Denver Nuggets Breakdown: Nuggets Shine, But Are Merely Gold-Plated

With the trade winds gusting over Denver daily, the Nuggets are in the unenviable position of likely having to scrap a playoff contender in order to rebuild. However, until Carmelo Anthony is sent to New York, New Jersey, or any other new abode, the Nuggets remain a potent team capable of blitzing any opponent in the league, particularly at home.

Let’s examine Denver’s 130-102 win over the Miami Heat to extrapolate what the Nuggets can do in the unlikely event that Carmelo Anthony stays in the Rockies.

I charted each possession of the Nuggets’ convincing win over the Heat, discounting the extended garbage time of the fourth quarter, the preempted initial three minutes of the game, transition, extreme early offense, and broken plays.

Because some plays involve more than one person on offense, my ratio of possessions used will not equal the possessions used in the game. I used this methodology to assign more credit or blame to players who deserved it, while also stretching the data that could be analyzed in a game condensed by the lopsided score.

Against Miami’s zone, the Nuggets’ offense primarily consisted of isolations and catch-and-shoots, usually from downtown.

Carmelo Anthony naturally involved the most possessions. He loves to isolate on either wing and use his fantastic athleticism to blow by defenders and get to the rim. If a defense plays soft he simply rises and fires, and if help is loaded behind the defender, he can take a step back to his left to generate separation and shoot over the defender.

He utilized 18 possessions against Miami. Of those 18, 12 were on isolations which saw him shoot 5-10 for 13 points, not a bad ratio. After a quiet first half, he generated 11 points on six possessions over the second half, though James Jones and Mike Miller offered no real challenges to his jump shooting. Indeed, against a listless Heat team with no LeBron James and no competitive drive, once the Nuggets generated a double digit lead, the Heat threw in the towel.

On catch-and-shoots, Anthony generated a 1-3 shooting total with three points on three possessions. A screen/roll led to no points, and he turned it over twice in the post. Given the malaise of Miami’s defense, Carmelo’s 16 generated points on 18 possessions was subpar.

‘Melo settled for jumpers too often when the game was tight and became sloppy in the post when the game was out of reach. Despite this, he’s still as pure a scorer as there is in the NBA with a remarkable array of offensive weapons. He still suffers from lapses in concentration though. Perhaps he’s envisioning himself as a Net? Or a Knick?

Arron Afflalo utilized the second most possessions, mainly because his shooting stroke was on-target for the duration. On spot ups, he sank 3-4 three pointers for a remarkably efficient total of nine points on four possessions. As such, his presence spaces the floor beautifully for Denver’s various isolations.

When Denver or Afflalo ran plays to free himself up, he was slightly less effective—a basket cut resulted in a hoop, a dribble-pitch and a curl each saw missed jumpers, and on two isolation possessions Afflalo hit a free throw and missed a layup, but because Miami’s defense had to scramble, Denver got the rebound and Al Harrington was able to sink a three.

Tally it up and Afflalo generated a 2-5, six points, five possessions number on non spot-ups, still a solid ratio.

Al Harrington also generated nine total possessions, but was only 3-8 for eight points in those possessions. He only shot 1-5 on spot ups for three points on five possessions, and was 0-1 in the post. He generated three points on two isolations by sinking a three over Miller, and a cut to the hoop found him another score. Still, Harrington’s an awful passer, has sticky fingers, and is incredibly itchy to shoot. He’s not a good enough scorer to compensate for his impulsive gameplan.

Chauncey Billups generated 10 points on eight possessions, mainly by a handful of early-offense isolations that saw him net seven points in five possessions. Mostly though, Billups stayed out of the way, though part of his strength lies in his decision making, his communication, and his discretion. While the majority of his 13 assists were simple perimeter passes leading to shots behind a zone, his zero turnovers provides testimony to Billups’ understanding of good plays versus bad plays.

J.R. Smith can make any shot from anywhere unless pressured defensively, and his shooting prowess turned up nine points in four spot up scenarios. He also posted up for a dunk, while an isolation and a screen/roll involving him were unsuccessful.

As Smith is wont to do, he eschewed a simple layup to try a more difficult 360-degree spinning layup and naturally missed, and he let off most of his fireworks when the game was well-in-hand, launching threes right until the final buzzer. Indeed, Smith is a showman first, a basketball player second, and a winner last.

On a roster stacked with fewer self-indulgent players, Nene would have more opportunities to showcase his assortment of skills. On the Nuggets, he only generated five possessions. A pair of post ups led to a pair of free throws made. A pair of isolations led to four points, and a cut behind the zone led to a dunk and a 1.6 point-per-possession ratio.

Kenyon Martin also generated only five possessions tallying only four points as a result of his line-drive mid-range jumpers and a basket cut.

Ty Lawson is still learning how to be a point guard, but he’s super quick and he’s learning how to finish creatively against bigger players. He sank a three once during his three spot ups, but was more effective isolating in mismatches and splitting hedges on screen/rolls, finishing a combined 2-2 for five points in three iso or screen/roll possessions.

Melvin Ely made several appropriate passes and worked hard on the offensive boards, but his attempts to generate offense only led to two points in four possessions—and zero points in three post ups.

Turning to the defensive end, Afflalo was challenged the most due to his matchup with Dwyane Wade, and performed admirably. In plays he was asked to contest a shot (either on an isolation or closing out on a shooter), Afflalo held the Heat to 3-11 shooting for seven points on 11 possessions, a terrific ratio. Total, he yielded 11 points on 15 possessions on 5-13 shooting though his defensive awareness was worse than his exemplary one-on-one defense.

Nene was challenged the second most times and had a poor game. While the Heat shot 4-6 for 10 points in nine possessions with Nene as the most important defender, he seldom challenged shots, was posted for a score, and was lucky the Heat didn’t connect on open looks against him.

Worse, Nene’s rotations were deplorable—the Heat scored eight points in four possessions where Nene either was late or inadequate in his defensive rotations—an awful harbinger for Denver should this current roster make the postseason.

Harrington was also challenged nine times and likewise was helped by faulty Heat offense. His poor contests led to the Heat scoring six points in five possessions, and while four help possessions only led to two points again, Harrington only made two accurate rotations. A third time, he was bailed out by a missed shot, while a fourth scenario led to a flop and eventual Heat layup.

Except when Martin was posted up by Bosh, he was a defensive non-factor—failing to get around screens twice for two points against, making no effort to show or recover on screens yielding four points on two possessions, and allowing Bosh to isolate him for two more points on one possession. Only on three post ups did K-Mart yield a positive ratio—holding the Heat to 1-3 shooting and two points. K-Mart has always been an overrated defender who, despite decent strength and quick hands, often takes the easy way out.

Lawson was challenged seven times and yielded 3-7 shooting and eight points. His best strength was his ability to slip around a pair of flimsy screens and stay in plays to contest shots, but he was stuck to the first solid screen that was set on him, yielding a basket. He tends to ball watch on the weak side which led to a Mario Chalmers three, and in fact allowed six points in four possessions where he was asked to contest a shot. He anticipated a pass to the roll man on a screen/roll which led to a steal.

Lawson’s still an inexperienced defender but he’s much improved from last year, though he still tends to give too much space and is woefully undersized. With the amount of big guards in the Western Conference, it’s doubtful that he could survive as a starter in the short term, but he’s a bright prospect who has improved his game at both ends and has room to get even better.

Of players who were barely challenged, Smith lost track of Wade cutting backdoor for a layup, count it, and the foul. He bites on pump fakes and is overly anxious closing out on shots, though he was only burned for one free throw in three attempts. Still, Smith is too much of a ball watcher and too undisciplined to stop anybody over a consistent basis. Plus, his game is completely connected to his confidence. When things are going well, he’s brimming with intensity to stop his man. When things aren’t going well, he’s standing around losing track of the action around him.

In other words, he still hasn’t grown up.

Melo was blessed by the fact that Miller isn’t up to speed, as three poor defensive sequences were nullified by three missed shots. An exquisite perimeter rotation though led to a steal and run out for a dunk.

Billups was only attacked twice. His failure to get around a screen led to two Heat points, and a contest of a James Jones three led to a miss.

Ely failed to slow down Wade on a screen allowing a made layup, missed a rotation that saw Mario Chalmers botch a layup, and contested a Jones miss for two points in three possessions.

In total, the Nuggets don’t get a lot of man-movement, generating offense via clearouts, the occasional screen, and one-on-one offense, which works because of the dynamism of their roster stacked with explosive scorers. It’s an offense which has been known to flatline against good defenses in the postseason, but with Carmelo in store, the Nuggets would be a load to handle for any Western Conference team.

Inexperienced defenses and/or defenses lacking precise interior rotations—namely the Jazz, Thunder, and Hornets—would have difficulty stopping the Nuggets for a full series.

On the other hand, Denver’s defense relies more on smoke and mirrors than anything else, and coordinated five-man offense—mainly the Spurs, Lakers, Jazz—would rip the Nuggets apart in a playoff series.

As such, Denver’s best hopes this season extend no farther than the second round of the postseason. Is it worth it to attempt to win a playoff series and then lose your Carmelo for nothing, or would it be better to trade Carmelo, likely slip short of the playoffs, but have a few more prospects for the future.

Despite the fact the Nuggets truly are a very talented team, they’re not a title team, especially not with a distracted Carmelo Anthony. Denver’s best bet is to milk Anthony for as many more wins as possible and perhaps coast off that fat to an eight seed in the playoffs. Once the trade deadline approaches though, Carmelo needs to be sent off for the best package on the table to accelerate their rebuilding years.

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