“If you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse.”
Many Nuggets fans will be familiar with the oft uttered refrain from Steve Hess, assistant coach in charge of strength and conditioning. It has become a meme which flows freely through the team’s culture, often surfacing in players’ post-workout tweets as what seems to be a slogan for the principle to which Denver is dedicated: getting better.
The Nuggets organization has firmly dedicated itself to a course in which, while engaging in a process of ongoing reconstruction following the Carmelo Anthony trade, will prioritize staying relevant and continuing to improve in an increasingly competitive Western Conference.
This team won’t be tanking. The recent acquisition of Andre Iguodala, even at the cost of fan favorite Arron Afflalo and coach favorite Al Harrington, represents how strong the Nuggets’ commitment to winning truly is. The players want to win. The organization as a whole wants to win.
There is no doubt, too, that head coach George Karl wants to win. And this will be enormously important in his decision making as he determines how his player rotations settle down through the 2012-13 season, and which players get the lion’s share of the sparse minutes which will be all too precious on his very deep roster.
The responsibility he holds for choosing how many minutes to give which players on a team of Denver’s depth is both a blessing and a curse. It will certainly be a luxury when facing specific matchup situations, or when, during heavier stretches of the schedule, he will have no short supply of fresh legs. But with a larger goal of positioning the team well for the playoffs, targeting perhaps a third or fourth seedng which would guarantee home court advantage in the first round, playing time may be scant for players who are not part of the core rotation.
Through November and December Karl will surely take opportunities to experiment as they arise, allowing deeper bench players such as Jordan Hamilton and Anthony Randolph their chance to make a case for court time. But by the end of the season he’ll have his eye bent to the postseason, and will seek to pare things down to a distribution of minutes which should roughly reflect the rotations he’ll deploy in the playoffs.
The first chart below is what I’ve called a “prototypical” distribution of minutes from the 2011-12 season. In practical terms, it’s basically impossible to make such a chart that accurately reflects reality. With injuries, different lineups, traded players and other factors all coming into play, the sum of the minutes per game of all players on the roster far exceeds the 240 available minutes in a single game. So by prototypical I mean to suggest that under normal conditions this is an approximation of what the rotational blueprint may have looked like last season.
For my purposes here, I’ve treated Timofey Mozgov and Kosta Koufos as a single player averaging 21 minutes per game.* I’ve also excluded Nene, Rudy Fernandez and Wilson Chandler as whether by trade or injury, they weren’t in the mix for the relevant part of the season.
Again, this is an idealized (which is not necessarily to say ideal) approximation of how the minutes broke down last season. I’ve used it as a model for constructing a similar “prototypical” projection of minutes for next season. I expect there may be a great deal of disagreement with my prediction, and I’ll concede in advance that much of that criticism is bound to be correct. There may likely well be a game here where Hamilton plays 20 minutes and Corey Brewer sits on the bench, or there where Randolph gets some extensive play while both Mozgov and Koufos watch from the sidelines. And of course there are injuries, garbage time, and just Karl’s experimental process of figuring out which rotations he thinks work best.
In other words, please consider this a rough guesstimation, and not a hard prediction that’s set in stone. Simply put, some of it will be wrong.
In addition to the chart from last season, I base this model in part on the following premises:
- George Karl likes to give the most burn to the players he trusts the most. He tends to be cautious about giving court time to inexperienced players (although I’d assert that “Karl doesn’t play rookies” is a tired myth) and guys who tend to be mistake-prone or struggle with understanding the system. If the implication of this proves to be true – that Brewer will play longer and more often than J-Ham and Randolph – it will be a disappointment to some fans, but Karl won’t put them in at the risk of losing games. Both players do have the opportunity to relegate Brewer to the bench on the strength of their perimeter shooting, but they will also have to play hard on the defensive end to earn Karl’s trust.
- Karl also prefers to stick with a fairly standard rotational framework. Most Nuggets fans will be familiar with choices such as not moving Al Harrington into the starting lineup when a starting forward was injured, in order to keep him coming off the bench in his standard role. It’s based on this that I tried to model the 2012-13 chart as closely as possible to last season’s in terms of its structure.
- Andre Iguodala will essentially take Arron Afflalo’s minutes without any major changes, and Lawson and Gallinari will continue to play 30+.
- In addition to Lawson, Iguodala and Gallinari, Wilson Chandler will be the only other player to average 30 or more minutes per game. Chandler averaged 30.1 minutes after his trade to Denver in the 2010-11 season, which is a mark of the degree of confidence Karl has in him.
- Andre Miller may well be Karl’s favorite player on the roster, but he is also the oldest, and somewhat caught in a pinch between Lawson and Iguodala. For the sake of preserving his health for the playoffs, as well perhaps out of the sheer dearth of minutes, I expect his playing time to see a slight reduction.
- Kenneth Faried and JaVale McGee will get an increase in minutes, but only a modest one due to the fact that they’re still on a learning curve. But both have the chance to carve out more playing time if they prove on the court that they deserve it.
- Karl is on record as being loathe to play any player for less than 20 minutes in a game, but his love for Corey Brewer is equally strong. He will be first in the pecking order to pick up the scraps left behind by the many swingmen ahead of him in the rotation.
So without further ado, here are my 2012-13 minutes projections:
In putting this together, it became clear very quickly that the biggest question mark is how Al Harrington’s 27.5 minutes per game will be divvied out. With no clear backup power forward, Karl has a diversity of options at the 4, and the battle between Chandler, Randolph and Koufos should be an interesting one. Kosta will also be battling it out with Mozgov for the backup center role. I expect one of them to clearly emerge as Karl’s favorite by the turn of the new year.
As a final thought, a lot about the upcoming season may depend on Hamilton and Randolph. If they can definitively lay respective claims on the backup shooting guard and power forward positions, Corey Brewer by default will be relegated to the bench. If so, his approximately $3.2 million expiring contract would make an excellent trade chip at the deadline preceding the implementation of the more punitive luxury tax.
*In the 2011-12 season, Timofey Mozgov started in 35 of the 44 games he played in, including 14 straight to open the season, and Kosta Koufos started in 24 of his 48, including 12 straight to close out the season. There were only four games in which they both started, but 34 games in which only one of the two played. And in games when either of them started, the other’s minutes were depressed. This somewhat mutually exclusive nature of their court time is why I combined them into a “single player” for the purpose of the minutes chart. Although Mozgov played 15.6 and Koufos 16.5 minutes per game, if you count all Nuggets games played last season (including the zeroes when they didn’t play), they averaged 10.4 and 12.0 minutes respectively, or 22.4 total. The 21 minutes alloted to them as a single player is an approximation of this. To look at a more complete breakdown of the interplay of minutes between these two players, see the chart here.
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