In which I dispute Part 1 of Smooth Operatah’s critique of the Iguodala trade

Before digging in, just to be clear, I am posting this here as opposed to Roundball Mining Company for two reasons. One is that this post is uniquely about my own personal opinion and does not necessarily reflect the views of RMC or its other writers. The other is that, since this is a refutation of a post by an individual blogger, I feel it would be unfair both to him and to RMC to use too large a megaphone in a more microcosmic debate.

With that out of the way, allow me to first direct you to Smooth’s Hoops, a basketball blog dedicated to the Denver Nuggets written by Smooth Operatah, a.k.a. J.R., who you can follow on twitter at @Smooth_Operatah. Specifically, this post is in response to his post entitled Why the Andre Iguodala trade doesn’t make Denver better, and although I will be quoting it extensively, I’d ask that you read it in its entirety before proceeding so that you can see the whole thing in its own context. Also, please note — and he points this out — that it’s Part 1 of a multi-part series of posts, and here I am replying only to the first one.

Having said all that, let us begin.

As the title suggests, I dispute many, if not practically all of the claims made in Smooth’s post. In some cases we simply have a difference of opinion, but in others he makes assertions which are either unsupported (or unsupportable), or demonstrably false. And it’s the latter set I’d like to focus on.

Smooth writes that the Nuggets “traded a disgruntled “star” in Carmelo Anthony because each had had enough of the other.” By all accounts there was nothing mutual about the situation, as Denver wanted to keep Melo, while he alone wanted to part ways and subsequently forced the Nuggets into either trading him or losing him for nothing to free agency.

Continuing his version of the chronology leading up to the Andre Iguodala trade, Smooth says:

Injuries set in during the months of February and March (as they typically do in every season, but, even more-so in a lockout-shortened slate where guys are playing as many as five games in six nights) and Denver panicked, trading Hilario for league laughingstock, JaVale McGee. (As an aside, unless there is acute attention paid to minute allocation during the season such as that employed by San Antonio with aging Hall-of-Famer Tim Duncan, injuries will pileup – especially with players as seemingly fragile as Nene.)

There are a couple of problems here. First, in criticizing the Nene trade, he contradicts himself by at once belittling McGee’s value (“league laughingstock”) while completely glossing over a very serious potential time bomb in Nene’s value (“fragile”). Even if JaVale is viewed by many as a joke, it’s a no-brainer for a rebuilding team to trade for a younger, taller, cheaper, healthier, more athletic player, both in terms of future salary structure and in terms of developing young players together. Additionally, there is absolutely no tangible indication that this was a “panic” move. In The Association: Denver Nuggets it seems pretty clear that Masai Ujiri was aggressively working the phones in order to make the trade happen. Also, in an excellent post over at the Denver Stiffs (read it here), a very strong case is made that Ujiri negotiated for Nene’s salary to be set exactly at $13 million specifically with an eye to trading him by the deadline and receiving the largest possible traded player exception in return. There is no evidence of panic, and plenty to the contrary.

I will largely pass over the victimology of Nene and Chauncey Billups, save for the assertion that the Nuggets “moved them in trades with very little feeling or remorse or nearly the return such players should garner.” How in the world could Smooth possibly know the personal feelings of the guys in the front office? To my knowledge there have never been any interviews or news reports suggesting that Nene, Billups or Arron Afflalo were anything but well-loved and highly respected by everyone in the Nuggets organization. Over years of working together, these guys establish at least friendly working relationships if not genuine friendships, and despite the fact that business sometimes must take precedence, what grounds are there for claiming those decisions aren’t difficult on a personal, emotional level? And as for the question of value back, well the jury will still be out for a while, but the upcoming season should tell us a lot about the career trajectories of Nene and Billups versus the players Denver received in return for them. But for a team forced into rebuilding, again, these all seem to be sensible moves for building a better future.

The claim that Ujiri has “a very clear track record for” making trades based on panicking is basically fabricated out of whole cloth. If anything, his reputation around the league is precisely the opposite of that. When most expected him to panic during the Melodrama and pull the trigger on a bad deal, he did exactly the opposite and held out for a surprisingly good one. Smooth contradicts himself here as well, saying that Ujiri “panicked again” in making the trade for Iguodala, then several sentences later pointing out that the Nuggets have had “lust for Iguodala – going at least as far back as two years ago.” What part of taking the opportunity to finally land a player you’ve coveted for years is “panicking”? And who cares if the Nuggets “were never once involved in the Dwight Howard talks until the final days when major players (Orlando, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia) needed a fourth team to take Andre Iguodala?” That was when the chance arose to acquire a player they wanted, so they took it. In his interview with Drew & Scott (which I summarized here at RMC), Ujiri explained the dynamics of the Iguodala trade from Denver’s perspective quite clearly:

[T]here was a three-way trade, and when we… poked into it, it was already a deal that was going to get done… [T]hey told me where they were, and they were looking to see if there was a fourth team to join… I have to be worried about the Denver Nuggets. We have to be worried about making the Denver Nuggets better… And we’re going to try to get to a level where one day we’re competing with [elite teams], and I think Iguodala is a good piece to take a step forward.

Although the deal came together quickly, it was a calculated, well-considered move on Denver’s part.

Smooth only gets into the actual criticism of Iguodala as a player, and the insinuation that he’s a downgrade to Afflalo, in a very general sense (and I’ve condensed these statements for brevity, but again, please read his entire post to see them in the complete context):

No [other teams] necessarily had use for Iguodala’s services… [He] can’t score and relies entirely on his athleticism for success… [He’s] a nearly-30 year old NBA veteran ‘tweener’ who’s on the decline… Denver was the only team that would take Iguodala… He can’t shoot. From anywhere (outside of last year’s near-40% showing from behind the arc). Having the ability to shoot is kind of in the job description for a shooting guard.

Since Smooth hasn’t really made his case here (he promises to do that in subsequent posts), I’m not going to pick this apart too much, except for one thing. And that is that the suggestion that the Nuggets are the only team that would be interested in acquiring Iguodala is just patently absurd. League wide he is recognized as a top 5 wing defender, and while I’ll readily accept that Afflalo is certainly the better, more efficient shooter, he’s also the inferior rebounder, distributor and, well, everything elser. And at any rate, that one aspect of Iguodala’s game is not what defines him as a player, nor would it be a deal breaker to any front office in the league in landing one of the most versatile, well-rounded players in the game today (something I’m certain a survey of GMs would support, if only conducting one were that easy).

I want to end this by directing my final comment straight at you, Smooth: I really do enjoy conversing with you on twitter, I think you made some salient points in your Mozgov post and often have a lot of insightful and knowledgable observations to share. And I hope I haven’t been too harsh here. But this post really pushed my buttons, and here’s the reason why: I think your assessment misses the mark here so badly that it’s really unfair to Ujiri and the quality of organization that he and Josh Kroenke have run over the past two years. I’m not in the business of being their shill, and they’re certainly not above criticism. I share, for example, your trepidation about the Fournier pick; I wasn’t happy about it on draft day, and while I feel Ujiri has earned my trust based on his track record, Fournier has a lot of work to do to convince me that pick wasn’t a big reach. But overall, I feel that the picture you have painted of the Nuggets front office badly distorts them in a negative light. And if you make a strong, reasonable, well-supported case that the Iguodala trade was bad for Denver, I’ll be very interested in seeing it. But if you build it on a foundation as shaky as this, it seems inevitable that it will crumble apart. So it’s my hope that you’ll at least consider that possibility and reassess your arguments.

The (near) end of The Nuggets Den

And as quickly as it started, The Nuggets Den is coming to somewhat of an end.

Fortunately, it’s for a happy reason. I’m both humbled and honored to announce that I have been invited to write for the esteemed Denver Nuggets blog Roundball Mining Company, which is part of the ESPN TrueHoop network. And when I say it’s an honor, that’s no exaggeration. I’ve been following RMC loyally since the Pickaxe and Roll days, and at this point I can only aspire to come even halfway close to the great writing and analysis there. Consider me humbled.

So from now on, the majority of my Nuggets-related writing will be found here:

I may still use The Nuggets Den for occasionally posting more random, humorous, or otherwise not-up-to-RMC-muster material. So I won’t be completely shutting it down. But the main stuff will be at Roundball, which I’m sure if you’re here, you read already for the great writing from Jeremy, Kalen and Charlie. (If you haven’t seen the Summer League coverage over there, you’re really missing out. Tons of fantastic stuff, including exclusive interviews).

So thanks so much everybody for dropping by and hanging out, and I look forward to seeing you around at RMC and on twitter.

As a final word, I’d like to express my deep sympathy and condolences for the victims of the recent shooting, their families, and all of those back home in Colorado who have been affected by this tragedy.

One of my favorite television shows here in Japan is called Kinchan no Kasou Taishou, which is a contest in which amateur groups put on visual arts performance pieces. The symbolism in the first piece from the video below (“The Weed”) seems fitting to me at this time.


The Denver Nuggets should amnesty Chris “Birdman” Andersen

With the rise of rookie Kenneth Faried to a legitimate starting caliber power forward, and the general movement of the Denver Nuggets towards stockpiling young assets with upside who have the potential to be a part of the team’s future for years to come, once fan-favorite Chris “Birdman” Andersen saw his role diminish from a stalwart 20+ minutes rotation player to a permanent bench resident.

His elimination from the rotation may not have been entirely about basketball. On May 10, Denver’s 9News reported that Andersen was “the target of an ongoing investigation in a suspected Internet criminal case” and that “Douglas County Sheriff’s Office Internet Crimes Against Children investigators seized property from Andersen’s home”. The report went on to quote the Nuggets’ press release as saying that Andersen had “been excused from all team-related activities indefinitely as he deals with the reported investigation”.

He was not arrested and thus far no charges have been filed and no further details have been released. Shortly after the police raided Andersen’s home, the Denver Post reported that his attorney Colin Bresee had released a statement indicating Andersen may have been the victim of extortion. A recent update in the Post revealed that the investigation is still ongoing, and that “a task force created to investigate is still awaiting for forensic evidence to come back from a laboratory”.

In other words, we really don’t know what’s going to become of the Birdman as a result of this investigation.

It’s also unclear whether his late season benching happened coincidentally as a result of the Nuggets front office and coaching staff wanting to develop their four young frontcourt players (Faried, JaVale McGee, Timofey Mozgov and Kosta Koufos), or if it was due to the team having an inside track on his legal entanglements.

What we do know is that, for whatever reasons, by the last few months of the season he was persona non grata, His season effectively ended on March 15th, about a month and a half prior to the end of the regular season. He played in only one game after that, stepping in for only five minutes on March 25th, and then never setting foot on the court again, including during the Nuggets’ playoff run versus the Los Angeles Lakers.

Three years ago, Andersen inked a 5-year contract with Denver worth approximately $21 million. It was a reasonable move to make at the time. The Nuggets were coming off a Western Conference Finals appearance in which they made a strong push against the then-mighty Los Angeles Lakers, and the Birdman was an integral part of that roster.

But fast forward to present day, when Andersen, now 34 years old, still has two years remaining on his contract at about $4.5 and $4.8 million respectively, has a body that in the 2010-11 season began to show signs of some potentially serious wear and tear (he played only 45 games that year), and with the deadline trade of Nene for JaVale McGee, is the last living remnant on the Nuggets of a team and an era that simply do not exist anymore.

The Birdman is a part of these Nuggets’ past, and clearly has no place in their future.

Given his legal situation, his status now as a non-contributor to the team on the basketball front, his age and potential injury risk, and the two rather hefty remaining years on his contract, the risks and liabilities have come to far outweigh any benefit as a player or value as an asset that Andersen has to offer.

The time has come for the Denver Nuggets to part ways with Chris Andersen, and the amnesty provision of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement implemented at the end of last year provides them with the mechanism they need to cut him loose.

But if they’re going to use it, they have to act fast.

According to Larry Coon’s excellent Salary Cap FAQ, amnesty, which “is a one-time opportunity for teams to release one player via the waiver process and remove him from their team salary and luxury tax computations”, has a limited window for being used, only “available for the first seven days that follow the July [free agency and trade] moratorium”.

As this year’s moratorium ended on July 10th, the amnesty deadline is July 17th, giving the Nuggets approximately 36 hours to pull the trigger as I write this post now.

I really hope they do it.

Perhaps an even more pressing concern than the risks and tolls involved with keeping Birdman on board is the severe limitation on available roster spots. After recently re-signing Andre Miller, then in a bit of a surprise move signing rookie guard Evan Fournier, and soon – most expect – extending JaVale McGee, the Nuggets have, including Andersen, a seam-splitting fourteen guaranteed players on their 2012-13 roster.

And that is before signing second round draft pick (and sleeper hopeful) Quincy Miller, or retaining development project point guard Julyan Stone.

Let alone making any moves in the free agency market, an option I and many other Nuggets fans had pretty much dismissed out of hand considering the way this offseason has unfolded, but which had to be reevaluated after Anthony Randolph was spotted with Nuggets GM Masai Ujiri watching Denver play Dallas, and rumors started flying about Denver’s interest in the 23-year-old forward.

So what makes more sense for the Denver Nuggets? To keep Chris Andersen on board and pay him nearly $10 million over the next two seasons, which will count against the salary cap (and luxury tax if they spend enough on payroll)? And in doing so to prevent the signing of a young player with upside who has a shot at growing with this young team and being part of their future?

Or to cut him loose, along with the baggage and salary he comes with, finally making a clean break with a Nuggets past which is irrelevant to the organization’s current trajectory, and making room for the addition of youthful assets with the potential to contribute to this incarnation of the Nuggets for years to come?

Sorry, Chris, but it’s a no-brainer. I do hope you’re innocent, and if so, that you’re fully exonerated. And I appreciate the Birdman glory days (I’ll probably never tire of watching the video posted below). And if everything does work out for you, you’re a player I definitely wouldn’t mind seeing chasing a ring somewhere that you can play a role for a contender.

But as for the Nuggets, it’s time to set a firmly forward bearing course.

And the only sensible way to make that happen is to amnesty the Birdman.

Fly on, Freebird. (If, you know, they actually do amnesty you).

Evan Fournier must run the point for the Nuggets’ Summer League team

“I can play point guard sometimes to help the team, because I like to have the ball in my hands. But I’m a shooting guard.”
Evan Fournier

NBA Summer League games don’t mean a whole hell of a lot in terms of evaluating what kind of player production and efficiency to expect in real NBA games. They’re notoriously unreliable at predicting regular season performance.

To boot, the 2009 Summer League leaders were Anthony Randolph with 26.8 points per game, Joey Dorsey with 14.8 rebounds per game, and Marcus Williams with 8.2 assists per game. In the 2009-10 season, they went on to respectively score 11.6 ppg (.443 FG%), 2.9 rpg, and 2.6 apg. Or in other words, if you wish to peer into the future of the NBA, the Summer League is a really crappy crystal ball.

That said, that’s not really what teams are primarily using it for anyhow. It’s primarily a tool for coaches and front offices to refine their understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of their developing young players, many of whom are playing against (low tier) NBA talent for their first times. Secondarily, for teams with end-of-the-bench roster spots to fill, it’s an opportunity to find some pine fodder, stash it in the D-League and perhaps get lucky by taking a flier on a guy who looks like he has a little upside.

When it’s all said and done, however, what happens in the Summer League has very little predictive power or impact on what happens in the games that really matter.

That said, the teams still do want to win. It’s good for instilling confidence in their young players. For rookies joining fairly well stacked rosters, it’s a chance to shine in the bright lights for a moment before getting buried in the bottom of the depth chart. And for the coaching staffs it’s a first opportunity to feel out the chemistry of different player combinations.

So in those aspects, it’s good to see individual players and the team as a whole perform well. This is a point I’m happy to concede to @Smooth_Operatah, who I was having a disagreement with earlier today on twitter (he puts much more weight on the importance of the Summer League than I do). It’s not that these games are completely irrelevant – if they were, why bother playing them at all? But their utility is very specific, and narrow in scope.

Which brings me to my point.

Backup point guard Julyan Stone did not play in the Nuggets’ first Summer League game versus the Golden State Warriors, apparently due to a hip injury which required surgery (see Hoopshype and Roundball Mining Company). This is bad news for the Nuggets in general as they’ve been grooming Stone for a year as a potential future backup to Ty Lawson.

More immediately (though less importantly), it’s bad news for their Summer League team. If you watched this first game, you won’t need the box score to understand how desperately this squad was missing someone to run the offense, which was pretty much a chaotic free-for-all characterized most notably by really poor shot selection.

But the numbers do drive the point home.

As a team, the Nuggets had 11 assists and 29 turnovers. That’s a disastrous 0.38 assist to turnover ratio. Even more troubling is the fact that Kenneth Faried, with a whopping 3 dimes, was the team’s assist leader. Yes, among Denver’s guards, Jordan Hamilton and Derwin Kitchen found their way to two dimes apiece,while Demonte Harper and Evan Fournier managed just one each.

Now again, I certainly do not want to overstate the importance of a single Summer League game, which in the bigger picture is relatively insignificant. Everything that happens in these games has got to be taken with large doses of salt grains. The players have little experience working together as a unit, the coaches obviously have no time to implement anything even remotely resembling a coherent system, the level of competition is extremely inconsistent, most players are not at their peak conditioning – and the list of reasons why this all matters little goes on and on.

But now there are two things that do matter for Denver: Stone’s injury, and Fournier’s contract.

After it was widely speculated that the Nuggets would stash Fournier in France for a season due mainly to limited roster space, they signed him to what Chris Dempsey reports is likely a 3-year, $3.5 million deal, making it a near-certainty that he will not only remain with the team in Denver, but that even if he spends time in the D-League, he will likely be on call to jump into action in the case of injury.

And Stone’s injury may well accelerate that process. Few details have been released about his condition, but given the recovery time required for hip surgery, as well as Denver’s roster crunch, it seems quite likely that he’ll at least be inactive for the start of the 2012-13 season, if not cut from the team altogether before then.

Ty Lawson has already shown some propensity to injury. And although Andre Miller has been one of the most injury-free players in NBA history, the fact that he’s now 36 years old may well prevent him from sustaining such good fortune. And in the event either one of those two goes down, if Stone is either unavailable for duty or off the team, it appears that Evan Fournier may be the closest remaining player Denver will have to a backup point guard.

“I can play point guard sometimes to help the team.”

Fournier’s words. And if he ever wanted the opportunity to back them up with action, the time is now for him to try and walk the walk.

I wouldn’t want to put too much pressure on him, or try to force him into playing too far outside his natural comfort zone. He’s only 19 years old, and it’s important for him to develop at his own pace.

But he does seem to have a “I’m ready to take on the world” type of character. And the Keystone Cops confusion of the Nuggets offense is obviously in dire need of a floor general to run the point, direct traffic, and create better shots for the players.

So the remaining Summer League games seem to me to be a somewhat ideal chance to make lemonade out of lemons. No matter what happens in the future, Stone is out for now and the team needs a PG. On top of that, if the front office genuinely believes Fournier is part of the team’s future, that future most likely includes spending at least some time at the 1.

So I hope they put this idea on wheels and test it out a little bit over the next few games. Who knows, maybe it will pan out, maybe not. But if Fournier can even show that he has the mere potential to run the point effectively, it will not only ease concern about the end results of Stone’s injury, but on the PR front it should also go a long way in making the selection of Fournier with the 20th pick appear much more sensible in the eyes of many fans.

Announcing the (re?) launch of my Denver Nuggets blog

Over the past few years I’ve written a good deal about the Denver Nuggets over at PSD’s Nuggets Forum, and also at my blog there. I’ve also made a few videos that I uploaded at my youtube channel.

While none of it is groundbreaking, Earth shattering stuff, and some of what I’ve written is quite frankly a bit embarrassing looking back at it now, it’s all just what I happened to be thinking or researching about the Nuggets at the time.

And that’s all I’m going to keep on doing, except that now I’ve finally done what I should have done long ago, which is to create one space where I can consolidate all of it. So you’ll notice that in this one single inaugural day I have posted content dating back to 2008, and so while this “new blog” of mine isn’t exactly all that new at all, it is at least a new incarnation of it, and (most importantly) a new toy for me to play with.

So, if you’re interested in reading or commenting on my take on the Nuggets, you’re welcome to drop on by at any time. And thanks for doing so right now, too!

Don’t expect this to be anywhere nearly as comprehensive and consistent (in terms of posting frequency) as the terrific, well established blogs such as the Roundball Mining Company and the Denver Stiffs. I’ll post when I have the inclination, when I have time, or when I have something stuck in my craw, but not much in between.

As for what’sto come, my next video will be of Julyan Stone, and I definitely need to revisit and revise my “The Front Office is doing just fine” post, as I regretfully find myself forced to admit that my confidence in Ujiri and Kroenke has wavered at least a little since draft night.

Anyhow, cheers, and Go Nuggets!

Denver Nuggets 2011-12 PER and usage rates (or, why PER needs context)

This post was inspired by a recent discussion I had on twitter with some of the guys at Roundball Mining Company. Follow the link to their blog, and follow their twitter feeds if you haven’t already.

These days the use of PER is becoming more widespread as a kind of “all-encompassing” metric to evaluate the overall efficiency of players in the NBA. But sometimes it can be misleading.

Short, simplistic version: The fewer minutes and the lower usage rate a player has, the less significant the meaning of his PER becomes. Basketball Reference (the source of these stats) defines usage rate as “an estimate of the percentage of team plays used by a player while he was on the floor”. In other words, the percentage of all possible chances for one player’s team to use the ball that were used by that single player.

So here’s the chart I made:

It should come as no surprise that the trio clustered in the upper right with both high PERs and high usage rates are among those who pass the “smell test” of players who made big impacts.

But more interestingare players like Chris Andersen and Kosta Koufos in relation to Al Harrington, Nene, Danilo Gallinari, Andre Miller and Arron Afflalo. Birdman and KK have higher PERs than the latter five players, but I don’t think many fans would seriously argue they made a bigger impact or helped win more games for the team.

Or in other words, their higher PERs are “devalued” by their lower usage rates, in a manner of speaking.

PER tends to be most useful in comparing star players with big minutes and high usage rates, or at least in comparing players with similar minutes and usage rates. But taken out of context it can be misleading: “Chris Andersen has a much higher PER than Danilo Gallinari.” So when you see PER discussed, always keep the context of minutes and usage in mind. It’s not that the stat itself is “wrong”, it’s just that it can be deceptive when it stands alone.

Jordan Hamilton rookie highlights [Video]

“Jordan Hamilton is our rookie for next year.” – Masai Ujiri

All signs point to Jordan Hamilton playing a much larger role for the Denver Nuggets in the 2012-13 season than he had through his rookie year. Quotes such as the one above from the front office and coaching staff, reports of rigorous training and a rock solid work ethic, the departure of Rudy Fernandez for Spain – it all adds up to more minutes and more responsibility for J-Ham in his sophomore season.

So with that in mind, last week I made this video of some of his rookie highlights, so that we might catch a few glimpses of the promising potential he hopefully can deliver on. (Full disclosure: It is a “highlights” reel, so it’s only the good plays. Perhaps someday I’ll make a “warts and all” video to focus on what he needs to improve on.)