After last night’s 114-104 victory over the Thunder in Oklahoma City, the red-hot Denver Nuggets have now won 13 straight games in large part to not only great offensive play, but lockdown defensive play as well. During the streak, Denver is allowing just 98.6 points per 100 possessions, which would be the third best figure in basketball if prorated throughout the entire season to date. An unsung hero of Denver’s run, and really of their entire 47-22 season, has been starting center Kosta Koufos. Often thought of as a scrub due to his goofy looking appearance and the follicly challenged nature of his hair, he is actually one of the more underrated big men in the league. Though Denver seems to get better the smaller they go, Koufos gives George Karl a viable option not only against smaller opponents, but also to match up against bigger teams with multiple effective big men. Koufos is the ideal role player, as he is rock solid defensively and craftily efficient on offense. While he’s not the most versatile player, he has a particular set of skills that he performs well and at a consistently high level.
Spacing is important in any offensive scheme, but this is especially true in George Karl’s offense. The Nuggets shoot the league’s sixth worst mark from three point range, but they’re still able to take the most field goal attempts at the rim. Part of this is due to how many fast break baskets they get, but also they make a concerted effort to attack the rim on offense and have the spacing to do so effectively. Without quality spacing, their attack would be far less effective than it is; Denver boasts the league’s third best offense at 107.6 points per 100 possessions. With Koufos on the floor, Denver is scoring 109.4 points per 100 possessions, nearly two points more than their season average. This may come across as surprising as Koufos isn’t a great post up threat or shooter and he isn’t a dominant pick and roll big. So why is Denver’s offense so successful with Koufos on the floor?
Observing Koufos’ shot chart, we see that 390 of his 419 shot attempts have come at the rim and that he’s shooting 62.6% on those attempts. While detractors would argue that his limited offensive game would detriment him defensively, the fact that Koufos knows his limitations and plays to his strengths makes him a positive on the offensive end of the court. Rather than wasting possessions taking bad shot after bad shot, he spaces the floor and is efficient with the basketball when scoring chances present themselves. While he’s not the most gifted or skilled offensive threat, Koufos really knows how to play and has a good feel for the game. He excels at spacing the floor to open up driving lanes to the hoop and has great timing and instincts when cutting to the basket. The constant penetrating nature of Denver’s perimeter threats cause opponents to often help off of Koufos, allowing him to move around and receive the ball in a position to score. According to Synergy sports, Koufos shoots 64.6% on cuts to the basket. He has attempted shots on 168 cuts in 68 games, or 2.47 a game. That doesn’t sound like much, but those shots add up, especially when they’re going in 64.6% of the time. Koufos can also contribute in pick and roll sets, as his particular strength here is slipping screens and being nimble enough to finish in rhythm around the rim, like this:
Though efficient on offense, the defensive end of the floor is really where Koufos makes his mark on this team. With him on the floor, Denver allows just 100.5 points per 100 possessions, nearly two points less than their seasonal average of 102. While he does not possess disruptive athleticism, Koufos is a technician and his defensive positioning is excellent more times than not. He has an good grasp of what Denver wants to do in the pick and roll game and anchors one of the best pick and roll defenses in basketball. According to Synergy, Denver is fifth best in defending both pick and roll ball handlers and roll men, allowing 0.75 and 0.93 points per possession respectively. Koufos is also a strong help defender and averages 2.1 blocks per 36 minutes, a higher mark than Marc Gasol, DeAndre Jordan and Kendrick Perkins.
During Denver’s 13 game winning streak, the team is allowing just 99.4 points per 100 possessions with Koufos on the floor. In last Friday’s 87-80 victory over Memphis, Koufos was especially effective. Alongside his 18 points and 16 rebounds, he did a masterful job defending in the post against a Memphis team that is one of the more effective post up offenses in the league. Koufos defended 7 shots in post up situations, 5 from Zach Randolph and one each from Marc Gasol and Ed Davis. The Grizzlies were able to get just 2 of those 7 shots to go. This kind of defensive effectiveness is indicative of Koufos’ success defending post ups this season, allowing opponents to shoot just 37.7% and score 0.76 points per possession.
Kosta Koufos is one of Denver’s most valuable players. Their most used five man lineup of Ty Lawson, Andre Iguodala, Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried, and Kosta Koufos has killed the competition, outscoring opponents by 7 points per 100 possessions in 785 minutes played. When Koufos is on the floor, Denver outscores teams by 8.9 points per 100 possessions, a team high mark for an individual player. Without him, they outscore teams by just 2.8 points. The metrics all imply that he is a valuable commodity to the team and the eye test backs that up. He is not flashy or explosive, but Kosta Koufos is rock solid and he fits very nicely into what Denver wants to do on both ends of the floor. Koufos deserves more recognition than he gets (and arguably more minutes too) and is one of the most underrated big men in the NBA.