As the 2012-2013 NBA calendar winds down we take a look at the season that was for the Denver Nuggets, starting with an overview of the offense.
The Nuggets finished with the fifth-best offense of the 2012-2013 season in terms of offensive efficiency. It was a record setting year with Denver securing a franchise-best 57 wins and the most points in the paint scored in a season in NBA history. Denver has now had a top five offense for five years in a row, but their fall to fifth represents a decline from last year’s third-ranked team and the league-leading Nuggets offense of two seasons ago.
If we dig a bit deeper we see the effects of horrendous shooting from the perimeter and the free-throw line reflected in the Nuggets True Shooting percentage, which fell all the way to 54.9% this season. While that is a solid figure good for 7th in the NBA, it’s also the Nuggets worst mark since the 2006-2007 season and rather pedestrian compared to what they did with similar talent in years past.
The Nuggets were still the Nuggets this season, but the offense clearly took a step back despite everyone’s best efforts to reorganize as a sturdier defensive unit under Iguodala (and the defense did improve). Denver scored enough points to win most games but it was on the offensive end where the Nuggets saw most of their flaws exposed, both with the roster and the style of play.
It’s pretty remarkable that a team with no shooters and inexperienced, unskilled big men still managed a top five offense and 57 wins. Looking at the numbers it’s clear the Nuggets had a plan to maximize what they do best and executing that consistently covered up many individual flaws. I took a look at what else can be gleamed from the Nuggets offensive numbers this past season and here are five revelations, if you will, as we wait to see how the Nuggets try to improve in the draft, free agency and beyond.
1. Andre Iguodala’s shot selection must improve
Andre Iguodala’s 74.3% shooting at the rim this season was second only to MVP Lebron James among players with more than a handful of attempts. You would expect the second-best finisher in the league to thrive in an offense like Denver’s but Iguodala struggled to score throughout one of his worst offensive seasons yet. Iggy’s 52% True Shooting this year was a career low and his 15.2 PER was the lowest he’s posted since the 2005-2006 season.
A big reason Iguodala struggled to be efficient was his shot selection. Take a look at his shot distribution relative to the rest of the Nuggets in the regular season and the playoffs (chart shows FGAs)
Iguodala was a super-elite finisher at the rim and he was above league-average efficiency from three. Unfortunately, Iguodala rarely got to the rim and he took the most two-point jumpers out of anyone on the team.
If the Nuggets are able to retain Iguodala, another year to recalibrate his shot selection should help tremendously. He showed more familiarity with the offense as the season went on and if he simply aligns his shot selection with that of a typical Nuggets player, he’ll get results. Denver’s offense is proven to work for players like Iguodala and he started to figure it out in the playoffs.
2. The Nuggets really couldn’t shoot from anywhere
Denver blew away the rest of the NBA with 62% shooting inside of five feet. From every other zone on the court, Denver was below league average efficiency.
The lesson here is that the Nuggets simply didn’t give their offense a chance to reach its potential due to personnel issues.
It’s hard to compete without a single player who is a good bet to make an open three. Denver had no role players like that and it was evident in the playoffs. To make matters worse none of the rotation mainstays shot the ball well either. Gallinari, Lawson, and Iguodala all had subpar shooting years.
Expect the Nuggets to add shooters, and I emphasize the plural there. The fatal flaw on this roster is that they simply didn’t employ enough players who can make shots and it hurt them all year long. The Nuggets were able to live with that imbalance all season but it became impossible to hide in the playoffs.
3. Andre Miller killed ball movement
Take a look at the graphic above to see how the Nuggets offense performed with and without Andre Miller on the court. It’s self-evident that the offense was faster, more efficient and more productive with Andre Miller on the bench.
The most telling statistic is the assist ratio. Denver was significantly worse in this area when Andre Miller took to the court.
The Nuggets’ assist ratio without Andre Miller was 18.3, which would have been the fourth-best mark in the league. It dropped all the way to 17.6 with Andre Miller, which would have put the Nuggets outside of the top ten, right behind the Orlando Magic.
For a team so reliant on ball movement to generate offense, that is a hugely precipitous decline. I can’t stress how important it is to keep the ball moving in Denver’s offense, which doesn’t feature a go-to scorer who can bail out the team when the ball gets sticky.
Miller pounded his way to a slower pace and a good individual assist rate, but he played so much it actually ended up hurting the Nuggets’ passing in a big way.
4. One-dimensional bigs
This past season, JaVale McGee had the lowest assist rate in basketball with a pretty hilarious 3.3% of his possessions ending in an assist. Not far behind was Kosta Koufos at 5.0%, which makes him the fourth-worst center in that category (behind McGee, DeAndre Jordan and Brook Lopez).
Kenneth Faried is listed as a small forward for some reason, but his 7.7% assist rate ranked as the sixth-worst in the NBA at that position. Faried is a power forward so his mark isn’t as bad as Koufos or McGee, but it was still well below average.
The point here is Denver gave almost all of their minutes at power forward and center to three players with terrible hands. If the ball went into ANY of the Nuggets’ big men, it never came back out.
There is nothing wrong with covering up your big men’s flaws. There is no law that states you need bigs who can pass in order to compete. Denver did a good job getting their big guys to fill a role but the problem is they were all asked to fill the same exact role.
This is another example of extreme roster imbalance that the Nuggets were somehow able to live with all the way up until the playoffs.
If the Nuggets want to develop their big men into complete players who help on both ends, they must change course now. JaVale needs more development on both ends and the Nuggets should bring in at least one dynamic big who can help the offense in more ways than one.
5. George Karl runs a great offensive system
The problems the Nuggets had on offense were not for lack of trying or a lack of direction on the part of the coaching staff. As I explained earlier they had a lot of issues with personnel that severely limited what they could do on that end of the court.
The fact Denver still had one of the very best offenses in the league without a single top-20 scorer is incredible. It’s a testament to the system implemented by George Karl’s coaching staff which simply works brilliantly and gets consistently good results year after year.
All season long, the Nuggets bought into that and executed which helped them survive without fundamental skills like shooting. But a team without shooters can’t contend for championships and it’s easy to lose sight of that in the midst of the sting and disappointment of another first round exit.