Winning in the NBA isn’t an easy task. Even games against bad teams can swing on a single play, a made jumper or bad bounce on a deflection that leads to a run out.
So continuously getting off to bad starts is something that teams should want to avoid. Unfortunately for the Nuggets in the past nine games that isn’t something they have been avoiding, thanks to a porous defense that allows just about everyone to blitz them to start games.
Against the Jazz, a team that is getting better but is still bad, the Nuggets gave up 18 points in the first 4:33 of the game. Brian Shaw hinted after that game that he had thoughts about changing the starting lineup to halt those early game problems, but in the two games following that contest the starters have stayed the same and in both games Denver trailed after a quarter because they allowed their opponents to get off to hot offensive starts.
It is time for Shaw to make the change. Luckily for him there are two good options to do so.
It is becoming very clear that the JJ Hickson/Kenneth Faried front court combination falls somewhere between bad and an absolute disaster on many nights, mostly thanks to their problems on the defensive end.
No matter what kind of data you look at the numbers shine poorly on both big men’s contributions on the defensive end of the floor.
Just for a sample:
- Per 82games.com the Nuggets defense is 11.2 points per 100 possessions better with Hickson off the floor and 8.1 points per 100 possessions better when Faried is on the bench.
- Two man lineup data from the NBA media site shows that every combination of Faried and another starter allows opponents to shoot over 48 percent in over 300 minutes, topped off by the Faried/Foye pairing allowing opponents to shoot 50.3 percent in 425 minutes. Together Hickson and Faried are allowing opponents to shoot 49.6 percent in 375 minutes.
- Per Sports Vu data opponents are shooting 58.8 percent at the rim in 5.5 attempts per game vs. Hickson, while in 4.3 attempts they shoot 53.4 percent in those situations against the Manimal.
Basically if you want data to show you the Faried/Hickson pairing is bad defensively it is probably there. This isn’t anything new with either player as both players struggle to handle defensive rotations and really need a solid defensive center (because Hickson is really a power forward) behind them to clean up mistakes with proper rotations. It wasn’t a coincidence that Faried’s defensive numbers last season were much better with Kosta Koufos there to rotate over and help clean up his mistakes, as opposed to the fellow rotationally challenged JaVale McGee.
The other part of starting Faried and Hickson together that seems to make very little sense is that they are essentially the same exact player, minus Hickson’s slightly better offensive game. Both players strengths lie in rebounding and Sports Vu’s player tracking details show us how eerily similar the two players rebounding is.
Per NBA.com’s player tracking data Hickson averages 13.3 rebounding chances per game, while Faried averages 15. Of those chances Hickson pulls in 63.2 percent of those rebounds while Faried pulls in 56.8 percent of his. Everything else is incredibly similar.
Hickson averages 3.3 contested rebounds per game while the Manimal averages 3.4. JJ grabs 5 uncontested rebounds per game to Faried’s 5.1, meaning Hickson contested rebound percentage (the amount of his rebounds that are contested) falls at 39.8 percent just .1 percent better than Faried’s 39.7.
It was a big question this offseason how Faried and Hickson fit next to each other because of their similarities and this season has just made the question bigger. The two players are essentially the exact same rebounders, while failing mightily defensively and having offensive games that don’t really complement each other consistently.
Luckily for Denver there seems to be two ways that could potentially fix a lot of the starting lineup problems sitting on the bench– Timofey Mozgov and Darrell Arthur.
The easiest answer is plugging Mozgov into the starting lineup with either Hickson or Faried. Shifting Hickson back to power forward won’t completely fix things because he is a bad defender but it won’t ask him to be a rim protector anymore either. It also gives Faried a big he can trust to make the proper rotation to cover for him as he runs himself out of position or just gets lost, basically exactly what Kosta Koufos did all of last season.
Mozgov has his issues, he is slow and struggles to move in the pick-and-roll and defended mid-range jumpers from bigs, but he has played fairly well all season and is certainly deserving of a bigger role.
The other option, one that I’m not sure is sustainable long term because of Hickson’s limitations, is starting Darrell Arthur in place of Kenneth Faried. In just 111 minutes the Hickson/Arthur two man lineup has allowed opponents to shoot just 40.8 percent which is a marked improvement from any of Faried’s two man lineup data with starters. Hickson also would help cover a bit of Arthur’s rebounding issues and Arthur would potentially help the starters offense even more with the spacing he provides for Ty Lawson.
The chance would also allow Faried to play plenty of minutes next to Mozgov and against weaker bench units where his incredible energy and athleticism would flourish.
In the end none of these moves may matter because no matter what Denver does there will be three below average to bad defenders (Ty, Foye despite his efforts, and either Faried or Hickson) starting games. All a change needs to do is slow their opponents starts down a bit and allow the amazing offense that Ty Lawson generates blitz opponents and make them have to play catch-up for the rest of the night.
At the very least a change is worth a shot, it can’t get much worse than what we have been seeing to start games, and with a team that isn’t one of the best teams in basketball every minute of every game matters in the race to the playoffs. If Denver continues to fall behind early in games because they cannot stop anyone it can and probably will cost them a playoff berth in the tough Western Conference.
We have enough data and a big enough sample to show us this starting lineup isn’t effective enough, it is time to see if another combination can be.
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