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February 19, 2012
Projection vs. Production
Nuggets vs. Thunder

by Bradford Doolittle

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Things can change in a hurry in the squashed schedule of this post-lockout NBA season. Just three weeks ago, the Denver Nuggets were riding a six-game winning streak and had moved into second place in the Western Conference, just two games back of the front-running Oklahoma City Thunder. Now, as the Nuggets limp into Oklahoma City for Sunday night's showdown with the Thunder, Denver is fighting just to stay in the playoff picture.

It's been a rough month for the battered Nuggets, who have lost seven of nine. Denver has been playing without its top two centers the last three games and its best overall player, Danilo Gallinari, has been out since Feb. 6 with a badly sprained left ankle. The Thunder have problems of their own, with star point guard Russell Westbrook also nursing a sore ankle and the red-hot San Antonio Spurs closing in on the conference lead.

There are a lot of reasons why these teams reside where they do in the standings, but let's focus in on a trio of possible performers for tonight's game and judge how they've done against our preseason projections.

Our projection system SCHOENE forecasts a full suite of our favorite metrics, but the bottom-line number to watch for is WARP, which measures how many more wins a player adds to his team's total than a freely available guy plucked off the scrap heap. While no single number can capture everything that happens in an interdynamic team sport like hoops, WARP points you in the right direction. When you see a WARP number that surprises you -- and remember, we know when to be surprised because we've predicted all these WARP scores -- the next step is to ask why.

All the WARP numbers you see in this article have been prorated to 82 games, just to give the results an air of normalcy in this decidedly abnormal NBA season.

Better than we thought: James Harden, Thunder

Projected WARP: 9.5
Current WARP: 12.9

Harden has emerged as the leading candidate for this year's Sixth Man of the Year award, well ahead of a field that also includes Lou Williams, Nicolas Batum, Thaddeus Young and Jason Terry. Essentially, Harden is filling the same role once held by Manu Ginobili in San Antonio. He's clearly the third wheel in Oklahoma City's core trio behind Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, but he's used off the bench in an attempt to spread his shots and offensive creation across two units in much the same way Ginobili was once used by Gregg Popovich.

Harden has exceeded our expectations by becoming extraordinarily efficient on the offensive end of the floor. His .653 true shooting percentage is third in the league behind New York's Tyson Chandler -- who dunks everything -- and Miami's Mario Chalmers, who stands unguarded at the 3-point line and feasts off the wide-open looks created by LeBron James. Harden has to create much more of his own offense than that pair, especially when he's playing with the Thunder's second unit. That makes his numbers that much more eye-popping.

While Harden has improved his 3-point shooting from 35.5 percent to 38.3, it's his uptick inside the arc that has fueled his rise. He's been more aggressive off the dribble, leading to more attempts at the rim and trips to the foul line. According to HoopData.com, Harden is finishing about 71 percent of his looks at the basket. Last year, he was at 62 percent and just two years ago as a rookie, Harden shot just 47 percent at the rim.

Harden excels with and without help from screeners, making him a versatile and valuable offensive weapon. According to mySynergySports.com, Harden leads the league in points per possession coming off screens and on handoffs, plus he's third when handling the ball on the pick-and-roll. But he doesn't necessarily need all that traffic to operate. Harden also ranks in the league's top 10 per possession on isolations. The new-found aggressiveness is paying off for Harden and if he sticks with that mindset, his career year should continue unabated.

Worse than we thought: Nene, Nuggets

Projected WARP: 9.5
Current WARP: 2.5

Nene was one of the most-coveted free agents during December's brief offseason but ultimately decided to stay in Denver on a five-year, $65 million deal. The first year of the new contract has been a difficult one for the athletic center, who has battled problems with his back and left foot all season. Most recently, Nene has been laid up with a strained left calf.

When he has managed to stay on the court, Nene has been inconsistent and often ineffective. It's tempting to assume that his issues have been due entirely to his physical woes, but you also have to wonder if he's pressing in an attempt to live up to the new contract. Nene is using 2.5 percent more possessions than he was a year ago, putting his usage rate above the league average (20 percent) for the first time in his 10-year career.

Increased usage rate is fine if you're getting positive returns, but Nene has terminated far too many possessions with missed shots and turnovers. Nene has always been a bit turnover prone for a big man, but he had improved in that regard over the years. Suddenly his turnover rate has jumped by 4 percent this season. That could be due to the injuries, but it could also be because he's trying to do too much on the floor. According to mySynergySports.com, he's been working more this season and has been more aggressive in the post. In both instances, he's seen a spike in turnovers. On post-ups, Nene has turned the ball over a startling 24.4 percent of the time.

There have been other issues with Nene's performance. His field-goal percentage has fallen as he's started taking more long 2-point shots, a zone in which he is shooting just 33 percent. With the increased tendency to settle for jumpers, his foul-drawing rate has fallen. Both of these issues may be as much related to decreased mobility from the injuries as it is to approach. That's what Nuggets fans have to hope for. Nene just needs to get healthy and once he does, he needs to relax and revert back to being the player who earned that big contract in the first place.

Who we thought he was: Serge Ibaka, Thunder

Projected WARP: 7.4
Current WARP: 7.8

Ibaka has produced the worth we had him pegged for in the preseason, but he's compiled that bottom-line value in a different manner from last season. In fact, he's fallen short on the offensive end in terms of decreased field-goal percentage, a lower usage rate and an increase in turnovers. Nevertheless, he's been essential to the Thunder's terrific start by becoming possibly the most dangerous weakside defender the game.

Ibaka has been on a shot-block tear of late, swatting 43 shots in his last 10 games to move into the league lead. Twice during that stretch, he blocked 10 shots in a game. Ibaka has blossomed as a rim protector playing alongside premier post defender Kendrick Perkins, who may return to the OKC lineup for Sunday's game. Even though Ibaka can get burned when he gets too focused on lurking around the rim, the Thunder have been 4.5 points per 100 possessions better defensively with him on the floor this season.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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