Point: JaVale McGee has great size and length coupled with explosive athleticism, which goes hand in hand with having, in the words of the immortal Hubie Brown, “tremendous upside potential.”
Counterpoint: McGee isn’t a very graceful athlete – he’s out of control a lot of the time and can’t seem to harness that athleticism, which leads to plays like, well, this.
Point: Despite that, he’s still able to be an extremely productive player. He averages 19.2 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 3.9 blocks per 36 minutes while shooting 56% from the floor, all contributing to a PER of 21.6, 16th in the league among qualifying players.
Counterpoint: Even though he’s productive, he doesn’t seem to be fitting in with the team very well. So far this season, Denver is a better team when McGee is on the bench.
Hold on. That last point is the one that I’d like to explore.
McGee has been on the floor for 924 minutes so far this season, and in those minutes, the Nuggets have a net efficiency of -0.6. When McGee has sat, the Nuggets have a net efficiency of +6.6.
Meanwhile, Denver’s starting center, Kosta Koufos, is less productive individually (PER of 16.7), but the Nuggets are +10.2 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, and -1.3 per 48 minutes with him on the bench.
So the question becomes, how is it that McGee can be the more productive player according to most individual stats, but Denver is better when Koufos is on the floor?
The first assumption might be that Denver’s bench simply isn’t any good, but that doesn’t hold up to further scrutiny. First of all, the team can’t seem to tell the difference between their starting point guard (Ty Lawson) and his backup (Andre Miller). The Nuggets are +3.8 points per 100 possessions with Lawson on the floor, and +4.1 with him on the bench. Meanwhile, Miller sees the exact inverse – Denver is +4.1 with him in the game and +3.8 with him on the bench.
The most damning evidence against the idea is the effect of simply substituting Koufos for McGee in the same lineup of players. Denver’s most-used lineup is their starting five – Lawson, Iguodala, Gallinari, Faried, and Koufos. That group has a net efficiency of +9.5 in 630 minutes together. Put McGee alongside that same foursome and that number plummets to -20.9 in 98 minutes on the floor – a 30-point swing just by swapping Koufos for McGee.
However there are lineups in which McGee can and has been quite effective for Denver. Denver coach George Karl is fairly well-known for being a bit of a mad scientist when it comes to lineup combinations and in most cases this Denver team’s astounding flexibility has been able to handle it. But fitting McGee into the right group has proved to be more challenging. Here are some +/- numbers for McGee’s interplay with other Denver players, courtesy of the amazing and addictive NBA.com advanced stats page (all numbers are per 36 minutes):
McGee with Kenneth Faried: -3.4 (338 minutes)
McGee without Faried +2.0 (586 minutes)
McGee with Corey Brewer: +2.1 (660 minutes)
McGee without Corey Brewer: -5.2 (265 minutes)
McGee with Andre Iguodala: +1.9 (565 minutes)
McGee without Andre Iguodala: -3.0 (360 minutes)
There ARE lineups with McGee that are productive. In fact, when McGee plays as a lone big man, with Gallinari, Iguodala, Brewer, and Miller on the perimeter, the Nuggets are +22.8 per 100 possessions in 56 minutes on the floor, one of Denver’s best lineups of the season. The pairing that is really the problem is Faried and McGee. Their net efficiency of -5.5 in 337 minutes together is the worst of any Denver pair with over 150 minutes that doesn’t include anyone named Timofey.
Over the last few months, Karl has weaned off of the lineups that include McGee and Faried together. Their struggles together are likely because (a) neither McGee nor Faried can space the floor or are particularly adept at creating their own shot, and (b) both struggle defensively much more than anyone seems to talk about.
Faried is improving but still finds himself out of place in screen-roll coverage, often getting caught in no-man’s land between hedging on the ball carrier and recovering back to the rolling big man. McGee, meanwhile, has never seen a shot fake that he couldn’t to bite on, and while he is second in the league in block percentage, there are many more plays where he ends up out of position after attempting to block a shot that isn’t there. Also, the goaltending.
In order to be successful, Faried needs to play next to Koufos (one of the most underrated defensive players in basketball), while McGee excels in small-ball lineups with four perimeter players around him (where his defensive deficiencies are mostly offset by the improved offensive spacing).
McGee’s potential and current level of production certainly justify his current minutes, but he’s held back by his inability to mesh well with everyone else on the team. Looking to the future, it’s problematic that Faried and McGee, two of Denver’s young front court players, struggle to succeed together.
That is kind of the key here – true impact players make everyone around them better just by showing up to work every day. If you take LeBron or Chris Paul or Kevin Durant and put them on a new team, the new team will instantly become better in clear, tangible ways. Even ignoring super-duper-stars, the players that surround McGee on the PER leaderboard (Chris Bosh, Manu Ginobili, Blake Griffin) have similar impacts on their team’s performance. McGee, however, relies on his teammates to bring out the best in him. There’s a big distinction there, one that inhibits McGee’s overall value as a basketball player. For a dude that signed a four-year, $44 million extension last summer, he needs to not only produce at the level he is, but he needs to be able to positively impact basketball games regardless of who he’s sharing the court with, which is something he isn’t yet doing.