I mean since Andre Miller, we have gotten dunks when everybody knows were going for the paint using some of Masai’s Batman powers.

    I mean seriously McGee’s defensive prowess covers for any of Andre Miller’s inabilities to defend guards because Nene sure as hell couldn’t play weak-side defense. McGee is a defensive fiend when guards drive into the lane and I’m glad we have him. My first reaction when I heard we got McGee, Screw Nene he’s a baby.

    • bayesk

      shawn kemp never averaged more than 20.5 ppg, in a half season with the Cavs (98-99). he was a true monster, an athletic freak, and his playoff numbers are quite a bit better than regular season — but he was never better than 7th in MVP voting, or a First Team All NBA, for example. Don’t get me wrong; love the Reign Man, but one of his two best seasons was without Karl.

  • josh

    thanks so much denbutsu and rmc for this article! i esp liked the links to the facebook pics with the “dream”javalle mcgee is just gona be amazing.
    GK is a great coach. the nuggets organization is being run the right way. probly got 1 more trade by masai, if he thinks itll help the team.
    youre right only 28 mpg for javalle and 60% FG percentage. thats what nene did.
    i think nuggets are gona be dominate at pepsi center. im gona listen to scott hastings and buy those nuggets tickets.

  • Scott

    We miss Javale in Maryland. I’m happy though he’s in a place that will develop him and also get him to playoffs. He’s a young man with very rare and special gifts

  • steve

    agree, great read. havent been able to comment much lately but had to find a split second here. thanks guys.

  • dynamo.joe

    I think it’s cool that the Nuggets are sending McGeezie and Manimal to summer camp. And I get that Mozgov has more important things to do (olympics). But why isn’t K2 going to Dr3@m camp? They got him for another 3 seasons, might as well try to maximize his abilities too.

    • Gary

      With the addition of Randolph, Koufos becomes my ‘most likely to be gone’ come next season. I think we need to keep a cheap 3rd PG option, and the Nuggets have made a pretty substantial training investment in Stone. Q. Miller needs a roster spot. I think it becomes available by trading Koufos for picks. So, maybe that’s why they didn’t send him to the camp.

      • https://twitter.com/denbutsu denbutsu

        I agree that if a mid-season trade goes down, one of KK or Moz is a likely candidate. Brewer’s expiring, worth about $3.2 million, could also have value approaching the implementation of the more punitive luxury tax.

        As far as Hakeem’s camp goes, there’s also the matter that one week apparently costs $50,000 for one player. So for the (I think) 2 weeks for McGee and 1 for Faried the Nuggs are dishing out 150 grand. Not much by NBA standards, but not exactly chump change, either. Also, I presume Hakeem limits the camp only to players he has an active interest in helping to develop. Koufos could just be off his radar screen.

        • dynamo.joe

          While it may be true that Dr3am camp is invitation only, you are exactly wrong on the money side. $50k IS chump change. The Nuggets owe K2 60 times that amount for this coming season and he is barely getting paid bench warmer money for a 7 footer in the nba.

          Even for regular folks in regular jobs, 3-4 days pay for almost any training is pretty low. Whether that is ISO certification or 6 sigma or getting sent to the manufacturer of some new piece of hardware or software.

          And anyone who cares to look at the numbers from last season will see that the only things K2 didn’t do at an elite level last season were score and hand out assists. Even given the low scoring, his scoring efficiency numbers were through the roof. If Kosta realized he had a left hand, he would probably be considered one of the dominant centers in the NBA.

          Cue the laugh track, but I’m serious.

  • Henry aka LWH and formerly KFH

    Excellent assessment. denbutsu, you are a such a great addition to RMC! This post makes me appreciate even more not only McGee, but also the Nuggets FO. Looking forward to how it all plays out during the coming season.

  • SmokinNugs

    Is it possible that his rebounding might be down because he’s on a team that misses fewer shots? My hunch is the Nuggets shoot a lot better than the Wizards which would result in fewer rebounds available. Obviously this only applies to offensive rebounds but do you have any stats on how those rebound averages break down to offensive and defensive? I could see there being 1.5 less offensive rebounds per game due to being on a team with a better shooting percentage

  • bballin

    Nice piece on McGeezie!! Obviously you did your homework, really impressed!!

  • alex

    Nuggets fans check out this article:

    http://sports.yahoo.com/news/nba–lakers–magic-in-blockbuster-four-team-trade-talks-to-send-dwight-howard-to-l-a-.html

    Essentially gives Denver Iguodala for AAA and Big Al. Still very early on and just a rumor, but I’m interested to see what you all think.

    I could see Iggy getting burn at the 3 spot and also the 2 spot . It would also make either Chandler or Gallo a little more expendable is a separate deal if need be, but no rush. This would also free up some minutes for Anthony Randoph to come in behind the manimal.

    • TheWolfman

      I saw this article and was way excited. I tried it on the trade machine and had to include a couple more players to make the money work, but here it is: http://espn.go.com/nba/tradeMachine?tradeId=8pexerp

      I have a feeling that the RMC writers will like that I included Andrew Nicholson in the players coming Denver’s way.

      • dynamo.joe

        Love Iguodala, but he is NOT a 2. Stop saying that he is.

        Also, Iguodala is a giant upgrade over 2011-2012 AAA, but only a medium upgrade over 2010-2011 AAA. And it’s that AAA that I am expecting to come back this fall.

        Better if we could remove someone from the logjam at the 3 rather than loose our only true SG.

        Besides if we get rid of AAA it isn’t going to be some combination of Iggy/Jham/Brewer/Fournier getting those minutes, its going to be 48 minutes of Andre Miller. You know it’s true.

        As far as taking back Nicholson I would imagine part of what they want to trade for is roster spots.

  • Frank

    @Wolfman and the trade.

    It would be awesome. Love AAA as a person but AAA to Iggy is a big and needed upgrade if we want to stop Kobe/Durant in the playoffs. Relieving our books of Harrington’s contract is also a plus.

    Rotation would be sick nasty

    PG Lawson – Miller
    SG Iggy – JHam – Fournier
    SF Gallo – Chandler
    PF Faried – Randolph
    C McGee – Mozgov

    The only downside to this, and its a big one, is that we are helping facilitate Howard to the Western Conference. If you thought we couldn’t buy a call against the Lakers last year… :/

    • SmokinNugs

      LOVE that rotation! Yea Dwight here would be a nightmare, especially teamed up with Kobe and Nash-ty

    • Joel

      Howard is coming to the Western Conference unless the Magic wait til January and deal him to the Nets. That’s just the way it is.

      Gasol to Harrington would be a big downgrade. I actually think that the Lakers would be less scary this way. It’s not like Bynum was DOA. The Lakers would only have a year or two more to burn with a Kobe+Nash core at a high level. So they’d still have things to figure out after this year if they did this deal. OKC is the real monster here.

      • Ryan

        Agreed. The big chink in Howard’s armor is that he can’t shoot free throws, if he gets it under the rim, just foul him hard. Plus, no guarantees that he’s 100% healthy after back surgery. Losing two All Stars for one makes the Lakers weaker, in my opinion.

    • TheWolfman

      The way I see it is: if Dwight is gonna end up in a Lakers jersey anyways, then we might as well try and benefit from a potential trade too; and getting Iggy is a huge benefit! Basically the only way I could see the Lakers not getting Dwight somehow at this point is if Stern intervenes again.

  • Roundball Bill

    Has anyone been seeing these rumors of a 4-team Dwight Howard trade that has the Nuggets sending out Afflalo and Harrington and receiving Andre Iguodola in return?

  • Roundball Bill

    oh never mind!

  • Tommy

    If it was just aaa and Harrington (maybe a draft pick/kk) I would do this in a heartbeat

  • Young Pep Dash

    If this trade happened as it is rumoured how can Denver fans be anything but happy.

    I’m a huggge AAA fan but turning him into iguodala by adding big al would be a great move.

    Iguodala is a near perfect fit for Denver’s style of game. He would play mostly 2 because of all our 3s but still gives us increased flexibilty on defensive end. Would almost be able to send 4 different guys at durant

    Also finally gives Faried the keys to the car at the 4 and gives randolph a chance to play some.

    When we go Lawson, Iguodala, Chandler, faried and mcgee we are easily the fastest, most athletic team in the league.

    • Peter

      That lineup would be crazy athletic and good on the defensive end, but would build a brick house on the other end of the floor…

  • Ban

    Rumored trade makes a TON of sense for Nuggets.

    Iggy’s D is even better and more versatile than AAA — and getting Harrington out of there in the bargain 1) makes Iggy’s salary palatable, and 2) solves some of the PT logjam at the 4 and 5. It’s not just Faried and Randolph who need PT, but Koufos too.

    Iggy isn’t qu ite the superstar the Nuggets need, but he’s a step up. He’d instantly be the face of the franchise. His game is a nice complement to Gallo’s — and he and Chandler out there would be the best pair of defensive wings in the league.

    In short, I really hope it happens. But the Lakers would be giving up A LOT here…

    • Ban

      if the question is how many draft picks is Iggy for Afflalo/Harrington worth to the Nuggets: I personally think it would be worth 2 first-rounders, but that would be the limit.

      Afflalo (4 years) and Harrington (3 years) both have somewhat odious contracts. Iggy’s is just 2 years.

      Nuggets don’t need more late first-round rookies in the years ahead. They need to make this Lawson/Gallo/Faried/McGee team work.

  • tommy

    ha ha, never read an article on gather.com! They just reported this and said Denver would also aquire Gasol and Harrington! These guys must know alot about basketball… smh

  • dynamo.joe

    how bout this trade?

    http://espn.go.com/nba/tradeMachine?tradeId=8md8jcv

    Instead of AAA we give a combo of Chandler and Mozgov, but have to take back J. Richardson. Mozgov is an upgrade over Big Baby and who would you start between Hedo/Q/Wil? Five years ago maybe thats an interesting question, but today it’s got to be Chandler hands down and I’m on record as being an UN-fan of Wilson Chandler.

    Richardson is old and probably overpaid at this point, but less so than Al and was still decent last year.

    The big problem with that trade would be ‘how can we afford to pay Ty’? You would almost have to trade Gallo for an expiring.

    • dynamo.joe

      And here it is

      http://espn.go.com/nba/tradeMachine?tradeId=c8gk65e

      I didn’t even know Luke Walton was still in the NBA. Obviously you wait until the trade deadline for this deal just to minimize the time Luke Walton is on your roster.

    • dynamo.joe

      So, what is that? I guess your line up would be

      1 Ty/Andre/Stone
      2 AAA/J.Richardson/Jham/Fournier
      3 Iggy/Jham/Brewer/Walton
      4 Manimal/Randolf
      5 McGee/K2

      • dynamo.joe

        Double counted Jham and forgot to jam Quincy Miller in there.

        3 Iggy/Jham/Brewer/QMiller/Walton

  • tommy

    ESPN just reported that the deal is now very close and could be done by saturday