Denver Tries to Repeat to Repeat

Posted on October 3, 2009 by

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The Denver Nuggets won 54 games in 2008-09 and reached the NBA’s Final Four.  Only four teams – Cleveland, LA Lakers, Boston, and Orlando – managed to win more games last season.  And the regular season won-loss record matched Denver’s best finish in the NBA history of the franchise (Denver won 54 games in 1987-88). 

If we shift our focus to efficiency differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency), the picture in Denver looks slightly less brilliant.  Denver scored 107.21 points per 100 possessions last season while allowing 103.70 points.  Such numbers results in a differential of 3.51.  If we search Denver’s franchise history we see that the Nuggets bested this mark in 1976-77, 1987-88, and 2007-08.  And if we focus on the 2008-09 season we see that seven teams – Cleveland, Boston, LA Lakers, Orlando, Portland, Houston, and San Antonio – posted a better differential. 

In sum, Denver had a very good season last season.  But their won-loss record slightly exaggerates how well this team performed.  Consequently, if Denver is going to repeat what we saw in 2008-09 – or take another step towards this team’s first NBA title – changes would have to be made.

Review of 2007-09

A review of Table One — which reports the Wins Produced and WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes] of Denver’s players in 2008-09 — reveals where changes could be made. 

Table One: Denver Nuggets in 2008-09

Last season the Nuggets were led in Wins Produced by Chauncey Billups, J.R. Smith, Nene Hilario, and Chris Andersen.  This quartet produced 32.4 wins, and according to Patricia Bender, was paid about $26.7 million. Denver also paid about $28.8 million to Carmelo Anthony and Kenyon Martin.  But this duo only produced 8.9 wins.  So for Denver, wins and salary were not well-connected.

Looking forward to 2009-10 we see that all six of these players return.  And again – as HoopsHype reports — Anthony and Martin will lead the team in salaries. For wins, though, the team will again turn to the same cast of characters.  This is because – like the Utah Jazz – the Nuggets didn’t make any significant changes to their roster this summer. With respect to veteran players, Dahntay Jones [0.057 Wins Produced per 48 minutes or WP48] and Linas Kleiza [0.019 WP48] have departed while Arran Afflalo [0.029 WP48], Malik Allen [-0.097 WP48], and Johan Petro [-0.096 WP48] have been added.  In other words, two below average players left the team and a trio of below average players was acquired.  Such moves should hardly inspire excitement in Denver.

Denver was far more successful in the draft.  With the 18th choice in the draft the Nuggets managed to acquire Ty Lawson, the third most productive player selected out of college.  Such a selection could pay substantial dividends when Billups departs. 

Looking Forward to 2009-10

For 2009-10, though, the vast majority of minutes at point guard will still be played by Billups, and Lawson will probably sit on the bench.  So for next season, Lawson doesn’t really improve this team.   In fact, at this point ESPN.com doesn’t even place Lawson on Denver’s second string.

Potential First String

PG: Chauncey Billups [9.7Wins Produced, 0.171 WP48]

SG: J.R. Smith [7.7 Wins Produced, 0.166 WP48]

SF: Carmelo Anthony [5.9 Wins Produced, 0.125 WP48]

PF: Kenyon Martin [2.9 Wins Produced, 0.067 WP48]

C: Nene Hilario [7.6 Wins Produced, 0.146 WP48]

Potential Second String

PG: Anthony Carter [4.4 Wins Produced, 0.119 WP48]

SG: Arron Afflalo [0.8 Wins Produced, 0.029 WP48]

SF: Renaldo Balkman [4.9 Wins Produced, 0.299 WP48]

PF: Malik Allen [-1.2Wins Produced, -0.097 WP48]

C: Chris Andersen [7.3 Wins Produced, 0.242 WP48]

Of these ten players, eight were with the Nuggets last season.  And the new players – Afflalo and Allen – produced -0.4 wins last season.  So again, Denver’s success this season is going to depend upon the players Denver is returning.

The difficulty with this strategy is that the team’s leader in Wins Produced – Chauncey Billups – is now 33 years old.  This is quite old for an NBA player and one would suspect that the productivity Billups offers next season will be less than what he did in 2008-09.  This means the Nuggets will probably need to find wins elsewhere if this team wishes to maintain last year’s pace.

Unfortunately — even if last year’s performance could be repeated — last year’s performance is probably not going to be good enough to re-produce last year’s finish.  Again, the team’s efficiency differential was only 7th best last season.  So it looks like a repeating Denver is likely to drop in the Western Conference standings.  

Looking Beyond 2010

If we look beyond this season it is clear the Nuggets might have some issues to consider.  As noted, it’s hoped that Lawson can someday replace Billups (although it’s too early to see if that will happen).  Beyond the point guard issue, the Nuggets might want to think about investing so many dollars in Martin and Anthony.   Martin will be 32 before the season is over and he still has one year left on his contract (according to HoopsHype).  So Martin will be hard to trade.

The same cannot be said for Anthony.  People believe Anthony is a star.  But his production says otherwise.  After six seasons, Melo has produced 26.3 wins and posted a 0.078 WP48 [average WP48 is 0.100].  Yes, he has been above average the past two seasons.   Still, Anthony has yet to produce at a level consistent with his salary.

Consequently, the Nuggets might seriously think about trading Anthony while his trade value is at his highest.  Such a trade could yield the productive players Denver needs to become a legitimate title contender in the future.  Without such a trade, though, Denver will continue to have significant salary cap space tied to a player who is simply not much better than an average NBA player.

So here’s how I see this franchise.  It seems unlikely that this same cast of characters can repeat what we saw in 2008-09.  Denver will probably not finish with the second seed in the West, and a return to the conference finals seems doubtful.  Looking beyond this next season, it might be a good idea to think about trading Carmelo Anthony.  His salary is simply not consistent with his production, and that is bad news. The good news is that some other NBA team may not know this (there is a good chance this is true), and therefore Denver could use Anthony to acquire more productive players.   

Can Denver build a title contender around Anthony? Yes, that is possible.  But it would probably be easier to build a team where there is a closer link between production and pay.

– DJ

The WoW Journal Comments Policy

Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

The Technical Notes at wagesofwins.com provides substantially more information on the published research behind Wins Produced and Win Score

Wins Produced, Win Score, and PAWSmin are also discussed in the following posts:

Simple Models of Player Performance

Wins Produced vs. Win Score

What Wins Produced Says and What It Does Not Say

Introducing PAWSmin — and a Defense of Box Score Statistics

Finally, A Guide to Evaluating Models contains useful hints on how to interpret and evaluate statistical models.