No realistic observer of the NBA would have expected JaVale McGee to make an immediate change for the better simply by being traded last season. At the time McGee joined the Nuggets, he had spent nearly four seasons in a dysfunctional team culture developing sloppy, careless habits, and reveling (to infamously comedic effect) in unbridled immaturity. Without much semblance of structure or aim, he had attempted to live up to expectations of being “the man” while lacking any true veteran or organizational leadership to guide him.
With the Nuggets he mostly has avoided contributing to the now-legendary blooper reel he compiled in Washington. This doesn’t mean of course that he isn’t still capable of being mistake prone, making poor decisions, and losing his focus on the court. In the first two Nuggets games this season, to say that he “struggled” would be putting too gentle a spin on the truth that he was just plain terrible. Consistency and reliability will likely remain issues for McGee as he continues to work on playing a sounder, more fundamental game.
In the meantime however, the fact that he still has a long way to go does not negate another reality that is becoming clearer with every passing game: JaVale is far and away the best center on this team. In his Rapid Reaction to the Nuggets-Rockets game, Kalen expressed his frustration at the distribution of minutes among the centers:
[McGee] only played 20 minutes. Why in the hell would he only play that amount of time when he’s clearly been one of the best players on the team thus far? You tell me. It’s a mystery that’s locked deep inside Karl’s head and one we’ll never ever find the answer to. […] Koufos just isn’t a starter in the NBA… For some reason Karl has played him over 20 minutes in four of the five games this season. He’s just not athletic enough nor skilled enough to hang with other starting big men in this league.
I couldn’t agree more, and the numbers also support giving McGee more minutes. With the usual caveat for a small (five game) sample size, let’s look at how Kosta Koufos and JaVale McGee have performed so far this season.
The numbers really do speak for themselves here. While they’re not likely project over the entire season, at the very rock bottom the evidence is there that McGee deserves the chance to get more minutes. His 25.0 PER is the team’s highest. So is his .635 true shooting percentage and 6.9 block percentage. He’s rebounding better than Koufos, getting to the line more and hitting his free throws at a higher rate. Aren’t these supposed to be the kinds of areas George Karl values? Despite those first two games creating the opposite impression, JaVale has been, overall, much more efficient while producing at a much higher rate. The only real mark against him is in the turnover department, but considering that he’s performing so much better in nearly every other way, it is not enough to justify giving Koufos the 24.2 and McGee the 18.2 minutes per game they’ve been getting so far.
Beyond the stats, this is all plainly evident just by watching the games. Kosta has been the invisible man out there. Perhaps Karl is taking the medical approach of “First, do no harm.” If so, the by product is “Also, make absolutely no impact at all.” For a guy who plays as hard as Koufos does – and he deserves props for that – he sure can’t seem to be able to make his presence felt on the court. He may not make many mistakes, but that’s relatively easy to do when you have the lowest usage rate on the team.
McGee, on the other hand, totally alters the dynamics of the game. Beyond his team-best block rate, he alters many more shots, and with his length and athleticism, his mere presence in the paint changes the way that opposing offenses play. And though it sometimes goes awry, his ability and dynamism on offense can break down opposing interior defenses in a way Kosta’s never will.
To be sure, there are still things he needs to work on. Better decision making in the post. Looking to pass out of double teams rather than forcing bad shots. Gathering himself before too hastily making his move. But these are all things which he can very realistically improve on as he gains more experience. And he won’t be able to develop at the pace the Nuggets need him to if deprived of the opportunity to play. In the end, giving JaVale the freedom to, well, be JaVale, as he works his way towards improving in some of these areas will benefit his individual development and by extension the Nuggets’ chances for a successful season.
Even if Koufos plays with better fundamentals right now, he’s not doing very much with them, and he’s by far the inferior basketball player. Whether or not McGee starts, he needs to be getting starters’ minutes, and Koufos needs to be spending more time on the bench.