Great Expectations
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SECAUCUS, NJ, March 9, 2007 -- Back in December when the Nuggets traded for Allen Iverson, I didn't think it would make them instant title contenders, but I didn't exactly think they'd be 15-21 (.417) since the deal almost three months later either. Now of course, Carmelo Anthony was suspended for the first 14 games of the Iverson era. But they haven't exactly been on a tear since he came back. They're 9-13 (.409) since Melo returned from suspension and just 5-8 (.385) with both of their stars in the lineup.

So what's the deal? Can we just chalk it up to chemistry? It's the way of Reality Check to look inside the numbers, so let's start with the basics...

W L PCT OFF RAT DEF RAT PT DIFF REB DIFF
Anthony Only 17 13 .567 110.8 107.6 +2.57 +1.90
Iverson Only 6 9 .400 102.6 104.1 -1.07 +1.53
Iverson & Anthony 5 8 .385 108.1 110.5 -2.00 -3.31
Overall 29 30 .492 108.2 107.2 +0.75 +0.71

OFF RAT = Offensive Rating: The amount of points the team scores per 100 possessions.
DEF RAT = Defensive Rating: The amount of points the team allows per 100 possessions.

Notes:
1. The Anthony only numbers include 22 games before the trade and eight games since it, when Iverson was out with sprained ankle. There's not much difference in the two sets of numbers, so we can analyze them together.
2. The Iverson only numbers include 14 games during Anthony's suspension plus this Wednesday's game in Golden State when Anthony was celebrating the birth of his son. The offensive rating on Wednesday was a paltry 97.3 and the defensive rating was an ugly 111.1.
3. The Nuggets played one game without either star, the first game of Anthony's suspension, before Iverson was acquired.

So, while Melo was still suspended and as Iverson adjusted to his new team, we see that the offense took quite a hit. An offensive rating of 102.6 is worse than all 30 teams this season (Charlotte is at the bottom with a rating of 103.2). But the defense was improved. In fact, a defensive rating of 104.1 would put you in the top five of the league.

But since the no-Melo days are over, let's focus on the numbers with the two stars playing together.

The _enver Nuggets

The offensive rating with both in the lineup is a solid 108.1, which would keep them at their No. 11 ranking in the league. The defensive rating, however, is at 110.5, which is more than three points higher than their season average and would rank them 26th in the league (their 107.2 rating for the season actually has them in the top half).

In watching a few games in the last couple of weeks, my take on their defense is this: It's not the worst in the league and there are flashes of good D with Marcus Camby's ability to block shots and Iverson's great hands. But they don't exactly help and recover with a lot of energy, so the defense can be broken down pretty easily with ball movement.

Good ball movement usually results in a high assist-field goal ratio, and if we look at opponents' assist-field goal ratio, the Nuggets have the sixth highest in the league (.610, compared to the league average of .579). Furthermore, in the games that they've had a defensive rating of less than 100 (which is very good), their opponents have an assist-field goal ratio of .606. And in the games that they've had a defensive rating of above 110 (which is very bad), their opponents' assist-field goal ratio has been .627.

So for their opponents, the key to scoring against the Nuggets is pretty simple: move the ball. And for the Nuggets, they need to improve their rotations.

Troubles on the other side of the ball too

Let's look a little closer at the 13 games the Nuggets have played with both AI and Melo. We'll compare the numbers in the wins with the numbers in the losses to see where the biggest discrepancies are...

POSS OFF RAT DEF RAT
Wins (5) 193.6 115.5 105.3
Losses (8) 193.5 103.5 113.8

POSS = Number of possessions.

The number of possessions they average in wins and losses is almost identical, so the pace at which they play isn't a factor. But the difference in their offensive rating in wins and losses is 12.0, while the difference in their defensive rating is 8.5.

Since we discussed the defense above, let's take a closer look at the offense.

Obviously, the Nuggets want to keep the ball in the hands of Anthony and Iverson. Two of the most common plays they are run are:

1. A screen and roll on the left wing with Iverson handling the ball and Carmelo setting the screen.
2. A cross-screen to get Melo the ball on the right block.

Now, obviously, the defense wants to take the ball out of their hands, so Iverson will frequently get double-teamed as he comes off the screen (with a third defender rotating to guard Melo) and Melo will almost always get doubled in the post. This puts the ball in the hands of far inferior offensive players, and if they're not able to catch and shoot, this is where the offense can break down.

The return of J.R. Smith will help, but still, the Nuggets need to find a way to be more consistent offensively. One play that they used often (and very successfully) in the second half of their Feb. 28 win over Orlando was a screen and roll on the right wing with Iverson and Nené. This combination was actually more efficient than the Iverson-Anthony screen and roll that they ran more in the first half.

There are a couple of reasons for this:

1. Nené sets a better screen.
2. Nené is more likely to be a mismatch for the weak-side defender coming over to help.
3. If Anthony is on the floor with them, he provides the defense with a dilemma: stay at home on Melo or help the helper.

On the boards

On other thing that we shouldn't ignore is the rebounding differential with both Iverson and Anthony in the lineup. For the season, Denver is the 12th best rebounding team in the league when it comes to differential, but their
-3.31 number with both of their stars would put them at 25th.

So, let's try to figure out where they're failing specifically.

OREB/G DREB/G OREB RATE DREB RATE
Iverson & Anthony 10.2 30.7 .246 .706
Overall 12.5 31.1 .292 .710

*OREB RATE = Offensive rebounds / (Offensive rebounds + Opp. defensive rebounds)
*DREB RATE = Defensive rebounds / (Defensive rebounds + Opp. offensive rebounds)

So, their defensive rebounding rate is down slightly, but their offensive rebounding rate is down almost five percent. If we compare Iverson to Andre Miller, we see that Miller grabs 5.6 rebounds per 48 minutes compared to Iverson's 3.4. So, the change there is a factor, but that probably doesn't tell the whole story.

Conclusions?

The presence of Anthony and Iverson gives the Nuggets two very potent offensive threats, and with bigs that can finish at the rim and a shooter in Smith, they can be an unstoppable scoring team. But they need to be sharper in how they run their offense and more disciplined. They're good in the open court, but they can run into trouble if a secondary break leads to a freelance situation in the halfcourt and the ball is not in the right hands.

More time for Steve Blake could help solve this issue, as he'll keep the ball moving or at least take care of it better than the likes of Yakhouba Diawara or Linas Kleiza.

Still, as I outlined above, issue No. 1 is the defense. The Nuggets do not help and recover well enough, so if you move the ball around, you will get a good shot. If Denver wants to make the playoffs and perhaps make a little noise in the first round, they need to put more effort into the D. Becoming a sharper offense will be easier to do as they build that chemistry.

Questions or comments? Get at me.