Fans in D.C. are anxious about Nene right now. There's reason for this: between his advancing age, his pedestrian per-game numbers, his mammoth salary and, most importantly, his constant nicks and bruises, it's difficult to see the Wizards fully getting their money's worth over the next three years.
But it's important to note that Nene is a really good player when reasonably healthy, displaying mastery that goes beyond his per-game stats. If Nene made less money, we'd see him as the heir to the No Stats All-Star, but because he's got such a big contract, we expect more. The Wizards, though, value him highly because they know that, stats be damned, he helps the team win when he's on the court. And that's the whole point, isn't it?
How Nene helps a team win is interesting. You'd be hard-pressed to find a player as unique as Nene, with the build of a defensive lineman, the physicality of Charles Oakley combined with the nimble feet and court sense of a soccer player. He's undersized, doesn't have the world's best jump shot and doesn't exactly get up like he used to, but whenever you can combine physicality with court sense, you get a player that can help a team in many different ways.
Here are a few that stand out:
Going by traditional and somewhat-advanced stats, Nene is a poor rebounder. Last year, he averaged less than seven a game. His rebound rate, which measures the percentage of available rebounds he grabs when he's on the court, was a pedestrian 13.6 percent last year and is just 13.5 percent for his career. Players who finished with a higher rebound percentage last year include combo forwards Josh Smith, Ersan Ilyasova, Shawn Marion and teammate Trevor Booker.
But a funny thing happens: despite Nene's own rebounding issues, his teams have consistently been better on the glass as a whole, particularly defensively. This is a trend that has continued with many different kinds of rosters. Several players who shared court time with Nene saw their rebounding numbers jump. Emeka Okafor's rebound percentage rose 2.5 percentage points from 2011-12 to last year, and two of Al Harrington's three best rebounding years came when he played with Nene in Denver.
While Nene isn't always the man who grabs the rebound, he's almost always the one preventing the other team's best rebounder from getting it. Box-outs like these on Kenneth Faried, are very common.
Okafor and Bradley Beal, respectively, grabbed the rebound in these shots. But who do you think did the most work to make sure the Wizards secured the ball?
Here's another example from a late-season game against the Raptors. Four Toronto players drop back, leaving just one, Amir Johnson, to crash the boards. Who do you think is the person that makes sure Johnson doesn't sneak in for the offensive rebound? You guessed it:
Okafor, despite not putting a body on anybody, gets what seems like an uncontested rebound, but it's only so because Nene put in all the work. Certainly, there's value in having a nose for the ball, and Okafor has been an accomplished rebounder for his career. But it's a lot easier when you don't have to also worry about boxing out.
The other thing: Nene will often cede uncontested rebounds to his teammates if he feels it helps get a break going. Most of the time, the big man gets priority when two players go for a rebound, but it can often be better for a wing to grab a board and just start running. Most great rebounders would have secured this rebound, for example, even though there was no competition from the other team. Nene instead lets Martell Webster have it.
Take away uncontested rebounds like that, and a lot of the league's best glass cleaners would have significantly worse rebounding rates. Between that and the work Nene does to prevent the other team from getting boards, you can see why his so-so individual rebounding numbers are deceiving.
Nene's an interesting defensive player. He isn't a shot blocker like most of the league's centers, but he manages to be effective because he's nimble, positions himself well and can be physical when need be. It was a blessing for him to play with Okafor. Just as Nene's boxing out enhanced Okafor's rebounding, so to did Okafor's ability to protect the rim give Nene more freedom to use his those quick feet.
One of the great luxuries Nene brings is that he can check perimeter players if he's caught on a switch. Here he is sliding right with waterbug point guard Darren Collison, for example.
Switching like that isn't ideal, of course, but there are ways the Wizards use that skill in their schemes. Because of Nene's defensive versatility, he and Okafor would often switch assignments mid-possession, rendering some screens useless. Switching didn't cause a mismatch, so it simply made life more difficult for the offense. Here's an example against the small Rockets that also shows off Nene's excellent positioning in pick and rolls.
This is another case of individual stat bias. Nene got no credit for anything in the box score on this play -- the steal was assigned to Bradley Beal -- even though his switch shut off Houston's first option and he deflected James Harden's pass on the pick and roll.
That kind of versatility allows the Wizards to keep offenses off-balanced and show many different kinds of looks. Unlike many bigs, Nene is equally adept trapping and laying back on pick and rolls. The synergy he developed with Okafor was the major reason the Wizards were a top-five defense despite not having a single player that even sniffed the all-Defensive teams.
One of Nene's obvious box-score strengths is his ability to generate assists. He averaged nearly three for the year, and a whopping 19 percent of Wizards possessions ended with a Nene assist when he was on the floor last year. Almost no player in the league is better at picking out a cutter and reading the double team. He makes this crosscourt pass, which only comes after the Bobcats' defender in the opposite corner helps on a cutter, look easy.
But even that number can underplay Nene's passing impact, as Nene picks up a boatload of hockey assists or hockey hockey assists thanks to good ball movement. The Wizards used Nene primarily in the low post last year not because of his ability to score, but rather because of how he spots players out of double teams. While he's lost lift as a finisher and sometimes settles for jumpers, he can get into the middle well enough to collapse the defense. When he does, he can kick out or find a cutter even under heavy pressure, a skill few bigs possess.
The same skill applies on the pick and roll. Slide your defense over an inch to protect the rim or help elsewhere, and Nene immediately can spot the open man. Look at the pass he makes here to seal a win over the Knicks in February.
He's also among the league's best at executing dribble handoffs from the post. Watch how he creates this wide-open shot for Webster by letting John Wall cut off him and handing the ball off in the post.
Nene got a well-deserved assist on two of these plays, but did not on the other two, even though it was his skill that set up the finish. As a whole, the Wizards assisted on nearly 18 percent of their field goals with Nene in; that number dropped to 16.4 percent when he sat, according to NBA.com's media stats page. The Wizards' ball movement was so much better with Nene in the game.
In a lot of ways, Nene is the anti-JaVale McGee. He doesn't electrify with his athleticism, but he does so many subtle things to help his team win. After dealing with McGee's frustrations for years, Nene's game is a breath of fresh air for Wizards' coaches.
That is, of course, if he can manage to stay on the court for a reasonable number of games. The Wizards' playoff hopes depend on it.