Just about one month ago, Denver traded Nene for Javale McGee. The consensus at the time of the trade seemed to be that Denver got younger and – in all likelihood – better (see NBA TV analysis, Roundball Mining Company from March 16th, and Hochman at the Denver Post), with DenverStiffs.com disagreeing slightly to say that McGee wasn’t as good as Nene as an NBA player, but that he was a much better asset than Nene. BulletsForever.com also stated that this was a good trade, albeit 2 weeks after the fact.
Predictably, Nuggets fanboys are starting to second-guess their own analysis. Roundball Mining Company now feels that trading for McGee was a mistake, half-heartedly arguing that McGee has no value before complaining that McGee might warrant a large contract in the off-season.
To me, this was a smart trade that comes down to three factors:
- Building a balanced roster that will peak at the same time
- Saving money
- Maintaining future flexibility
Here’s how I’m going to break this out. First, I’m going to look at Nene and McGee as players, then connect that with Denver’s plan to build a champion while also making money and staying flexible.
Javale McGee The Player
Here’s all you need to know about McGee – he a legit 7 footer with tons of potential, but he was traded. The Wizards (one of the worst teams in the NBA) got rid of him…which means he’s risky. He’s the NBA equivalent of buying a used car sight unseen. Could be awesome, or could be a hunk of junk.
The team that signs McGee to his next contract (I’m guessing $7-10 million a year for 4 years) is gambling that – at a minimum – McGee is going to improve as a human being without regressing as a player. Considering he’s only 24, and considering the average NBA big man needs 5 years or so to acclimate, McGee is a good risk to take…but he’s still a risky player to lock up to a big contract. NBA GMs hate to take risks like that, especially if
they’re working with a new owner and up for a new contract they’ve seen enough of McGee to fold their hand.
In other words, the Wizards took a player they weren’t wild about and turned him into a solid veteran.
Nene The Player
Nene is a solid B+ big man (as Zach Lowe writes here) on both ends of the floor. Denver fans knew a lot about him, which is to say they’ve had plenty of time to focus on his shortcomings and take a lot of his positives for granted (which is why Roundball Mining Company has doubled back on their own analysis). Nene has his worts as a player:
- Lack of assertiveness on offense and a generally poor focus from game to game and quarter to quarter
- Mediocre rebounding
- Frequent injuries
- Poor conditioning (he has never, ever, ever come into camp in anything close to basketball shape)
and then he has his bright spots:
- incredible efficiency when he does score
- excellent passing
- average to above average defense, both as an individual and as a team defender
- decent jump shooting and free throw shooting
- good team guy – doesn’t need “touches” (shout out Marcus Camby) to stay involved
In my mind, Nene’s biggest shortcomings are his poor conditioning and his frequent injuries. Combined, these two issues are really going to hamper his productivity in 2-3 years. It’s one thing to play your way into shape when you’re in your 20′s, quite another to do so in your 30s. As Nene’s conditioning falls, his injury risk increases. It wouldn’t shock me if Nene’s productivity falls off a cliff right after the 2013-2014 season.
So, in my eyes, Nene has peaked. His peak has been good (B+ sounds about right to me), and if he stays at the B or B+ level for the next 2-3 years, his contract is fair. If he slides faster than that, the Wizards will regret this deal.
Denver’s Grand Plan
It’s really not fair to judge an NBA player by his age, but it’s a solid metric in an historical sense. Players tend to peak around 24, with the years between 24 and 30 being the most productive (see this article on WSJ.com). Granted, every player is unique, but it’s not exactly rocket science…we all know from experience that physical ability starts to slide after about 28, and really starts to fall off in the early 30′s.
In my mind, the perfect NBA player is 27-30 years old; young enough to have lots of athleticism, but old enough to know the game and their role. I think this is especially true of point guards and centers, as the game is harder for them (but for different reasons).
Now let’s take this knowledge and compare it against the following chart of Nuggets players by age:
I’d argue that trading Nene for McGee was as much about building a roster that peaks at the same time as it was anything else. Trading Nene for a draft pick might have made some people happy, but it wouldn’t have helped Denver assemble a core of players that will all hit their relative physical peaks at about the same time (the 2013-14 season thru 2015-2016 season).
Now, why did Denver trade for McGee? Why not some other young big, or perhaps a lesser veteran and a young asset? Roundball Mining Company for one seems to think Denver could have done better than McGee.
But who? Contrary to what some people have said about Nene’s value, I’d argue that Denver got all they could for Nene and then some. McGee has excellent scoring ability and the size and athleticism to be a great defender. If he can control his fouls and improve his decision making (two things that will probably come with age), McGee will be a better player than Nene ever was.
What’s more, Nene’s contract accounts for about one-fifth of a team’s cap space under the new CBA. It’s very, very hard to move a contract that big without taking a substantial contract in return – the days of dumping big contracts for nothing are coming to an end. The fact that Denver did precisely that is nothing to sniff at, as it saved them money today (which they used to sign Chandler) as well as cap space in the future if McGee isn’t kept.
Could Denver have traded Nene for someone else? Sure, but I can’t envision that person being a better match for Denver’s roster, nor a less expensive option.
Finally, McGee will be a restricted free agent this summer, which means Denver controls his destiny. If McGee manages to solicit a ridiculous offer from another team this summer, Denver can engineer a sign and trade that salvages some value from this whole transaction. Yet if teams are wary of offering McGee big money, Denver can re-sign him at an amount that’s acceptable.
If Denver signs McGee to an “acceptable” contract (I’m thinking $7.5-9 million a year is realistic and fair), he’ll be a trade asset…rotation big men earn at least $5 million a season, and starters are usually worth twice that. At $8-9 million he can be packaged with Chandler or Afflalo to net a bigger fish, or he can be moved for a rotation player or two if it comes to that. Most likely, however, is that Denver will keep him.
So to sum up, this trade, Denver:
- got a little bit worse on the floor this season (and maybe next season as well)
- got rid of an expensive player who’s game probably won’t age well
- brought in a talented youngster who won’t be an unrestricted free agent for years
- saved money
- maintained cap and roster flexibility going forward
If McGee plays with only a little more maturity than he exhibits now, Denver won this trade by a healthy margin.
Keep in mind: Were it not for the fact that Washington has a player named Andre Blatche (who doesn’t get along with McGee and has no trade value), I doubt the Wizards would have made this deal. This trade was clearly about improving the locker room in Washington, and Denver was the beneficiary. This deal shows once again just how shrewd Denver’s front office really is.
The one negative to this deal is that Denver got worse on the floor this season, but I’d argue that’s a good thing as well. Denver simply doesn’t have the talent to win it all, so why bother making a playoff run? Better to secure a lottery pick in a great draft than make a meaningless run and a 1st round exit.