The Nuggets have become perhaps the league’s most interesting franchise, in part because their stunning move to trade Nene reveals a forward-looking vision and a willingness to act boldly. Denver now has no player earning more than $10.5 million per season (Danilo Gallinari) and five earning between $4.5 million and $8 million per season — the range once regarded around the league as the home of the most overpaid players.
But all the focus on the big picture sort of obscures the fact that the 2011-12 Nuggets are a pretty darn good team. They’re “only” 25-21 after Monday’s loss to the suddenly hot Mavericks, but Denver started off looking like a contender and only fell back during an early February stretch during which half its rotation was going through injury issues. Its defense has been spotty for most of the season, but in a Western Conference full of question marks after the Thunder and Spurs (and even San Antonio is dealing with non-stop Manu Ginobili injuries), was it so far-fetched to see Denver making a cinderella run to the conference finals?
Flash forward a week, and much has changed. Nene is gone, replaced with a project center in JaVale McGee who didn’t get off the bench Monday night, even as Wilson Chandler, in his first NBA game since May, logged 28 minutes for George Karl’s team. And now Gallinari might miss a month after breaking his left thumb in that game. Meanwhile, the Lakers and Clippers made key upgrades, the Mavs have found themselves again, the Jazz won’t go away and received a major spark over the last week from their young guys, the Suns are alive again and the Timberwolves are four games from being through their toughest stretch of the season. Minnesota, on the outside of the playoff picture as of now, also has three games left against Denver and owns the best record so far among the Denver/Utah/Phoenix/Minnesota/Houston crew against Western Conference foes — a key potential tie-breaker.
If Gallinari misses a month, he’ll miss one game each against Utah and Phoenix, and two apiece against Houston and Minnesota, including a back-to-back against the Rockets on April 15-16.
The Nuggets, for the record, have a few things going for them:
• They’re up one game in the loss column on Houston and Phoenix, and three games in the loss column over Minnesota.
• They played the league’s eighth-toughest schedule so far, and their remaining 20 opponents have a collective winning percentage of just .500 – one of the lowest such marks in the Western Conference.
• They are insanely deep at every position.
• They are 1-0 against both Phoenix and Minnesota, and 1-1 against Houston and Utah, meaning they control their own destiny (to some degree) in determining head-to-head tie-breakers.
It sounds pessimistic to even hint at the possibility that Denver might miss the playoffs, but the Western Conference is that close, and only eight of Denver’s remaining 20 games are at home. No team has played more of its home games than Denver at this point. That matters, even if it is a disappointing 14-12 at home.
There’s also the question of when injuries and trade-related departures of core players become too much, even for perhaps the league’s deepest team — a team that could somehow afford to bury Chris Andersen, Timofey Mozgov, Rudy Fernandez and McGee on a night where both Gallinari and Andre Miller got hurt.
Chandler brings Gallinari’s positional versatility — the ability to swing between both forward positions — and can work as an effective transition player. But he’s not quite in Gallinari’s league as an offensive centerpiece in the half-court, and the half-court is where Denver can still occasionally hit droughts — even if they are better there than the conventional wisdom about a team with no “closer” suggests.
Gallinari has become an effective pick-and-roll player, as both a screener and a ball-handler, posting an easy career-high in assist rate and generally working as a key secondary option in Denver’s half-court offense. Denver (like lots of teams) is at its best in the half-court when all the pieces are moving and the ball swings from one side to the other, where a player is ready to catch the ball on the move and initiate a backup action. When a Ty Lawson/Nene pick-and-roll turned up nothing immediate, Lawson could kick the ball to Gallinari, ready to run a high pick-and-roll, drive past a defender closing out on him or hit someone like Arron Afflalo coming around a screen on the sideline.
Two of those pieces are now gone, and they happen to be two of the pieces that allowed Karl to go small so often. The Nuggets have outscored opponents by nearly six points per 100 possessions with Gallinari and Nene on the floor together, nearly four points better than the team’s overall scoring margin, according to NBA.com‘s stats database. The results haven’t been good across the board, but units with Gallinari at power forward and Nene at center have mostly been effective, per Basketball Value. The same is true for “bigger” small lineups featuring Gallinari, Al Harrington and Nene.
Denver has been much better defensively with Gallinari on the floor and a hair stingier with Nene playing. A word on Nene: As I wrote in breaking down last week’s trade, he has been banged up for most of this year and producing at a rate far below his healthy career norms. He is also a known commodity capable of playing center, and even in his worst season in quite a while, he’s shooting 51 percent, passing well, playing decent defense and putting up a Player Efficiency Rating just under 17.0. A subpar Nene still gives you a “B” across the board, and not many players can do that even at their peak. A nice, predictable “B” big man–something none among McGee, Kosta Koufos and Timofey Mozgov have ever been or will be by the end of this compressed season.
Nene is also posting a career-best defensive rebounding rate. With him on the court, the Nuggets rebounded 78.1 percent of opponent misses, a mark that would lead the league by a long shot, per NBA.com’s stats tool. Without him, Denver has snagged just 73.2 percent of available defensive boards, around the league’s average. Scouts have told me that while Nene isn’t an elite rebounder in terms of raw numbers, he is (when engaged) committed to boxing out his man and claiming an area of the floor, even if the ball doesn’t come his way. The Nuggets’ defensive rebounding numbers have split this way, depending on Nene’s presence, in each of the last four seasons, per NBA.com’s stats database. As I’ve written before, the opposite was true of the Wizards during McGee’s time there.
Those numbers come with caveats, of course — the quality of teammates and opponents on the floor, etc. But they also become more meaningful as they repeat themselves year after year. As an aside, Nene has had the opposite impact on Denver’s offensive rebounding rate, which should only get better the more minutes Kenneth Faried plays. That guy is truly a Manimal.
All of which is to say: Watch the Nuggets over the next couple of weeks if Gallinari is out as long as expected. They’ll still be very competitive, but I wonder if they’ve lost more than it might appear.