Some Denver Nuggets fans may find it surprising that the No. 12 player in Roundball Mining Company’s #NuggetsRank series is Kosta Koufos. After all, he may have started the season coming off the bench, but he performed admirably as a starter after Timofey Mozgov went down with an ankle injury in early February last season. In fact, the Nuggets won 16 of the 24 games Koufos started (a .667 winning percentage, good for nearly 55 wins in an 82 game season) as opposed to breaking even at 12-12 in the 24 games he played as a reserve. By comparison, Denver won 20 of 35 games which Mozgov started (.571, or 47 wins in an 82 game season).
This raises the question: Why is Koufos ranked so low as to indicate he might be best kept out of the regular rotation? ESPN’s David Thorpe would surely take issue with this. He recently wrote an article for Insider predicting that the young center is up for a breakout season. Thorpe believes that Koufos is more likely than Mozgov to earn over 20 minutes per game backing up JaVale McGee, and considers him a future starter who could have a breakthrough in 2012-13 which mirors that of Marcin Gortat.
As our ranking reflects, it’s safe to say that none of us here at RMC appear to be quite as bullish as Thorpe on Koufos. But it should be pointed out that in our voting, the cluster of players above the bottom three had very little separation, and if Koufos makes some tangible progress this season he should easily ascend to a #NuggetsRank several notches higher next year.
In order to reach the next tier, however, he will need to find his way to addressing at least some of his limitations. Thorpe correctly pointed out his highly efficient true shooting percentage (.608, scond on the team only to Kenneth Faried at .618), as well as his offensive and total rebound rates, which are both near the top in the NBA. But although these numbers don’t lie, neither do they tell the whole story.
This may well sound like a vague critique, but to me the best reason for ranking Koufos in the bottom five is that he doesn’t make himself an impactful presense on the court. This manifests itself in a variety of ways. Most obviously, on the physical front he’s clearly outmatched in the size and strengh department by his counterpart Mozgov.
At no time was this clearer than in the playoff series against the Los Angeles Lakers. Koufos probably gets a disproportionately bad rap for these performances, and a Pau Gasol/Andrew Bynum frontcourt creates very specific matchup issues. That said, Koufos simply wasn’t able to bring the physicality necessary to make much of any impact whatsoever. Granted, not every team can deploy such a formidable lineup, but even so he will need to bulk up at least a little more to be more effective in getting good position, denying good position to his defensive assignments, boxing out and holding onto the ball when he gets it down low.
Koufos does indeed have an impressive TS%, but it loses its luster a bit when we take a closer look. The numbers at MySynergySports.com reveal that there are five types of plays which comprise the vast majority of Koufos’ shots: cuts (31.6 percent of his plays), offensive rebounds (25 percent), as the pick and roll roll man (13.7 percent), post-up (12.1 percent) and in transition (9 percent). If we divide these into two categories, shots that are the result of opportunity (offensive rebounds and transition plays), and the others which are the product of actual offensive plays, we can see that Koufos excels at scoring opportunistically, but is more pedestrian in the regular flow of the offense.
Shooting in transition and off of offensive boards, Koufos made 51 of 72 attempts for an incredibly efficient .708 field goal percentage. In post-ups, cuts and as the roll man he made 63 of 177 attempts, a .538 FG%, and in essence, these roughly three out of five shots are the ones which require execution on offense. .538 may not look so bad, but it’s well below the league average of a .627 percentage for at-rim field goals. Additionally, his usage rate of 14.0 is second lowest on the team, higher only than Julyan Stone at 11.7. Given this, and the fact that he actually did struggle more offensively as a starter, with his FG% dropping from .636 as a bench player to .574, it seems unlikely that if he were to get more minutes and more touches that his shooting numbers would hold.
Now to be clear, the fact that his TS% gets a boost from a big share of high percentage shots is a good thing for the Nuggets as it increases their overall offensive efficiency. And I certainly do not mean to disparage the high value of offensive rebounds and fast break opportunities. One of Koufos’ greatest assets for this team is his ability to run the floor and move well without the ball, and it’s an aspect of his game which meshes perfectly with Denver’s style.
But in terms of these rankings, that’s part of the point. In discussing how to evaluate the Nuggets players, it was suggested (I believe by Charlie) that we should consider not only how well each player has played for the Nuggets, but how well he would fare if he played for any team in the league. Koufos is improving, but it’s pretty clear that he’s also reaping the benefits of playing in a system that amplifies his strengths.
In order to truly elevate his game to the next level, Koufos must cultivate a more reliable and diverse offensive cache which is based not only on hustle, but on executing in the half court. He does seem to be the more highly skilled player between he and Mozgov, but (and again, this may seem somewhat subjective) he needs to find a way to impact the game more. He almost seems to be somewhat of an Bizarro Corey Brewer. Rather than playing beyond his abilities, he seems not to push them quite to their limits. Which is not to suggest that he doesn’t play hard; he does. But if he can’t find a way to make his presence felt and respected more on the court, it’s doubtful he’ll become a starter in the NBA, and more likely that he’ll settle into a Chris Andersen-esque career 20 minute guy niche. Developing a more reliable offensive skill set could be one tangible step in the right direction.
In the meantime, the success the Nuggets had with Koufos as a starter last season will surely have earned him the chance to get some significant playing time this season. If he’s truly capable of a breakout year, he’ll get his chance to prove it.