Hollinger's Team Forecast: Denver Nuggets
A lot of words could describe the Nuggets in 2007-08, but here's one that should be right at the top of the list: misunderstood.
Every analysis of the Nuggets described them as a group of talented offensive players who lost because they didn't play any defense. And everybody who wrote that was dead wrong.
W-L: 50-32 (Pythagorean W-L: 52-30)
Offensive Efficiency: 107.6 (11th)
Defensive Efficiency: 103.2 (9th)
Pace Factor: 102.3 (1st)
Highest PER: Carmelo Anthony (21.16)
The Nuggets were about as good on defense last season as they were on offense. Getting anybody to actually believe this has proven quite difficult, but it's nonetheless true. Denver ranked higher in defensive efficiency (9th) than in offensive efficiency (11th), and while the offense was slightly better relative to the league average, the D wasn't chopped liver at 1.5 points beneath the league norm.
The problem, of course, is that a lot of observers don't understand pace. The Nuggets played the league's fastest pace, by far (see chart), which had two effects. First, all their games looked like glorified street-ball contests, which contributed to the notion that the team didn't play any defense. And second, the Nuggets tended to both score and give up high numbers of points, cementing the idea that they were an offensive outfit untroubled by defense.
Fastest Pace, 2007-08
Comparing their raw per-game numbers with their per-possessions stats cements this point. In raw terms, Denver was second in points scored and 29th in points allowed, and unfortunately some people still treat these numbers as if they matter. But Nuggets games had eight more possessions by each side than the average game for the rest of the league, so it would have been hard for them not to have higher-scoring games than 28 other teams.
Other factors contributed to the perception. We've been sold on the NBA as a league of stars, and the Nuggets' stars were, in fact, horrible defensive players. The three most talented offensive players were Carmelo Anthony, Allen Iverson and J.R. Smith; between them they probably made about two defensive stops the entire season. The next most talented offensive player, Linas Kleiza, wasn't much better.
Additionally, Denver didn't play as well defensively in the second half of the season -- it was fifth in defensive efficiency at the All-Star break and just 14th afterward. Thanks to the playoff race, a lot more people were paying attention to the Nuggets in the latter portion, when their defense was at its worst.
But however slack the stars were, the Nuggets overall were a very solid defensive team. Marcus Camby was the league's best goalie from the help side, erasing numerous mistakes on the perimeter by the Nuggets' scoring quartet. Kenyon Martin returned from knee surgery and provided another solid frontcourt defender; having two bigs with the mobility of Iverson and Camby was also a major asset in transition D. Anthony Carter quietly had a shockingly good year opposite Iverson at the guard spot.
All told, the Nuggets were right at the league average in opponent 2-point and 3-point shooting, fouled at a below-average rate and forced an above-average number of turnovers. They were a good defense ... even if I can't find anyone who believes it.
There was just one respect in which they were lucky, and that was in opponent free-throw shooting. Denver's opponents shot just 73.0 percent from the line, the worst mark in the league (or the best, if you're a Nuggets fan) and under the league average of 75.5 percent. This was almost certainly luck, unless you want to argue that the Nuggets did a great job contesting free throws. The Nuggets saved 51 points on this, earning them nearly two extra wins over the course of the year and, most likely, keeping Golden State out of the playoffs.
FTA Per FGA: 2007-08 Leaders
Offensively, Denver did most of its damage in the paint. With Iverson and Anthony constantly slashing to the rim and drawing whistles, the Nuggets led the league in free-throw attempts per field-goal attempt (see chart). Denver also ranked seventh in 2-point shooting percentage at 50.4 percent and sixth in true shooting percentage (TS%) at 55.7 percent.
They could have been even more productive with better spacing. The Nuggets had a decent 3-point percentage as a team (35.5 percent), but almost all that came from one player who played just 19 minutes a game -- Smith, who took over five tries a night and made 40.3 percent.
The two other Nuggets to take 3s in any quantity, Kleiza and Iverson, combined to make just 34 percent. As a result, Iverson and Anthony too often encountered packed-in defenses on their forays to the hoop. It didn't help that guard Chucky Atkins, signed in the offseason for his long-range shooting, missed most of the year with injuries.
In fact, that's one aside to Denver's season that got little play. Two projected starters, Atkins and Nene, hardly played, with Atkins battling a groin problem and Nene first breaking a finger and then being diagnosed with testicular cancer. Almost all the news about this team was negative, and some of it was earned ... but they won 50 games without two starters, and their D was a lot better than people presumed.
Biggest Strength: Perimeter scoringGood luck hiding a bad wing defender against these guys. Denver can send out a lineup with Iverson, Smith and Anthony at the three perimeter positions at the same time; to really turbocharge things, the Nuggets also can play with Kleiza as an undersized 4.
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Iverson and Anthony, of course, are among the league's highest-scoring combos. Last season, they averaged a combined 52 points per game, and you got the sense they weren't even playing that well while they were doing it. They both look to get to the basket but do it in different ways -- Anthony likes to catch on the block or face up from the midpost, while Iverson prefers to attack off the dribble from out top.
The wild card in all this is Smith, who was quietly one of the league's most prolific scorers last season. Smith averaged 25.5 points per 40 minutes with one of the highest true shooting percentages in basketball, and after the All-Star break, that number climbed to 28.8 -- more than Anthony or Iverson. With unlimited range and the quickness to attack defenders off the dribble, he has the skill to be a big-time scorer if he keeps his head on straight. His ability to break out as a third scorer this year is Denver's best chance of hanging on to its spot in the playoffs.
Biggest Weakness: Perimeter defenseYes, they were a good defensive team last year. But that was with Camby. Now that he's gone all those gambles the Nuggets take on the perimeter are going to prove much more costly, because Camby wiped away several defensive mistakes every night.
And the main culprits are the same three guys who will be asked to carry the mail on offense. Iverson is quick and a pest in passing lanes, but he's also a reckless gambler at the defensive end who gives up on plays as soon as he hits a screen. Anthony tried more on defense last year than in the past but that's faint praise -- he still has a long way to go, mailing in long stretches and rarely helping teammates.
Smith is the third sieve, and the most crucial. He has the quickness and size to be a good defender if he puts his mind to it, but thus far in his career he's focused mostly on the offensive end. His ability to defend wings is the key variable in how much the Nuggets can play all three of their big-time scorers at the same time, since he'll be the one that has to check the Kobes and Wades of the world.
Denver fans are feeling down about the Camby trade, and with good reason -- in a conference as loaded as the West has been the past few years, just being a .500 team isn't going to cut it. That's about all the Nuggets look like, with Camby's departure taking a bite out of the defense and the inability to spend leaving the bench looking mighty skimpy.
If the Nuggets are going to stay afloat, two players are key: Smith and Nene. We've covered Smith already, but Nene will have to take over in the middle for Camby and prove he can stay healthy for a full season. He isn't Camby's equal as a defender, but he has the size and quickness to be a factor and help make up for his loss, plus he's a better offensive player.
Also, they might want to get off to a good start. Iverson has an expiring deal worth $20 million, and if the Nuggets find themselves near the bottom of the standings, trading him to a contender -- and getting out from the luxury tax in the process -- is going to look awfully tempting.
Conversely, if the Nuggets can stay in contention, they might go in the opposite direction. Sitting on a $10 million trade exception from the Camby trade, they could take on another team's high-priced talent to supplement their playoff push.
But the only way that happens is if they vastly exceed expectations with the current crew. More likely is that they scuffle along -- winning a few here, losing a few there -- and stay in the playoff mix all season before missing out at the end.
Prediction: 41-41, 3rd in Northwest Division, 9th in Western Conference
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.
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