A new hope for the Nuggets perimeter defense

One cold hard truth the Nuggets were going to have to reckon with sooner or later was the fact that last season their perimeter defense was among the worst – if not the worst – in the league. Although their 103.4 team defensive efficiency rating was a lower-middling 19th in the league, a deeper dig into the numbers confirms what any Nuggets fan who has been paying attention already knows: All season long, opponents drained 3-pointers at will.

The opponent shot location statistics at HoopData.com reveal that Denver put together a respectable interior defense. The Nuggets were 8th best in the league in defending at-rim shots, as their opponents made 61.6 percent of their attempts. Holding steady in 8th place at short range, Denver held its opponents to a percentage of 36.2. Mid-range defense found them faring even better, 5th best with opponents shooting 35.6 percent. But 15 feet out from the basket is where the good news abruptly ends.

In both long range 2-point and in 3-point shooting, the Nuggets were dead last in the league, allowing a long-two field goal percentage of 41.4 and an effective field goal percentage of 57.5 from beyond the arc. None of this should come as a surprise to anyone who watched even a handful of Nuggets games, but there’s some value to verifying what we think we saw with numbers that back up our observations of games.

Likewise, there’s also value to disproving, or at least calling into question things we think we knew to be realities, but may in fact have missed the mark. In shifting from team to individual statistics, things get a lot dicier. Defense is, after all, a team effort, and one individual’s numbers can be made to look a lot worse if his teammates, say, fail to rotate, switch or recover properly within the defensive system. So to that extent what follows shouldn’t be considered indisputable, but it does raise some interesting questions and, perhaps, indicate some hope on the horizon of Denver’s perimeter defense in the form of Iguodala.

Ever since joining the Nuggets, Afflalo has been considered by many to be one of their better defensive players. His well-deserved reputation as one of the team’s hardest workers and most committed players contributed to this image, as did some genuinely impressive individual defensive performances against some of the league’s elite guards. I count myself among those who has deemed Triple-A a good-great and at times lock down defender. So I was surprised when reading Ryan Feldman’s trade analysis at Truehoop (follow him on twitter at @TheHoopsReport), where he wrote:

Last season, 113 players defended at least 50 plays and Afflalo was the worst among them in terms of points per play allowed. Harrington ranked 54th. Iguodala ranked 10th, holding opponents to 37 percent shooting.

“The worst? Come on, that can’t be right,” was my gut level response. But although stats can be deceptive, and require well-reasoned interpretation to be utilized correctly, facts are facts. And I decided to hunt down a few more.

According to 82games.com, Afflalo spent roughly 73 percent of his minutes at shooting guard, and Iguodala spent around 95 percent of his at small forward in the 2011-12 season. Limiting the scope to those respective positions, here are the own, opponent and net differential PER numbers for each player:

For our current purposes we can mostly skip over the offensive numbers (though it’s certainly a worthy point of discussion that although Afflalo scored more points more efficiently he came out with the lower PER), and zoom straight in on the striking discrepancy between their opponent PERs. With a PER of 15 being average, Afflalo opponent PER of 13.7 means (inasmuch as we can directly attribute credit or blame to an individual defender) that he held his assignments to just below league average performances. Which is respectable, but considering that Ty Lawson’s opponent PER was 15.5 and Al Harrington’s was… wait for it… 13.7, matching Afflalo, even as he is widely considered to be the far inferior defender. Iguodala’s 9.2, on the other hand, is flat out elite. The opponent PER, by comparison, of top All-NBA Defensive First Team vote-getter LeBron James was 10.6.

In fairness it should be noted that Andre Iguodala had a stellar defensive season which was an outlier from his career arc. According to Basketball-Reference.com, his defensive rating for the season was 98 with a postseason rating of 99, in contrast with his career ratings of 105 and 104, respectively. Still, the latter are more impressive than Afflalo’s less than illustrious career 110 regular season and 113 playoff defensive ratings.

If the hope is that replacing Afflalo with Iguodala will improve Denver’s perimeter defense, than the last set of data to present here is perhaps the most encouraging of all. In defending all shots overall, Iguodala allowed 0.8 points per possession while Afflalo allowed 0.98. More interestingly, the three specific shot types which they both defended most often are ones that often result in perimeter shooting. And these numbers from MySynergySports.com reveal a sharp contrast:

You can see that in the two situations both players defend the most, spot-up shooters and pick-and-roll ball handlers, there is the most marked difference in their defensive effectiveness, with Iguodala allowing an average of 0.27 fewer points per possession.

This little excursion into these comparisons is not comprehensive, and even if it were it would still face the aforementioned limits of individual defensive statistics. But it certainly appears to be the case that practically no matter how you slice it, Andre Iguodala is a far superior perimeter defender than Arron Afflalo. At this point many of you may be saying, “Well, duh!”, but this does go against what would seem to be the conventional wisdom in the world of Nuggets fandom. For my part, I would not have expected the wide discrepancies seen above.

So for all the frustration we went through last season watching Denver give up so many easy 3-pointers, there is legitimate reason to have hope for a greatly improved Nuggets perimeter defense next season.


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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.
  • http://twitter.com/realdenverpete RDP

    I love your use of advanced statistics. Hopefully some here will start to see that this was a good trade. I love Afflalo as much as the next Nuggets fan but we can’t change the fact that he’s been traded. I appreciate the time he was here and everything he did for our team. I enjoyed watching his growth every season He’s a class act and one of the good guys in this game. But I think the same could be said for Iguodala. Now let’s get excited for the future!

  • Spin

    The Nuggets just facilitated a trade that made their most hated rival a super team.

    Is Iguodala better than Afflalo? Yes. Did the Nuggets dump 2 somewhat expensive long term contracts? Yes. Did the Nuggets really become better? No. We are now thin at PF without a vet like Harrington. People are really discounting what Al did for the Nuggets last season. He provided a big scoring presence off the bench. If Fareid goes down, we’re totally screwed.

    The Lakers are a super team and OKC, Spurs, Clippers, and possibly the Grizzilies are all better teams right now. Iggy is an all-around solid player and a great defender, but the Nuggs needed a go-to scorer that can put up 25 a night. That’s not Iguodala. We still have no half-court offense or a go-to scorer to help in the playoffs.

    The biggest reason I dislike this trade: We didn’t need to help the Lakers to make this deal. Philly has been trying to deal him for 2 seasons. A trade exception and 1-2 players would’ve got the deal done without making the Lakers better. This trade is the equivalent of Elway helping the Raiders get Peyton Manning while netting Tony Romo in the deal. I used Romo because like A.I., he is a solid player that any team would like to have, but it wouldn’t make the team much better in the big picture. The Nuggets just made one of their major roadblocks to a championship a much better team.

    This team will get to the playoffs as a low seed, possibly win a series, and get beat in the second round by a team I mentioned above. We won’t even sniff the Western Conference Finals for at least 3 years.

    • http://twitter.com/realdenverpete RDP

      Dude, the Lakers were getting Howard with or without us. Masai was smart to get in on this and get Iguodala. If he hadn’t Memphis, Clippers, Spurs, Dallas, etc might have. I’m sure that there is a plan here. This won’t be the last move they make. We are not thin up front either. We still have Faried who will take most of the minutes. Randolph will carve out a role off the bench. Hell, Mozgov and Koufos got minutes at PF last year when Al WAS here. I surely don’t mind Karl using our advantage of having three 7 footers on the roster and playing them at the same time. Also, Gallo, Chandler and Brewer have played the role of a stretch 4 at times so I’m sure we will se some of that. Coach Karl was just gifted 28 more minutes (Al’s per game avg last yr) to distribute to many worthy players.

    • Greg

      Sorry to rain on your parade but if Faried had gone down, even WITH Al, Al wouldn’t have started, more likely Randolph or Chandler, as Al was better off the bench. And DH12 was probably going to LA anyway so why not get something to at least better ourselves. Iggy is a veteran too and can be a leader, as well as something resembling a “star”- he can put the team on his back for the last 5 minutes when needed.

      • http://twitter.com/realdenverpete RDP

        I’m so glad there are some people with sense around here!

        • JaVale McGee’s Mom

          Fully in agreement with RDP here. This was an opportunity created out of an inevitability, and yet another stroke of Masai’s brilliance. We’re not the best team in the West, but we’re certainly not any farther down the ladder than we were before this trade; in fact, we are probably one rung up (assuming Lawson matures into the nearly-elite point guard many believe he can be).

          Nuggets fans should be smiling today.

          • https://twitter.com/denbutsu denbutsu

            JaVale McGee’s mom comments here? Cool!

    • asdqqq

      Have you heard about Harrington’s knee surgery odyssey this summer? It doesn’t sound like he’s even going to be cleared to play basketball by the time the regular season rolls around, and I have serious doubts he will ever be as effective as he was last year again. Sad, but something you have to take into account. Bringing back the Al from last year simply wasn’t an option. That player is gone…

    • Couttsy20

      Okay, simple cap rules – a TPE can NOT be combined with anything in a trade; we could not have gotten this deal done by using that.

      Personally, as much as I am a AAA fan, I love the trade. The presence of Iggy at the 2 spot will hopefully force George Karl to spend less time this season with his favored 2 PG set; Iggy is a quality ball handler and can create for both himself and for his teammates.

      He mightn’t be excited about coming to Denver yet, but I can’t see a better for for him in the NBA than this Nuggets team.

  • Landry

    Well Mrs Nancy I follow that up with that Defense wins championships and that Iggy was the only defensive game changer that the Nuggets could reasonably afford to take a risk on. So I don’t give a crap about what you think, Batman is leading the way to an ’04 Pistons with a top 10 SG in Iggy.

  • buchter froget

    man you hate to see afflalo and harrington leave

    but we could use a little olympic experience going into this season

    think about it, okc has ibaka, harden, durant & westbrook…their best players all playing international ball… staying in shape, playing great competition, ready to hit the ground running

    we can’t afford to build our way into a good team as in year’s past

    iguodala has been right there… he’ll be a great addition

    • Ryan

      We already had an Olympic great on our roster: Mozgov lol

  • Kalen

    Excellent work once again Denbutsu. There’s no denying Iggy is an elite defender and better than Afflalo however it’s worth noting that he really only gained the type of defensive notoriety he has since playing under Collins. He wasn’t ever hardly considered for DPoY until Collins arrived, upon which his scoring averages plummeted drastically. Meanwhile, when Afflalo was the fourth or fifth option on the team he always had time and energy he could conserve on offense and devote towards defense. This past year when the Nuggets played no team defense whatsoever he was also asked to step up his offense. Anyone who’s played basketball knows it’s incredibly difficult to devote an equal and high amount of energy on both ends of the floor and still be very productive. If Afflalo played for Collins and was asked to score only 12 points per game and devote most of his energy towards defense I’m sure his numbers would be a lot better on that end of the floor too. Again, I’m in no way saying Afflalo is better than Iguodala on defense, but there are variables you must consider when analyzing these types of situations. That’s all.

    • asdqqq

      I’d disagree with this. He got picked for the 2010 World Championship team as a defensive specialist, and that was based on his work before Collins arrived on the scene. He’s been a good defender forever and great for a while now.

    • Ryan

      To be fair, Collins also limited Iggy’s offensive numbers with his 1990s garbage/slow-pace/use-the-whole-shot clock offense. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if Iggy averaged close to 20ppg playing in our system, while still playing superior defense than Afflalo. We get that you miss Afflalo, Kalen, but he’s gone and he isn’t coming back…

      • Kalen

        Yeah, I could definitely see Iggy’s offensive numbers going way up. In fact, I plan on it. As for Afflallo, he’s still underrated/undervalued only because he’s being traded for one of the best defenders in the league at his position. It’s like trading Rudy Gay for LeBron James. Once Gay is gone, it’s so easy to rag on him, but people forget that he’s a damn good player.

        That is all. I’ll shut up now.

        • https://twitter.com/denbutsu denbutsu

          Kalen, I think your point is valid, and one of the many sticks that might be used to poke holes in the picture the raw numbers paint. And I hope I was clear enough in the post to caution against taking these stats as gospel.

          But my main point regarding Afflalo was to suggest that he may not be *as good* a defender as many, myself included, have believed him to be. And when, no matter how you break things down (opponent PER, PPP allowed, defensive rating, etc.), pretty much all of the stats consistently point to him being not too much more than a slightly above average defender, it becomes more difficult to escape that conclusion.

          But the crux is in the interpretation of the stats, so it’s definitely important to pick them apart and see if they still hold water. If only defense were as easily quantifiable as free throw percentage…

          • Kalen

            No I agree. I wasn’t trying to dispute anything you said at all, just pointing a few things out to take into consideration.

  • Bobby W

    I think this is a very good move. We upgrade our defense without taking away very much. I think this improves our ability to match up with OKC and the Lakers. I think right now we our at least in the conversation as the 3rd best team in the West and we can play with anyone.

  • Tom

    Afflalo was out of shape at the start of last year and was easily the worst rotation player before the all-star break. The first half of the season completely skewed all of his numbers negatively, undervaluing him quite a bit. After the all-star break, AAA was really good, but then again, Iggy was an all-star, 2nd-team all-defense, and made the olympic team. Iggy is bigger, a better athlete, can defend 4 positions, and can even play as a point-forward. To me, Iggy is a clear-as-day upgrade over AAA and Harrington, but losing the two draft picks definitely hurts.

  • Gary

    When Big Al caught the staph infection, I thought the Nuggets would be lucky to get 50 games out of him in the coming season. Furthermore, GKs man-crush on him drove me nuts and Al to exhaustion and injury. So, the departure of Harrington made me more optimistic about the future.

    Afflalo is dfferent story. In a running argument with my son, I have defended AAAs contibution to the team until he embarrassed himself by playing out of shape in the early part of the season and then playing without confidence in the playoffs. Reminiscent of Nene, I began to compare him to all the NBA players who worked hard for the big contract, got it, and then coasted. I thought, ‘Jury’s still out’ and looked to another year of hoping for better. Now, the bird in the bush is gone.

    Creating a roster spot for Q. Miller is a big benefit from the trade. Doing something about perimeter defense is huge. Giving minutes to the development of younger players, most of whom I suspect can match shooting ability with the departed, bodes well for the future.

    But here’s what Iguodala really brings. Chess champion Bobby Fisher once said that the object of the game of chess is not to win; it’s to crush the opponent’s mind. The Nuggets haven’t had the swagger to win a Championship, let alone get out of the 1st Round. Now, maybe, Denver has one player on the team who does.

  • Aaron

    No one’s remembering that Andre Miller is very familiar with AI’s game from his days in Philly. . . he’ll put him in the right places, and I bet all of AI’s offensive numbers go up.

  • http://Lestweforget Charliemyboy

    With who we had, some injured, we still beat a few good teams. If we beat one or two, ok; but we scared the Lakers, beat Ok, beat Miami, beat Dallas, NY, Phil, Ind…. and so forth… what might another year make with McGee, Iggy and maturity… Gallo has to be steady… Chandler used to avg 15 points… the Manimal is just getting started — Ty’s year.. it sure looks fun…

  • Socrates

    Before the trade, our PF depth was minimal but now, the roster lost all PF depth!

    I love Farieth and his game, but his frenetic pace of play will wear him down after 82 games and practices. Last season, he missed a lot of early-season games due to Karl’s Rookie-DNPs so he was fresh to fight Gasol and the Lakers in the playoffs. Next season, however, we will expect him to start from Day 1 and play 30-35 minutes per game. If he plays a full-schedule at 35+ minutes per game, I believe this 6’8 228-pound sack of crazy rebounding and hustling energy known as Kenneth Farieth wont put down double-doubles and big time slam dunks late in the season and in the playoffs.

    Karl should control his minutes but gambling with Anthony Randolph, GK’s nauseating smallball, or a weird two-center combination of Mozgov/KK with McGee will lose games that, in the Wild West, could mean the difference between a 4th seed, a 6th seed or no seed at all!

    How do we fix this? Sign K-Mart! He can come back very cheaply, he already owns a house in the Denver area, his goal of playing with a “contender” is now a dream with the rise of the Heat/Lakers/Nets super teams and their disinterest in veteran PF help (Jordan Hill, Jamison/Udonis Haslem, Shane Battier/Mirza Teletovic, Reggie Evans are all capable veteran PFs in those teams) and he is a (quiet) leader that would help mentor our countless youngsters.

    Sure, he was a leader in a different Nuggets team with a very different philosophy that the current team has but he still is a veteran, savvy leader! Who better to teach Farieth how to become an undersized-shutdown-defensive-stopper-rebounder-4 than K-Mart!

    Plus, a lineup with Iggy, Chandler, K-Mart and McGee is elite defensively, and both Iggy and K-Mart can stop ANYONE under 6’10 in the league, including Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

    • Jesus Shuttlesworth

      I would hate to sign K-Mart, who has been demanding more than the veteran minimum, to this team just as a mentor for Faried. He hasn’t been an elite defender for quite some time now either.

    • Jesus Shuttlesworth

      Oh, and, no, no one is stopping Kevin Durant one-on-one.

  • Jeff

    The only problem with Iguodala being a fulltime starter, is we still don’t have a deadeye 3 point specialist. I guess management is hoping Hamilton will be that person off the bench.

  • Evan Woodruff

    ****it should be noted that AAA guarded the best player every night (assuming they weren’t huge)****

  • John

    Although Iguodala doesn’t sound ecstatic to be coming to Denver, I think Aaron’s point of Dre knowing his game, and the fact that he will have less pressure to be an elite scorer, will help him blossom. I also think his numbers will improve.

    I still think we need one true “SuperStar” to have a chance, but we still have the pieces to make that happen.

    Though I love Manimal, I think he is best suited as a 6th man. A stud PF would be my ideal. Spend the season, developing these young guys. Then use picks, some of the swing or center depth, and/or use the massive TPE from the Nene deal, and get our guy.

    I think we are pretty close to the Lakers right now. Based on what I saw in the playoff, and with these roster changes. We match up well at every position. I think with continued growth and development we can beat them with who we have. A superstar would put us at the top of the heap.

  • Shareef

    PPP is a good stat…. PER sucks!