Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Checking up on Nene

When Marcus Camby was traded ("traded" might be a bit generous -- let's just say "sent") to the Los Angeles Clippers this summer, most of the stories were about Camby and his Denver teammates being miffed at the move, and the Nuggets trying to get under the luxury tax. Then, once the season started, other high-profile trades (Allen Iverson-Chauncey Billups, the Knicks deals) took the spotlight, and somewhere along the way the story of the man who took over for Camby got lost. We've maintained here at fruithoopz that, although Camby is a nice player, he might have been overrated due to his gaudy block and rebound numbers, and that Nene could, if healthy, do a solid job providing a lot of what the Nuggets have lacked in recent years.

So, 14 games into the Nuggets' season, let's take a look at what a healthy Nene has been doing. And healthy is the key word here -- Nene leads the Nuggets in minutes played so far this season, and is having the sort of start that could, if sustained, lead Denver fans to forget about Camby altogether.

At the offensive end, Nene has shown a few incremental improvements this year. For starters, he has a much-improved jumpshot. He's shooting a very impressive 48.8% on shots outside of 8 feet this year. For comparison, last year Camby, who shoots much more frequently from outside and has an offensive identity built around being able to hit outside shots, shot 37.7% on shots from more than 8 feet last year, and Nene himself, in his last healthy season in 06-07, shot 27.4%. Chances are that Nene's percentages will come down somewhat as the year goes on, but considering the fact that he's also shooting a career-high 74.6% from the free throw line (he's only shot 65.1% over his career), it's clear that Nene has improved his shooting ability somewhat. His shot chart shows how well he's playing the pick and pop game at the top of the key (90% of Nene's jump shots are assisted):

As is apparent from above, Nene continues to be extremely effective from inside, as he has been throughout his career. All in all, Nene has proved efficient enough to lead the league in field goal percentage and come in second in the league (behind only Delonte West in Cleveland) in True Shooting Percentage. He's scoring 15.4 points per game, while only taking 9.4 field goal attempts. 

Nene continues to be active offensively, also, and takes 35% of his shots in the first 10 seconds of the shot clock.

While Marcus Camby was known for roaming for blocked shots and always accumulated large totals in that department, to the point of winning Defensive Player of the Year a couple of years ago and leading the league in blocks per game for three years in a row, Nene has been known as a better position defender in the post (some fans might recall Nene doing an admirable job guarding Tim Duncan a couple of years ago in the playoffs). The statistics bear this out, as this year Nene has held opposing centers to 11 points per 48 minutes on just 41.8% shooting. Again, as a comparison, last year Marcus Camby allowed opposing centers to score 19.3 points per 48 while shooting 52.5%. 

In terms of defensive rebounding, Nene has not produced as much as Camby individually, but one very interesting feature of Camby's absence has been the move toward accomplishing defensive rebounding as a team. Currently, the Nuggets are rebounding 72.2% of their opponents' misses, which mirrors their 72.1% rate from a year ago, despite the fact that Camby rebounded 31.1% of opponent misses last year, while Nene, as his replacement this year, only corrals 18%. Looking a little more closely at the numbers, we notice that last year Camby's presence on the court only led to an increase of about 1.2% in defensive rebounding rate compared to when he was off of it, despite his prodigious individual rebounding numbers (meanwhile, this year the Nuggets see an increase of 9.1% in defensive rebounding rate when Nene is on the court vs. off of it). This year, the most glaring contributors to take over some of Camby's rebounding load are Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith, both of whom are on track to record career highs in defensive rebound rate and defensive rebounds per game. I've posited here before that many of Camby's gaudy rebound totals in recent years have been partly a result of a scheme that left Camby alone to secure rebounds while other players leaked out in transition. So far this year, Denver is averaging 5 fewer possessions per game (99.7 last year, 94.7 this year), meaning they're pushing the pace a little less this year (another way of looking at it: they're taking 35% of their shot attempts in the first 10 seconds of the shot clock this year, vs. 39% last year), and the entire team is involved in securing defensive rebounds. 

(As a sidenote, how impressive would it be if Carmelo Anthony continues to average 8.9 rebounds per game, as he has so far this season?).

The Overall Effect
All told, Nene has the highest plus/minus rating (the difference between how the team performs when he's on the court vs. off of it) on the team, the second highest Player Efficiciency Rating or PER (behind Chauncey Billups) on the team, and leads one of the better teams in the Western Conference in minutes played. As long as he's healthy, the Nuggets shouldn't miss Marcus Camby.

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