Reflections on the Nuggets’ Season

i don’t quite know how i feel about the nuggets’ season…on one hand, they had arguably their most successful season as a member of the nba with a team record in regular season wins (including a 38-3 record at home) and an impressive 15 straight wins, but i can’t help but feel disappointed.  i think it’s because, for the first time, i’ve expected them to have this level of success.  in prior years, i’ve always had high hopes but not high expectations, but this year my expectations were that they would be a serious contender for the western conference champion.  which i guess in a sense they were…until the playoffs started.

i had always thought (and still do think) that the arguments that the nuggets couldn’t win the postseason because a) they didn’t have a superstar and b) their uptempo style of play wouldn’t translate to the playoffs were ridiculous.  you don’t have to do too much work to dismiss a) (see: memphis, indiana), but as much as i hate to admit it, b) has some truth to it.

memphis and chicago are great examples of teams that are built for the postseason (their style can most aptly be described as “grit and grind”), and indiana has moved towards this style as well with their recent emphasis on defense.  those teams all have experienced a great deal of success in these playoffs, and so it can be easy to point to the nuggets’ uptempo style as the reason for their repeated postseason failures.  but if you take a look at the other teams that are still hanging around (san antonio, miami, and new york), you’ll see that it’s absolutely possible to have postseason success with an uptempo style of play.  hell, the average number of possessions in the series with golden state was just over 100, which was slightly higher than the nuggets’ regular season average of 98.  so not only did the pace actually increase in the postseason, it apparently didn’t benefit the nuggets.

ultimately the nuggets’ failure comes down to the fact that their weaknesses were exploited perfectly by golden state.  when i put on my nerd glasses and started digging into the nuggets’ stats for the regular season, one of the things i looked at was how correlated certain stats were with the outcome of the game.  in other words, how much does it matter (in terms of whether the nuggets win) that the nuggets are playing at home? that they move the ball well?  that the pace of the game is fast?  and so forth.  the results were pretty interesting, and in addition to explaining why the loss to golden state was actually fairly predictable, they completely justified my #guardthethree movement…

the nuggets had the best home record in the nba this year, and so it’s not surprising that playing at home was highly predictive of a nugget win.  here’s an image to help visualize this (purple is a nugget win):

offensive vs. defensive efficiency:
offensive/defensive efficiency are measures of points scored/allowed per 100 possessions.  while both were somewhat predictive of a nugget win, defensive efficiency was significantly more so (p value < 0.001 for defensive efficiency vs. a p value of .106 for offensive efficiency using a chi-square test).  the takeaway from this is that, for the nuggets, playing good defense was more important than playing good offense.  point for #guardthethree

own vs. opponent effective fg%:
effective field goal percentage is just regular field goal percentage adjusted for the fact that threes are worth 1.5 times the value of twos.  interestingly, the nuggets’ own effective fg% really wasn’t predictive at all of whether they’d win or not (i suspect some of this may be due to the fact that they are generally a very good offensive rebounding team, so many of those misses were gobbled up by faried and were translated into second opportunities).  however, opponent effective fg% was very predictive with a p value of 0.029 (roughly speaking, anything with a p value < .05 i would consider to be very predictive and, given the sample size of 82 games, anything with a p value < 0.10 to be pretty predictive).  in other words, #guardthethree

difference in 3 point percentage:
#guardthethree.  the nuggets were 38-3 at home this year, yet home vs. away wasn’t the most significant predictor of a nugget win.  wanna guess what was?  yep, the difference in how well the opponent shot the three vs. how well the nuggets did (with about 95% of the weight being on how the opponents shot the three).  i can’t say it enough: #guardthethree

i defined 3P% Diff as nuggets 3 point % – opponents 3 point %, so big numbers are good for the nuggets.

now let’s look at all of this in the context of the nuggets vs. warriors series:

both nuggets wins came at home, but they threw away their home court advantage (and one of their most predictive advantages) in game 2.  they were 0-3 on the road.

as far as offense/defense, there was very little difference in the nuggets’ offense in the games they won and the games they lost (offensive efficiency of 101.9 in wins and 102.7 in losses), but there was a HUGE difference in their defense (defensive efficiency of 95.8 in wins vs. 113.8 in losses).

in other words, their defense was what cost them the series.  this should have been incredibly obvious to everyone watching these games, and it shows up everywhere in the stats.  for example, golden state shot an effective fg% of 46% in games the nuggets won and 55% in games the nuggets lost.  during the regular season, the nuggets won about 80% of their games when opponents shot around that 46% mark and the only won about 40% when opponents shot greater than 53%.

earlier in the year, i tweeted that the nuggets held opponents to a 3 point fg% of 33% in wins and allowed opponents to shoot 44% in losses.  golden state shot 42% in their wins and even managed to shoot 38% in their losses (some of you might take this close margin as an indication that golden state’s 3 point shooting wasn’t that important…don’t.  remember that the nuggets only outscored golden state by a combined 9 points in their two wins…).  by contrast, the nuggets shot a paltry 31% from downtown in the series (and were equally terrible no matter how you slice it).  this difference in 3 point shooting percentage, as noted earlier in my analysis of the regular season data, is incredibly significant for the nuggets.  it’s also showing up throughout the nba statistical analysis world.  for example, one of the findings from the use of STATS’s SportVU technology (which provides incredibly detailed information on nba games by utilizing missile-tracking software to track the movement of players and the ball: full article here) is that virtually every nba team should be shooting the three more.  the top three teams (miami, thunder, and spurs) in the league all shoot the three well above the league average and hold opponents to shooting well below the league average.  the nuggets, who i’d rank as being in the 4-7 range, shoot well below the league average and allow opponents to shoot well above the league average.  they had been successful despite this during the regular season, but they unfortunately ran into a golden state team that had the best 3 point % differential in the league.  throw in the fact that david lee got hurt and mark jackson elected to replace him most of the time with a small lineup with 3 capable (with 2 being incredible) 3 point shooters, and it’s no surprise the nuggets lost in six.

in summary, my message to the nuggets is: please, for the love of god, #guardthethree.  you won’t be a championship contender without doing it.  the good news is it’s possibly the only thing holding you back…

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