The Nuggets’ Birdman: Best Minimum Contract Player in the NBA?

[Note: Originally Posted 02-05-2009 at 09:07 PM by DenButsu]

You can count me among those who was pretty concerned last summer when it became clear the Nuggets would not be re-signing Eduardo Najera. He did so much for the team as its “glue guy” in residence, doing so many of the little things that Denver’s stars didn’t seem to be very willing to do, and considerably raising the team’s basketball IQ when he stepped on the court. On a team packed with marquee names, Eddie was exactly the kind of player who was crucial to have around: unselfish, didn’t need the ball to be effective on offense or defense, smart, relentlessly energetic, and just scrappy as hell.

I was glad to hear after New Jersey picked up Najera that the Nuggets had landed the Birdman Chris Andersen. He had brought a great presence to the team in his last stint in Denver, always played hard, and was a fan favorite for his high flying blocks and dunks. But I really was not very sure what to expect after his big ordeal with getting suspended for drug use, going through rehabilitation, and coming back to re-join the NBA. For one thing, his level of physical conditioning was in question – how much of a toll had the past few years taken on his body? The mental question loomed even larger, though – could he really keep his focus on the game and be there for the team, would he have the discipline to do the rigorous training he’d need to in order to regain his previous form?

Well, now that half the season is over, the verdict is in, and if the charge is that the Birdman is one of the best NBA players that a minimum contract can buy, consider him guilty. For starters, let me just throw out there that his PER is 17.60, which seems to me that it must be the highest among all non-rookie contract players in the league who make $1 million or less (Andersen’s pulling in $797,581 this season). But I could be wrong about that, so if anybody knows of any minimum contract players with higher PERs, please chime in.

Najera’s vacancy left some deceptively big shoes to fill, and Andersen has not only risen to the challenge, but exceeded it and then some. Looking purely at his level of production, it’s easy to see. Najera averaged 21.3 minutes per game last season, and the Birdmand is averaging 18.8 this season, so with such a small difference the per 36 minute comparison is a fairly accurate amplification of their relative performances:

Code:
Per 36 Minutes
Player Season FG FGA FG% 3P 3PA 3P% FT FTA FT% ORB DRB TRB AST STL BLK TOV PF PTS
Chris Andersen	2008-09	4.2	7.2	.582	0.1	0.3	.333	3.2	4.5	.714	3.7	6.7	10.5	0.8	0.9	3.9	1.9	4.7	11.6
Eduardo Najera	2007-08	3.8	8.0	.473	1.1	3.2	.361	1.4	1.9	.708	2.4	4.8	7.3	2.1	1.5	0.9	1.3	4.3	10.0

Najera did bring one skill to the table that Andersen can’t, which is the 3-point shot. But the Birdman has proven much more effective at getting to the line, and his extra trips (and makes) there not only offset Eddie’s three point shooting, but also cost the other team in fouls. Likewise, while Najera had a slightly better knack for dishing the ball off to his teammates, I’ll give that up in a heartbeat for what Andersen brings to the table in the form of blocks and rebounds – and especially offensive rebounds. On a team that is 19th in the league on the offensive glass, it’s difficult to overstate how valuable the Birdman’s contribution to the team truly is. And to get an accurate sense of just how well he’s swatting shots away this season, the numbers need to be looked at in context. Here are the league’s top 15 in total blocks (this ranking is on the left), reordered by their blocks per minute:

Code:
Rank Player G MP BLK BPM
2	Ronny Turiaf	48	908	106	.117
11 Chris Andersen 39 733 79 .108
1	Dwight Howard	46	1661	137	.082
9	S. Dalembert	47	1148	85	.074
7	Tyrus Thomas	47	1159	85	.073
3	Marcus Camby	40	1350	99	.073
6	Andrew Bynum	46	1339	86	.064
4	Brook Lopez	50	1501	95	.063
12	K. Perkins	44	1260	78	.062
5	Tim Duncan	47	1657	86	.052
8	Emeka Okafor	48	1640	85	.052
13	Yao Ming	47	1543	78	.051
14	Andris Biedrins	49	1528	77	.050
10	Al Jefferson	48	1760	81	.046
15	Dwyane Wade	48	1826	71	.039

As you can see, the only top blocker who gets more blocks per minute is Turiaf, who like the Birdman is doing an incredible job with limited minutes. And indeed Andersen makes the most of his court time, shooting a very efficient .582 but never demanding the ball, constantly in motion, just bursting with energy making hustle and scrap plays all over the court, and always raising the level of enthusiam the team as a whole plays with. He has been a game changing factor on several occasions this season when, as the Nuggets’ defensive efforts were slagging off, he came in to re-ignite and re-focus the D and get it back on track.

It must be admitted that luck played a hand in making the Nuggets front office look smart in this case. Bringing in Chris Andersen to replace Najera was no sure thing – more like a pretty big gamble. But it continues to pay off big dividends, and if Denver finds its way to postseason success this year, you can bet that the Birdman will be playing a key role in that process. And in the NBA today, you’ll be hard up to find many more players at his pay scale who are making as big of an impact for their teams.

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