[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:
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:
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.