Chart: Nikola Jokic’s steadily improving assist proficiency

Jokic.cumulative.assists

By now, Nikola Jokic’s unique passing ability is no secret, even on the national media stage which has tended to overlook the Denver Nuggets in recent years, as his flash, flair, and efficiency in creating easy looks for his teammates last season earned accolades not only from loyal fans and stat heads but also the likes of Charles Barkley, Jeff Van Gundy, and Bill Walton.

Still, sometimes it’s good to confirm that what we already know – or think we know – based on the good old eye test is backed up by the numbers. And in Jokic’s case, it certainly is.

The two lines in the graph above chart the rise of Jokic’s assist proficiency through the 153 games he has played thus far in his two-season career. The blue line might be less surprising, as it represents his assists per game, a number that would be expected to rise as he earned a larger role and along with it more minutes. The more telling figure, however, is the red line, which shows that not only has his per-game production consistently increased, but at the same time his assists per minute have as well.

Granted, this is among the simpler assist metrics (a good description of some of the more advanced ones can be found here at Basketball-Reference.com, which is also the source of the above statistics). Nevertheless, it is sufficient for our purposes here since we are only looking at The Joker’s performance over time in isolation, and not comparing him to other players. And we can clearly see a definitive and steady increase throughout his first two seasons in how prolific a playmaker he has been.

I would currently be prepared to put money down on him being the next in a fairly elite set of NBA centers who have averaged 5 or more assists per game, though I might be more reluctant to wager on this if the Nuggets were to acquire, for example, a ball-dominating point guard like Kyrie Irving who might take away touches from Nikola and alter Denver’s offensive flow. But for now, Jokic indeed appears to be on a 5-plus trajectory, and the addition of Paul Millsap, who like Jokic is an excellent passer who keeps the ball moving, will likely only facilitate this prospect.

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.

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.
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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.)