FEATS OF STRENGTH
The Nuggets finished the 2011-12 season No. 3 in offense. Despite what you may have guessed, they didn't do it based on their three-point gunners -- Denver was just No. 24 in three-point percentage, and No. 13 in attempts despite the league's second quickest pace. The Nuggets finished so high on the strength of their overall field goal percentage (No. 2) and free throw rate (No. 3). Those items speak to how many good shots deep in the paint Denver earned.
The Nuggets basically blew every other team out of the water in shots at the rim last season. Some 41 percent of Denver's field goal attempts were at the basket. The No. 2 team in this category, Detroit, had 34 percent. The gap between Denver and Detroit was greater than the gap between Detroit and the No. 27 Nets. The Nuggets were just way, way, way more adept at getting to the rim. When you drill down to the player data, you see that it's both a team effort and it's a credit to a few specific players.
JaVale McGee, acquired midseason, basically mimicked Nene (the player who went back to D.C.) on offense, getting nearly six shots at the rim per game and converting better than 60 percent of them. Kenneth Faried took 4.5 shots per game at the rim, shooting 68 percent. Ty Lawson got in there for 4.6 attempts. Al Harrington, since traded, 4.7. And pretty much everyone else with a major role had at least three per game. Only two rotation players -- Danilo Gallinari and Timofey Mozgov -- shot worse than 60 percent at the rim.
Part of this is that McGee and Faried are incredibly long and athletic -- those are two factors that help in scoring in the paint. The other part is the Denver has two darned good point guards in Lawson and Andre Miller. The league average for percentage of made FGs at the rim that are assisted was 53 percent. Some 73 percent of McGee's and 66 percent of Faried's makes were assisted. (Faried's an incredible offensive rebounder, so most of the rest likely came there.) This team is built on getting easy shots and converting them. The high free-throw rate is a product of that focus on the deep paint.
So the team swapped out Harrington and Arron Afflalo for Andre Iguodala, one of the best wing defenders in the NBA. That should help the No. 20-ranked defense, though AI2 does replace Afflalo at two-guard, and Afflalo is no defensive slouch. But there should be no question as to whether Iguodala fits the bizarre, different offense George Karl runs. Iguodala much prefers to drive than shoot, and he's a canny playmaker. Assuming Miller continues to hold up and the big men perform, the Nuggets offense might be even better with the addition of Iguodala. It could threaten for the top honor in the league.
AIRING OF GRIEVANCES
That said, Iguodala isn't going to save the defense by himself. A full season of Wilson Chandler could help, and in theory McGee will improve over time, as Karl educates him on the proper way to make defensive plays. The defensive potential of this team is strong: McGee and Faried could be dominant in the paint, if JaVale didn't foul so much and cut out the most absurd of his goaltend violations. On the perimeter, Lawson isn't too stout a defender, but Miller can man up and shake some opponents. They'll have trouble with the Russell Westbrooks of the league, but who doesn't? I imagine Karl is spending preseason focusing on getting together a defense that works. I've learned not to doubt Karl's ability to make it work. He had a Carmelo Anthony team in the top five in defense for multiple years! (He also had Nene and Kenyon Martin on those teams, of course.)
I'm also slightly concerned about the long-term health of the club. McGee, Iguodala, Gallinari and Chandler make lots of money. Lawson is due. If for some reason the team can't reach the very top level of the West, it's a very, very expensive collection of talent. But that's a subject for Mike Prada to work in his offseason review.
It will be miraculous if ...
JaVale McGee does not repeat as the 2012-13 NBA GIF champion.
Andre Miller gets through the season without punching anyone.
George Karl finds nothing to wax angrily poetic about. (Trick entry: he's already waxed angrily poetic about the focus on salaries over performance!)
Masai Ujiri gets snubbed for Executive of the Year votes again. (Free Masai!)
Kenneth Faried is not at some point in his life named to a Cabinet post.
Andre Iguodala gets a heartwarming welcome back to Philadelphia when the Nuggets visit.
THE HUMAN FUND
Let's get sincere.
Team MVP: Andre Iguodala
Team X-Factor: JaVale McGee
Team Finish: 2nd in Northwest | 5th in West
Best Championship Hopes: President Gary Johnson
The Hook is a daily NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.