Monday, April 4, 2011

Post-Carmelo Nuggets: Are they Really Better Off?

Are the Nuggets really better off without Melo?
In the wake of the Knicks-Nuggets blockbuster sending Carmelo Anthony (see left) to the Big Apple, the media broke down the trade from several angles.  Some said the Knicks overpaid for Melo; other claimed that, no matter the price, New York had to pull the trigger.  Still others were content to be grateful that the "Melodrama" was over.  Few pundits or bloggers, though, actually assessed what the trade meant for the Nuggets.  Even Nuggets president Josh Kroenke decided to apologize for the trade rather than try to justify it to his fans.  Despite all this, the Nuggets have been prolific since the trade, compiling a 15-4 record since the trade (by comparison, the Knicks are now 10-12 even after a three-game winning streak). Denver even topped it all off with a road win against the red-hot Lakers on Sunday..  This impressive performance leads us to ask two inevitable questions.  Why are the Nuggets playing so well without Anthony?  And are they for real?  Hit the jump to find out.

The first question to answer is why the Nuggets are playing so well without Carmelo Anthony.  Nobody should doubt that Carmelo was the most talented player in the All-Star Weekend trade between the Knicks and the Nuggets (and the Timberwolves), as shown by the fact that he has been in the top eight in the NBA in points per game every year since 2005-2006.  Despite trading him, along with perennial winner Chauncey Billups (who has made the playoffs every year since 2000-2001 with three different teams), to New York, the Nuggets are as many games over .500 (nine) in 19 games without Carmelo as they were in 57 games with him. The secret, so far, has been the Nuggets' dominance of their home court.  Since the trade, the Nuggets are 8-0 at the Pepsi Center, as the fans now have something better to focus on than the Melodrama.  The Nuggets faithful even booed Carmelo a full month before he was shipped out of town.  Simply removing this sticky situation is a boost to any teams' morale, and the 8-0 record at home is proof.  Another reason for the Nuggets' post-Melo surge is their strong play at the point guard position.  The Nuggets' two point guards to start the season, Billups and Ty Lawson, had pre-trade averages of 26.9 points and 9.0 assists per game.  By contrast, the Nuggets' two current point guards, Lawson and former-Knick Raymond Felton, have significantly outplayed those averages since the trade.  Since Carmelo left Denver, Felton and Lawson are averaging 24.9 points and 13.5 assists per game.  The slightly lower point total is more than balanced out by the higher assists average; in fact, the 4 more assists per game means that the point guard position is creating at least 7 more points per game (4.5 assists times 2 points per basket minus 2 fewer points per game) than before the trade.  These 7 points (or slightly more, if the assists are on three-pointers) have been crucial, with a three-point victory over the Spurs, a two-point win in Utah, and a five-point edge over the Lakers.  Clearly, the strong play from the Nuggets' point guard duo of Lawson and Felton has given Denver that little boost that is putting them over the top in close games and leading them to a 15-4 post-Melo record.

Can Ty Lawson become an elite point guard?
Even more important than why the Nuggets are playing so well is whether the Nuggets of the last 19 games are for real--that is, will they continue playing so well for the forseeable future?  Given that strong backcourt play is driving this recent surge, this question can only be answered affirmatively if the Nuggets' guards continue their improved performance.  The primary beneficiary of the trade is Ty Lawson (see right), who moved into the starting point guard spot following Billups' departure.  Since the trade, his minutes played are up from 23.9 to 32.1, and his assists have nearly doubled from 3.7 to 7.1.  Due to his low playing time, we didn't even include the 23-year-old Lawson in our analysis last month of the top young point guards in the NBA, but now he is putting up really impressive numbers.  The second-year point guard has raised his Player Efficiency Rating (PER) this year as well, from 16.5 in his rookie campaign to 17.5 this year.  If Lawson can continue this improvement and become a top point guard in the NBA, the Nuggets have a chance to stay as dominant as they've been in the last 19 games.  Derrick Rose and the Bulls have shown us this year how, when a young point guard takes his game to a truly elite level, his team can become elite as well.  To tentatively project Lawson's progress, let's look at a player whose numbers have closely paralleled the Nugget's young guard so far.  Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook had only a 15.2 PER in his rookie season, but he raised that number to 17.8 in his sophomore season--quite comparable to Lawson's 17.5 mark.  Then, this year, in his third NBA season, Westbrook has exploded, raising his PER to 23.2, while posting career-highs in points, assists, field goal percentage, and steals.  Though this comparison doesn't provide an exact guide for how Lawson will perform next season, it shows that a colossal jump in performance is possible for young point guards like Lawson.  if he does follow in Westbrook's steps and becomes an elite point guard next season, the Nuggets could still be strong playoff teams year-in-year-out, even without Melo and all his drama.

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