Nuggets must overcome extreme playoff-experience deficit against Spurs

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In Game 1 of their first-round series, the Nuggets outscored the Spurs by six points in seven minutes while both teams’ starters were on the floor. The game got away from Denver the other 41 minutes, when San Antonio gained an 11-point advantage.

“They’re coming off the bench with Patty Mills, Belinelli and Rudy Gay,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “We’re coming off the bench with guys that were in the G League last year.

“We understand who we are, where we’re at.”

I don’t take Malone’s remark as a slam of his own team. Rather, it’s an acknowledgement of how far and how quickly Denver has risen. Monte Morris did climb from the minor league to a key NBA role. The Nuggets did end a five-year playoff drought. They are playing the Spurs, who’ve made the postseason 22 straight years.

It’s not criticism to acknowledge the disparity of experience in this matchup.

Everyone who played for San Antonio in Game 1 had prior playoff experience. Only 35% of Denver’s minutes went to players with prior playoff experience.

Paul Millsap, Will Barton and Mason Plumlee are the only rotation Nuggets to appear in a previous postseason. Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Monte Morris, Malik Beasley and Torrey Craig never have.

In these 2019 playoffs, Denver has – by far – given the small share of minutes to players with prior playoff experience:

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The last team with such little playoff experience by this measure: 2016 Pistons, who had what we’ll call a Playoff-Experience Level (PEL) of just 30%. That Detroit got swept by the eventual-champion Cavaliers in the first round. Cleveland exclusively used playoff-experienced players that postseason, save four minutes for rookie Jordan McRae.

The 70-point PEL gap between those teams is also one of the highest in recent years, higher even than the 65-point PEL gap between the Nuggets and Spurs.

But the Cavs were the No. 1 seed, the Pistons the No. 8 seed. That’s usually how it goes, the more-experienced team the higher seed.

That’s not true with the second-seeded Nuggets and seventh-seeded Spurs, though. Denver outperformed San Antonio throughout the season.

Does the Spurs’ experience give them an edge now?

Here are the series with PEL gaps above 60% (using full postseason minutes) since the NBA-ABA merger. When the higher seed has a higher PEL, that series is in white. When the lower seed has a higher PEL, that series is in silver. Denver-Antonio is in gold. All teams are listed with their seed first.

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Of the few times the team with the big PEL advantage was the lower seed, the experienced team pulled the upset. That doesn’t bode well for Denver.

The largest PEL gap overcome by a higher seed since the merger? It was 59.6% by the third-seeded Celtics, who beat the sixth-seeded 76ers in the 2002 first round.

So, if the Nuggets win as a higher seed despite a 65% PEL deficit, they’ll make history.

And maybe they will.

Denver is already heading up faster than its experience level would suggest.