The Denver Nuggets’ post-Carmelo play has been one of the best stories of the second half of the season. The Nuggets had the highest offensive efficiency in basketball before trading Anthony, and they haven’t skipped a beat offensively since the trade. More importantly, the Nuggets have transformed themselves into one of the best defensive teams in the league since the trade. Having the league’s best offense with a great defense is a very good thing, and the Nuggets have been on an absolute tear since they made the trade.
The Nuggets’ post-Carmelo success has hardly been a secret, but here’s one question that hasn’t been asked enough in the wake of the Nuggets’ success: if Nene (nee Nene Hilario) can be the starting center for one of the best defensive teams in the league, why isn’t he one of the best centers in the league?
Consider the following:
– Nene’s “True Shooting” percentage is currently 66.5%, which is the second highest true shooting percentage in the league. Nene averages 14.8 points per game. That is an incredible combination of scoring volume and efficiency — only Charles Barkley, Artis Gilmore, Cedric Maxwell, and Darryl Dawkins have ever averaged more than 14.5 points on 66.5% or better True Shooting over the course of a full season.
– Nene is a skilled passer, and his turnover ratio is solid as well.
– Nene has a lower usage rate and a higher PER than Chris Bosh.
Basically, if you have any doubt that Nene is one of the best offensive centers in basketball, you haven’t been paying attention. Nene is a versatile offensive player who can do damage in post-up situations, is an absolute master of creating scoring opportunities for himself without the ball in his hands, is an excellent finisher around the basket who can run the floor, is a good free-throw shooter, and can even step out and make mid-range jumpers.
His statistical accomplishments are beyond reproach, and he has one of the best offensive +/- ratings on a team that has had the highest offensive efficiency in basketball for most of the season. (In case you’re wondering, the loss of Carmelo hasn’t impacted Nene’s offense in the slightest — he averaged 14.8 points per game on 60% shooting from the field in March.)
The question with Nene has always been his defense. The Nuggets had been a below-average defensive team for the last two years, and Nene looked like part of the problem. He has never been much of a shot-blocker, and he was prone to missing rotations and seemingly taking plays off on defense. Nobody questioned Nene’s offense, but there were some worries about whether or not Nene put a glass ceiling on a team’s defense.
With the way the Nuggets have been playing defense since Carmelo left, it appears that no glass ceiling exists. Playing alongside Chris Anderson and Kenyon Martin helps, but Nene has been buying in and using his athleticism to disrupt opposing offenses, and he definitely has been a valuable part of the Nuggets’ stifling new-look defense. Simply put, it’s time to give Nene his due as one of the best centers in basketball.
This is a good news/bad news situation for the Nuggets. On the bright side, their starting center is one of the best centers in the league, and will increase their chances of going far in the playoffs. On the other hand, Nene can opt out of his contract after this season, and will command serious money on the open market if the lockout doesn’t muck things up too badly and front offices have a lick of sense. Nene made 11.4 million dollars this season, and it will likely cost the Nuggets more than that to retain the 28-year old’s services.
Denver is being billed as a team that has succeeded without a superstar, but the truth is that Nene has been producing like a superstar this season, and will get paid like one next season. The only question is by whom.