The Nuggets — A December Update

it’s been an interesting five weeks since the last nuggets update.  they’re 10-8 over that span and they’ve generally showed more promise than their dreadful start would indicate.  however, they’re still just one game over .500 and they’re still on the path to the NBA purgatory that is mediocrity.  they’re not tanking, so they won’t get a great draft pick in the stacked 2014 draft, and they have virtually no chance to win a playoff series.  *sigh*

anyways, enough rambling…let’s get into some analysis…

the nuggets had one very bright spot over the last five weeks: during the end of november and the very start of december, they strung together seven straight wins.  and, for a moment, i wondered if i was wrong about this team…could they be better than i had thought?  and then they went 3-7 since then and order was restored.

but back to the streak.  some interesting things surface after digging into the stats surrounding the streak.  the nuggets have shot 44.0% this season and 34.7% from three.  in the games before and after this streak, they’ve shot 43% and 33% from three.  during this streak of strong play, they shot 48.7% overall and 40.3% from beyond the arc, representing a 15% and 24% increase over their non-streak figures.  that’s huge.

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it’s also interesting to see the shooting figures broken out by segment of the season, and compare these figures to the team’s winning percentage over that time.  pre-streak, the team was 4-6 (.400) and shot 44%/37%, as mentioned earlier, they were 7-0 during the streak and shot 49%/40%, and during the 3-7 (.300) stretch since then, they’ve shot 41%/28%.  i’m too lazy to do an in-depth statistical test of this, but the r-squared values for overall fg% and 3fg% with winning percentage split out by these segments are 94% and 61%, respectively.  translating this from nerdspeak to english: when the nuggets shoot well, it’s very likely they’re going to win…when they don’t shoot well, it’s very unlikely that they’ll be able to overcome it.

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obviously, if a team is on a winning streak, it’s likely that they’re playing better offense and/or better defense than they usually do.  it’s possible this isn’t the case and they’re just getting lucky, but it’s pretty unlikely, especially over seven games.  in the nuggets’ case, they did both better, but their increase in offensive production was more dramatic than their defensive improvements.

as you can see below, the team’s offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) during the streak was 8% better than their total season value, and their defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) was just slightly better than their season value at a 3% improvement.  in other words, the team’s improved offense over those seven games had more to do with them winning than their improved defense.  this is interesting because it marks a deviation from the tendencies of last year’s team.  as i noted in my nuggets season review last year, the team’s defensive performance was generally quite a bit more predictive than their offense was.  not sure what to make of this yet, but it’s something to keep an eye on.

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it’s also been quite interesting to observe the nuggets’ stats broken out by starters vs. bench players.  it’s no secret that the nuggets have a dreadful starting lineup, but looking at the net ratings for starters vs. bench players really highlights this.  the nuggets as a whole have a net rating of 1, meaning that they score one more point than their opponent per 100 possessions.  in other words, they’re slightly better than average, but not by much.  this matches up with their 14-13 record quite nicely.  the starters have a combined net rating of -2.7, however, meaning that they’re losing the battle while they’re on the court (no need to look further than the first quarter struggles lately to see this).  the bench has a net rating of a whopping 5.5, however!

it’s not necessarily fair to compare starters vs. bench players on a net rating basis, though, because starters generally face tougher competition (don’t kid yourself, if andre miller was on the court guarding russell wesbrook to start the game, his net rating would be like -35…give foye/lawson some credit there).  so, while we can’t really compare the nuggets starters directly to the bench players, we can compare the nuggets starters to the rest of the league’s starters, and do the same thing for the bench players.  unfortunately, this doesn’t paint a pretty picture.  the nuggets’ starters rank 20th in starters’ net rating, and the bench ranks 4th.  the good news for the nuggets is that shaw apparently realizes this and is giving the bench a ton of minutes (45%).  it’s also interesting to note that, during the streak, the starters’ net rating increased somewhat significantly to 2.6, but the bench clearly carried the team with a massive net rating of 24.3.

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one last thing before i stop rambling:  net ratings account for offense and defense, but they’re pretty primitive.  a much more sophisticated metric, but one that only evaluates a player’s offensive production, is john hollinger’s player efficiency rating (PER).  out of curiosity, i checked the PERs for each nugget that qualified, calculated the player’s percentile amongst players at his position, and compared the results to the minutes the player is receiving.

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one thing that immediately stands out is that randy foye is awful.  i mean abysmal.  he’s getting 24 minutes per game, and he has a dreadful PER of 9.46.  factor in the fact that he’s an average defender at best, and i can’t understand why shaw is playing this guy more than 10-12 minutes.  i mean, i get that the other obvious option of evan fournier isn’t really that great (he’s been just as bad as foye so far), but he’s a young guy who has a lot of potential…why not give him a chance?  it’s not like he can be much worse…  at the very least, the nuggets probably need to play more (gulp) two point guard lineups.  it’s a massive defensive liability, but let’s not kid ourselves and pretend that any of our guards are capable of stopping anyone.

it’s also interesting to note that jordan hamilton is playing very well, with an above-average PER.  he’s definitely showing some promise, although the upside of his game is currently limited due to his one-dimensional offensive repertoire and inconsistent defense.  also, i know that some people love darrell arthur because of his great defense (i love this too), but he’s a pretty dreadful offensive player.  a PER of 9.49 falls in the 86th percentile amongst power forwards.  that’s bad.  i guess we shouldn’t be too surprised with those results given his best offensive play is a long two-pointer, the least efficient shot in basketball…  he certainly deserves a decent chunk of playing time, especially as a shut-down defensive player who can actually hedge the pick-and-roll properly, but he’s simply not strong enough offensively to be a core player on the team (especially with the revelation that the team’s offense is more correlated with winning than the team’s defense is).

alright, that’s it. i’m done rambling.  enjoy the holidays, everyone!

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