March 22, 2011
The Denver Nuggets are 10-4 after losing their best two players on Feb. 22, 2011. The Nuggets lost Chauncey Billups, one of the best point guards in the National Basketball Association over the last decade, and Carmelo Anthony, one of the most prolific scorers in the league over the past five years to a trade. Most basketball analysts thought that Denver would implode without Carmelo’s scoring punch and without Chauncey’s leadership and gamesmanship. However, the Nuggets have played better and more exciting basketball over the last 14 games, despite losing their best pieces of personnel. Denver averages more points in a more fluid offense because of the emergence of Nene Hilario, a more cohesive, balanced offensive strategy, and one of the quickest, fast breaks in the league.
Carmelo Anthony may finish his NBA career as a Hall of Fame Player. He is a scoring machine and probably one of the top three purest scorers in the NBA. He is a versatile scorer, sometimes posting smaller players in the painted area, mixing in a litany of short and long jump shots throughout the game, and occasionally setting up at the wing and penetrating past defenders with his quick first step. He is a gifted basketball, but he is also a notorious ball-stopper. When the basketball touches his hands, he stops, sizes up his defender, and makes a few pump fakes, before finally trying to get to the rim. Without Anthony holding the basketball on every possession, the Nuggets swing the ball regularly, passing it quickly from one player to another, causing the defense to shift constantly, and putting the defense a step behind their offense. Eventually, this frees players for open shots or forces the defense into one on one match-ups in the post, which in turn allows the Nuggets to exploit their biggest offensive advantage, Nene Hilario. At 6’10″ and 260-270 lbs., Nene is quick and powerful in the paint with good footwork and counter moves. He is one of the strongest players in the league and overpowers many players that are larger than him. He mixes that strength with a high skill level and finesses the players that he can not bully into easy buckets. Nene is averaging 15.3 ppg. and 9.3 rpg. after the trade, up from his season averages of 15.1 and 7.4, respectively. Hilario is the best option for the Nuggets in their half court offense, and he opens up the floor for J.R. Smith, the Nuggets best overall scoring option. Having Nene play a more prominent role in the offense was one of the most surprising and better results of trading Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups.
Shipping Carmelo to New York, did not only improve the play of Hilario, but it also helped the Nuggets offense as a whole. With Carmelo gone, Denver plays a more conventional offense, throwing the basketball into the post first on almost every play and then passing it out to open shooters. Prior to the trade, Denver played more run and shoot basketball. Whoever got a decent look at the rim, shot the basketball as soon as it touched their hands. Now the ball moves from player to player seamlessly in an attempt to get players open for shots before they receive the basketball. The Nuggets play classic inside-out basketball, instead of YMCA hoops. The pieces that they have acquired are better suited for this style of play too. Nene has to be double-teamed in the paint, so he opens up lanes for athletic slashers like J.R. Smith and the newly acquired Wilson Chandler. That penetration leaves open three pointers for sharp shooters, like Danilo Gallinari and streaky scorers, like J.R. Smith or Arron Afflalo. Though Carmelo and Chauncey accounted for most of the points on offense while in Denver, the offense runs more smoothly without them.
Incidentally, the trade of Denver’s best players also inadvertently or maybe purposefully increased the overall team speed of the Nuggets. Denver was already the home to one of the fastest players in the league, Ty Lawson. Billups, granted, was a great leader and pushed the basketball up court whenever possible, but over the years he had lost a step or two. Billups is quickly nearing retirement age and sometimes struggles to raise the pace of the game. His deliberate style slowed the Nuggets’ full court attack significantly. His replacement, Raymond Felton, may be the fastest man in the NBA with or without the basketball. With the elite athleticism of J.R. Smith and Wilson Chandler’s ability to finish plays, Denver has upgraded and solidified its fast break attack. Even Nene, Chris Anderson, and Kenyon Martin, their big men, are adept at sprinting to the other end of the floor and finishing in traffic. Either Lawson or Felton regularly take the basketball the length of the court themselves and score before defenses can set, so the loss of Billups and Anthony aided the Nuggets franchise immensely.
Somewhat unintentionally, the Denver Nuggets trade of their best two players has been addition by subtraction. Instead of replacing the talent that they lost with newcomers, they utilized the talent that was left more efficiently, devised a better offensive strategy, and reinvigorated it with subtle yet significant additions. Surprisingly, the Denver Nuggets are better without Carmelo Anthony.