The Denver Nuggets are now 11 games into the season, and with just five wins under their belt they will be trying to get back up to .500 tomorrow against Dallas.
This is a small sample of games – certainly not significant enough to project what will happen in the latter half of the season, especially considering the fact that the team is adjusting to a new system and missing two of its best players in Danilo Gallinari and JaVale McGee. It is enough, however, to see a picture emerging of how things have gone for Denver so far, and what they might be able to do to improve.
Here we will take a statistical snapshot of where the Nuggets are at now, as well as what they’re doing differently (and – spoiler alert – mostly worse) than last season. This post will focus on Denver’s team offense, so look for more analysis on team defense and individual player performance in future Data Mining installments.
We begin with an overview of the Nuggets’ performance in several key statistical categories, and where they stack up against the rest of the league:
Net efficiency and simple rating system (SRS)
If you want to answer the question, “How good is this NBA team?” with a single statistic, net efficiency and SRS are probably the two leading candidates for providing a reasonably accurate answer. The Nuggets have taken a considerable dive in both, and their drop in league rankings (from 5th to 16th and 5th to 14th respectively) in these categories closely mirrors their drop in the NBA standings from 4th last season to 18th currently. Simply put, the numbers confirm what everybody watching the Nuggets already knows: The team has gotten substantially worse.
Offensive and defensive efficiency
Despite the fact that, somewhat surprisingly, Denver’s defensive efficiency has actually improved (if only so slightly as to amount to no meaningful difference), their standing relative to the league has dropped from 11th to 21st. This is likely due to the relatively fickle nature of league rankings at this early point in the season, or perhaps even the possibility that the league as a whole has improved defensively. Irrespective of the cause, it’s an interesting discrepancy and it will be worth tracking later in the season to see if it holds.
More significantly worrisome is Denver’s decline in offensive efficiency. It has taken a major tumble from 107.6 to 101.8, and what used to be their stalwart against becoming too bad despite poor defense has not, at least up to this point, been reliable this season. A big reason for this is that all four players the Nuggets brought in to address last season’s mediocre-to-bad shooting outside the paint – Randy Foye, J.J. Hickson, Nate Robinson and Darrell Arthur – have seen their shooting percentages drop markedly since joining their new team.
Shooting, assists and turnovers
The decline in Denver’s shooting percentages, as evidenced by the slippage in both true shooting percentage and effective field goal percentage, is the most obvious culprit to blame for their decreased offensive efficiency. Although their 3-point percentage has in fact improved this season from .343 to .378, this has been offset in part by the that a decrease in 2-point percentage (from .516 to .462) has offset the slightly larger share of total field goal attempts being taken from the arc this season (just over 23 percent of Denver’s field goal attempts have been from the 3-point line this season, compared to just under 22 percent last season). We will examine their shooting in greater detail below.
The next category where Denver has taken a hit this season (unfortunately they’re nearly all moving in the same downward direction) is assist rate, where they have slid from 17.9 to 15.8. This is not the fault of Ty Lawson, whose individual assist rate has leapt from 30.2 to 37.3 (his career average is 29.1), but fellow point guards Andre Miller and Nate Robinson, whose assist rates have dropped from 32.2 to 21.8 and from 31.4 to 21.8, respectively. The loss of Andre Iguodala who at 22.4 had the Nuggets’ third highest assist rate last season, certainly hurts as well. Aside from Lawson’s improvement, the only real consolation in the ball-handling department is that the team’s turnover rate hasn’t gotten any worse, and they’re still in the top third of the league.
The Nuggets were hoping to offset the loss of their second best rebounder last season in Kosta Koufos (rebound rate 17.3) with the addition of J.J. Hickson who, playing mostly at the center position for Portland last season, led his team with a rebound rate of 20.7. His drop to 18.9, Timofey Mozgov’s chronically poor rebounding (14.7 career rebound rate, 14.1 this season), the loss of JaVale McGee to injury, and the departure of Koufos have all combined to put a hurt on the Nuggets’ overall rebounding. What’s especially disappointing is that the addition of Hickson not only didn’t improve Denver’s defensive rebounding, they’ve gotten even worse and are now 29th in the league.
While none of the above is likely to be all that surprising to most Nuggets fans who have watched the team closely this season, pace stands out as the one category which defies expectations and the eye test. Despite Shaw’s (at least stated) intent to focus more on executing in the half court while retaining but somewhat de-emphasizing speed, the Nuggets are actually playing at a significantly faster pace this season than last. If, after watching a good amount of sluggish play from the team this season, this doesn’t quite compute with you, then join the club. But the numbers don’t lie, and Denver is still running as much as ever.
By taking a look at where on the court the Nuggets are shooting from in comparison with last season, we can quickly get a better idea of why their offensive efficiency has dropped so far:
And just to provide you with a graphic view of the above stats, here are shot charts from 2012-13 and 2013-14:
Last season under George Karl’s rim-attacking dribble-drive-motion system, the Nuggets took nearly half their shots at the rim, a whopping 45.9 percent. Denver led the league with 3194 attempts in the restricted area, more than 500 more than the next in line (Detroit, with 2670). As most of you already know, the two most efficient shots in basketball (yielding the most points per possession) are corner 3-pointers and shots at the rim. Leaving aside for now whether it was well-suited for playoff success, Karl’s approach was designed to maximize the frequency of these high value shots. And at least in the regular season, it was highly successful.
The most dramatic change we can see in Shaw’s approach in terms of shot selection is the enormous drop-off in at-rim shot attempts. As a share of Denver’s total shot attempts, they have plummeted down to 34 percent, a full 12 percent decline which effectively means that instead of taking close to half their shots in the restricted area, the Nuggets are now taking just a third. Compounding the damage is their decline it at-rim field goal percentage, which has lipped from .631 to .593. In Shaw’s defense, it would be either flatly wrong, or at least premature, to suggest that this is entirely his fault, given that he doesn’t have the benefit of deploying four of Denver’s top six players last season in made at-rim shots (Koufos, Iguodala, Brewer and now McGee). But we have also seen a hesitancy from everyone not named Ty Lawson to attack the rim with the same fervor they did last season, and that appears to at least be partly attributable to their efforts to adhere to Shaw’s system of running the offense through the low post and elbow.
This might not be as much of a problem if they were replacing one efficient shot (in the restricted area) with another (corner 3-pointers and above-the-break 3-pointers), but in fact nearly all the displacement of at-rim shots has been diverted to mid- and long-range 2-pointers. To a certain extent this is to be expected since Hickson and Arthur do most of their shooting from these areas, but it seems clear at this point that the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of inefficient, low-value shots, and that Shaw will need to find a way to restore better balance to Denver’s overall distribution.
Denver’s 3-point shooting has also taken a shift, albeit a more subtle one, towards less efficiency. The good news is that their corner 3-point percentage has increased dramatically from .351 to .500. But the bad news is that they’re taking fewer corner 3-pointers and more above the break, and also the probability that the .500 mark can’t stand and will regress to the mean in due time. But the Nuggets do have, at least on paper, a more capable crew of long-range shooters this season, and focusing on getting them more good looks from the arc should be a point of emphasis for Shaw.
A look at how much of the time the Nuggets are using different types of plays provides some detail to the breakdown of their shot distribution:
From left to right, the above play types are ordered by their frequency last season. And immediately we can see a partial explanation for this season’s lack of at-rim shots: fewer baskets in transition. This is another case in which Shaw can at least be partly absolved of blame, as he doesn’t have the luxury of relying on Brewer and Iguodala on leak-outs and fast breaks off steals. But given that the Nuggets are still, in fact, playing fast, this is an area he really needs to cultivate.
In terms of play type, the strongest expression of Shaw’s new system can be seen in the increase in pick-and-rolls and post plays. Taken collectively, these plays have jumped from 22.1 percent of Denver’s offense to 30.9 percent, a clear reflection of his halfcourt emphasis. The Nuggets’ PPP hasn’t changed dramatically for better or worse in any of these areas, which is at least not bad news. But taken with the decline in transition plays and cuts (ie. At-rim shots) and spot-ups (most 3-pointers fall in this category, though it also includes spot-up 2-pointers), the result, as mentioned above, is that even if none of the shooting percentages drop, the overall shift in the shot distribution from more efficient to less efficient shots will result in lower overall offensive efficiency.
The Nuggets are going through a difficult transitional period, further complicated by injuries which are setting back the team’s learning curve. But some of the problems described above might be alleviated, at least to a certain extent, if Shaw took one or more of the following steps:
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