Per 36 Minutes:
Carmelo Anthony’s Knicks tenure – and on some level, his whole career – has fascinated me for one reason above all others. Consuming Carmelo’s NBA career – the video, the stats, the opinion pieces – has forced me to refine not only my view of one man’s ability, but my entire perspective on what constitutes a good NBA player.
There are very few offensive skills that Anthony does not possess in spades. He is an excellent shooter off the catch and can create his own looks with a combination of finesse, power, and extremely smooth ball-handling for a big wing. A matchup nightmare, Anthony has the quickness to beat most fours, the strength to bully smaller wings, and – usually – the guile to employ the more appropriate of these two approaches in a given matchup. Much-maligned for his uneven assist output, ‘Melo is actually two-thirds of an excellent passer. This is to say that he possesses the vision to find the right option and the physical ability to put the pass on target with the appropriate amount of touch or mustard. What he often lacks, however, is the willingness to pass up his own shot to create a better look for a teammate. This reluctance to give up the rock has a compounding effect – ‘Melo falls into a habit of dominating the ball, teammates who don’t expect service stop moving off the ball, ‘Melo loses passing options, offense stalls, jab-step, jab-step, up-fake, shot clock at 3, heave, back iron, get back on D.
If the previous paragraph sounds like old news, that’s because it is. Having entered the league with an uncommonly advanced skill set, Anthony has essentially been a finished product since his age-23 season, when a jump from the high 20s to the mid 30s in three-point percentage turned him into virtually the exact offensive player he is today. Since that year (2007-08), Anthony’s shooting, rebounding, and turnover numbers have fluctuated within extremely narrow bands. Last year was actually a slight down year for ‘Melo as a shooter – his 43/34/80 shooting line was pedestrian at best but not far off from his 46/32/81 career averages. Despite the ugly numbers from the floor, Anthony’s characteristically high free throw rate once again enabled him to register a true shooting percentage of 52.5%, a shade below the league average for small forwards of 52.7%.
Anthony’s rebounding numbers remained solid for a wing player on both the offensive and defensive ends – he proved particularly adept at following his own misses, owing to his preternaturally quick second jump. Anthony’s assist rate was the standout feature of his 2011-2012 line – 21% of his possessions ended in assists, a number still below the league average for small forwards but encouraging compared to his career mark of just 16%. That he was able to increase his assist rate while maintaining an incredibly low turnover rate for a ball-dominator (10.8% against a career average of 11.7%) was very impressive.
So the question that remains to be answered, even after all these years of watching Anthony put up stunningly consistent seasonal totals, is just how valuable a player like Carmelo is to his team. This is a player who oozes talent, who hits nearly every traditional check mark used to determine whether a player is an offensive force, who has a history of singularly great offensive performances to which only a handful of his contemporaries can hold a candle. And yet his shooting numbers hover around league average each year, his passing fails to impress, his game refuses to develop, and his teams’ results seem utterly dependent on the establishment of a strong supporting cast. What gives?
The answer, such as it is, has a lot to do with the brand of player that Anthony is. Put another way, we may be seeing tension in our answers because we are not asking the right questions.
The past 3 years have produced only 32 seasons by small forwards who played at least 500 minutes and scored less than 55% of their field goals on assists from teammates (the league average for small forwards is typically about 66% of baskets assists). Carmelo accounts for three of those 32, with assisted percentages of 42%, 46%, and 38% (the latter among the very lowest in the entire sample), respectively, in the last three seasons. Of the other 29 seasons in the sample, only two players are in Carmelo’s stratosphere in terms of usage rate: LeBron James and Kevin Durant (all three players have been above 30% usage in each of the last three seasons). Both James and Durant dwarf Carmelo by virtually every measure of offensive efficiency but, let’s be real, that simply puts Anthony in the same category as every other big wing in league history. If his inability to keep pace with these two players defines him, then the game is rigged. Far more instructive, I think, is a look down the list at other wings who rely on their own shot-creating ability rather than ample help from a distributor.
Removing the 9 seasons put up by Durant, James, and Anthony himself yields a sample of twenty-three seasons produced by many of the league’s top wings (the headliners here are Danny Granger, Paul Pierce, Rudy Gay, and Andre Iguodala) and several of the leagues, um, not…top…wings (including such luminaries as Terrence Williams, James Johnson, and Sasha Pavlovic). But the thread that ties the players together is their tendency to produce offense without the benefit of a league average or higher rate of their shots being assisted. The chart below compares Anthony’s three-year average output to the sample as a whole:
I think that this framework puts Anthony’s value into sharper relief. The sum total of his skill, his size, his quickness, and his decision-making is a player who can create more looks for himself than all but the very best in the league at his position and can convert those looks at a rate that is marginally better than league average. The lack of passing – both incoming and outgoing – in an Anthony offense means fewer layups but it also limits turnovers and, in so doing, decreases the opposition’s opportunities to get easy baskets in transition. I think Anthony’s value is easily understood as an analog to a workhorse starting pitcher in MLB. Imagine a pitcher whose ability to prevent runs is only slightly better than league average (say, a 3.80 ERA in a season where the league ERA is 4.00) but who pitches a league-leading 235 innings per season. Despite an ERA that wouldn’t raise any eyebrows, the marginal benefit of having him pitch each inning slightly better than average would accumulate significant value over the course of the season. In the same way, the fact that the Knicks can lean on Anthony to create shot after shot after shot at slightly positive efficiency with limited help means less shots that they have to find for other players who might not be able to produce even average efficiency.
And that last item brings us, finally, to the heart of the matter. If you pay a max-level salary to a player who does one thing well, and that one thing is create his own shots in bunches without killing your efficiency, you had better surround that player with a group of players who can do the things he can’t do. These include:
1)Defend (notice the lack of reference to Carmelo’s defense in this report card. It wasn’t by accident, I’m actually consciously matching his level of interest in that side of the ball).
2)Score at very high efficiency at low usage and without a need to play on the ball.
Carmelo Anthony is a luxury: any team that employs him creates its own market inefficiency. His franchise can pass on expensive players that score in bulk and pile up a ton of role players who do a couple things very well and whose lack of a complete offensive game means that they are undervalued by the rest of the league. Read: Tyson Chandler. Read: Steve Novak. Read: Iman Shumpert. And in a past life read Nene and Camby and Birdman and every other role player who is all the more valuable next to a ball-dominating wing who makes it so they only have to shoot when they have THEIR shot and can fight for rebounding position or get back on defense or stand in the corner waiting for a clean look without worrying that their absence from the flow of play is going to stall the offense. Therein lies the value of Carmelo Anthony: when you can cast him as your first, second, and third offensive options without killing your team’s TS% or inflating its turnovers, you no longer need to spend valuable cap resources on other expensive players who can score in bunches but who need the ball in their hands and who are defensive liabilities in their own right.
What’s that? Not subtle enough. Sigh.
I’m really not trying to rag on Amare here. I promise. He is who he is in very much the same way that ‘Melo is who he is and there are elements of Amare’s game – especially if we are talking about the Amare of two and three years ago – that are far, far superior to Anthony’s. But to complete this discussion without at least pointing out the inherent wastefulness – and that’s what it is – of committing more than half of the salary cap to two players who are not only redundant but who actively detract from one another’s value would be ignorant. Spend even a little bit of time perusing the efficacy of the Knicks most common lineups last season and it will become very clear that the Knicks are simply better with only one of their two scoring forwards on the floor and are at their best when the one on the floor is Anthony. This is not Amare Stoudemire’s fault – it’s the fault of arrogant and short-sighted team construction that valued the accumulation of “Star Power” (a label that means essentially nothing) over team synergy or financial flexibility.
Carmelo Anthony is a very good offensive player and a valuable NBA player – even on a max contract – when surrounded by pieces who are carefully assembled to complement what Anthony does best. The Knicks have a number of pieces that fit that description and, as a result, are likely to have a fair amount of success with Anthony as their primary offensive option. But Anthony is not LeBron James or Kevin Durant or Vintage Kobe or Dirk. He has limitations that require his front office to surround him with a certain type of team in order to make him the headliner on a legitimate title contender. This is perhaps the difference between a good player and a great one. Regardless, many will continue to view Anthony as a superstar and that is their prerogative. But labels are nothing in the face of results and one worries that, in an attempt to chase a certain label, the Knicks have built a core whose results will continue to come up short of their admirable ambitions.
Grades (5 point scale):
Teamwork: 2 (Subtract 5 points if you look like the Pringles man and love SSOL!)
Rootability: 3 (Add a point if you are mad at me for not mentioning anything about the Celtics series!)
Final Grade: B