The NBA season is unique among American sport leagues, in that the action doesn’t come to an end once a champion is crowned. After the Finals, fans are bombarded with the draft, summer league, and free agency. One week after the Lakers won a championship, John Wall was drafted by the Wizards. Two weeks after that, LeBron James chose to leave Cleveland for the Miami Heat. If professional leagues were movies, the NFL and MLB would end with the cowboy gunslinger riding into the sunset. Whereas the NBA would show him entering the next town and sitting down at a card game. Fans of other sports can turn their thoughts elsewhere once the season is done. Meanwhile, basketball fans suffer from brain overload which might explain their overly speculative minds.
The overactive hoopster brain tends to imagine moves a team could make to get better. For Knick fans this summer, one such fantasy is New York building their own super powered team with Amar’e Stoudemire, Chris Paul, and Carmelo Anthony. These players are likely to seek max contracts, but are they worth it? New York has already signed Amar’e, so it seems pointless to discuss the merits of that deal. There is little doubt that Paul, when healthy, is one of the best players in the league. John Hollinger said midway into the 2008 season:
I submit that Paul is the MVP of the non-LeBron portion of the league thus far… Paul is on pace to have, arguably, the best season ever by a player 6-3 or smaller, and because of his small market and relatively unamazing per-game stats, absolutely nobody is even talking about it.
So it’s time for me to ring the bell. He plays before a minuscule fan base, gets zero national TV exposure and might not even make the playoffs, which is keeping his performance under the radar. But Chris Paul is having a historic season thus far. It’s about time somebody noticed.
But what about the third of the New York trioka, Carmelo Anthony? Is he someone Donnie Walsh should be targeting with a max contract? On the surface the answer seems to be an obvious yes. Anthony propelled Syracuse to a national title in his freshman year, and has been named to 4 All-NBA teams (thrice he was a third teamer and once a second teamer).
On the other hand, Anthony’s teams have failed to make a dent in the playoffs. In 6 of his 7 seasons, the Nuggets have exited after the first round. He’s a high volume scorer who doesn’t have great efficiency. Last year Anthony was a tad above the league average with regards to true shooting percentage (54.8%) but the year before he was under it (53.2%). When Carmelo can’t drive to the hoop he ends up settling for a long jumper. According to Hoopdata, last year he attempted nearly the same amount of shots in the paint (7.9 fga/36) as from 16-23 feet (7.1 fga/36). Carmelo might be an especially poor fit in Knicks’ offense. Coach D’Antoni’s teams take a fair number share of shots from behind the arc, and ‘Melo is subpar in that area. Only twice has he hit more than a third of his three pointers, and his career average is an anemic 30.8%.
Then of course is the question of his defense. Over the course of his career, it was thought that Carmelo was a subpar defender. Last year Kevin Arnovitz of TrueHoop delved deeper into the matter:
Individual defense is difficult to quantify, but I consult Aaron Barzilai to get a feel for what his +/- numbers can tell us about Carmelo’s D.
“Anthony seems to have been a liability in 2007-2008 but not in 2008-09,” Barzilai says. “Maybe that’s the story, he quietly became at least a neutral player on defense in the regular season.”
By liability, Barzilai means that the Nuggets were a little more than five points per 100 possessions worse defensively with Anthony on the floor in 2007-08. This season, though, it was a wash. (The numbers don’t s
how any appreciable improvement from the regular season to the playoffs). The numbers indicate that it might be a little early to start talking NBA All-Defense selection for Anthony, but a five-point bump in defensive adjusted +/- suggests real improvement, provided the trend holds for another season or two.
At the other end of the evaluative spectrum, I ask a scout for an NBA team to tell me if he’s seen the improvement in Carmelo’s defensive game we hear so much about during the broadcasts.
“It’s there. Carmelo’s buying into a role,” the scout says. “You see it when it comes to containing dribble-penetration and as a weak side defender off the ball. That’s one of the reasons his steals are up. Is he becoming a lockdown defender? No. But he’s grasping the team concepts in terms of defensive rotations, and that’s the big thing.”
This year, the Nuggets were 1.1 points worse defensively when Carmelo was on the floor. So it appears that Anthony is at best a league average defender, certainly nothing more. Considering that any path to the Finals will likely go through teams with LeBron James, Vince Carter, and Paul Pierce, having a mediocre defender at small forward is a liability.
If you’re still not convinced that Carmelo would be overpaid with a max deal, then I present his list of similar players:
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If the ceiling is Dominique Wilkins, then it’s a list that’s damning with faint praise. Like ‘Melo, the Human Highlight Film was an inefficient high volume scorer. The rest of the list contains above average players, but no one I’d mortgage the future for. Compare this list to Amar’e Stoudemire’s who was similar to multiple hall of famers (Kevin McHale, Karl Malone, Alonzo Mourning and probable future HOFer Dirk Nowitzki).
Perhaps Anthony’s appeal is partially linked to the comparison principle; that is objects can be made to look better or worse depending on the other objects they are grouped with. After a season of free agency with multiple All Stars, ‘Melo is the only sure-fire All Star available in 2011. Next year after Anthony the best obtainable players are Al Horford, Joakim Noah, Jason Richardson, Shane Battier, and Michael Redd; guys who aren’t exactly household names. Although Carmelo is the most popular player of the bunch, the Knicks would be best served in passing on him and waiting for something better to come along. Carmelo is a high volume scorer with average efficiency and little else, therefore he fits the typical stereotype of overpaid NBA star. It would be like renting Jonah Hex thinking all cowboy movies were like 3:10 to Yuma. Perhaps when dreaming of that championship team, New Yorkers should suppress their overactive imagination to exclude Carmelo.