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Is Carmelo Anthony's Passing the Key to New York Knicks' Sustained Success?

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Is Carmelo Anthony's Passing the Key to New York Knicks' Sustained Success?
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Carmelo Anthony has been the driving force behind the New York Knicks' recent string of successful outings, but it hasn't been the 'Melo you're used to.

His scoring continues to be impressive, as he's averaged 25.8 points per game during the five-outing stretch of unblemished basketball, but it's the small forward's passing that is starting to push this squad onto the right side of the ledger.

Maybe. 

Although he's averaged just 4.6 assists per game over those five contests, he's distributing the ball at the right time and involving the rest of a talented roster. And yes, the Knicks—despite their futility, their prior status as a league laughingstock and their record—have quite a bit of offensive talent.

If one play is allowed to serve as a microcosm for 'Melo's shifting mentality, it was the Raymond Felton triple that pushed the Knicks ahead of the Phoenix Suns late in the fourth quarter of what would become win No. 5 in the current streak.

Screenshot from NBA.com's media archives.

That image is Anthony's bread and butter.

An isolation set with the game on the line and a play that is basically asking him to play "hero ball"?

Yes please!

Screenshot from NBA.com's media archives.

This isn't as promising a situation, but it's still one that typically leads to a shot attempt from Anthony, especially in the waning minutes of a close game.

Screenshot from NBA.com's media archives.

But not this time. 

Anthony notices Felton wide open in the corner and hits him with an on-target pass as he double-clutches and falls to the floor. The point guard drills the triple, giving New York a two-point lead that eventually allows them to advance to a fifth period and get the "W."

It's only one play, but it represents the overall shift that has occurred in Anthony's head: He's looking for the right basketball play.

After the game, Felton himself confirmed this with the following quote, per ESPN New York's Ian Begley: "He’s doing a great job. He’s making the right play. He understands that we need him to score, but he understands now that he can make the extra pass to us. He has confidence that we’re going to hit that shot for him." 

Amazingly, the Knicks are 11-2 when the starting forward records at least four dimes, as shown by Basketball-Reference. Not bad for a team that's this far below .500 even after a five-game winning streak. 

As Begley points out, the reigning scoring champion has also seen his assist percentage climb to 20 after hovering around 14 throughout the pre-winning streak portion of the season.

But let's not give him too much credit yet.

Throughout the season, 'Melo has been willing to pass the ball. While superstars like Paul George get credit for their passing skills and status as "point forwards," Anthony hasn't earned the same reputation for one reason: His teammates haven't been hitting their shots. 

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

According to SportVU data on NBA.com, Anthony has averaged 6.6 assist opportunities per game. Unfortunately, the Knicks have converted only 3.1 of those during the average contest, as Anthony has consistently been surrounded by players who are better at missing than making their shots.

Compare that to Luol Deng, who is putting up the same number of assist opportunities but generating 3.5 dimes per contest.

It's not that Anthony has been failing to pass the ball in the past, but rather that his teammates aren't making the shots.

I ran though a more detailed analysis in the middle of December and came to the following conclusion: 

There's a trend there, and it's simply that all of these players suit up for terrible offensive teams: the Utah JazzToronto RaptorsChicago BullsCharlotte Bobcats, Brooklyn Nets and Detroit Pistons. As shown by Basketball-Reference, not one of those teams is in the top half of the league in terms of offensive rating. 

Ipso facto, the Knicks must be pretty terrible at offense as well.

Interestingly enough, 'Melo was averaging 6.8 assist opportunities per game on Dec. 21. Since then, the number has actually gone down.

But the Knicks are hitting shots now, and that's giving the impression that Anthony is starting to pass the ball more.

Iman Shumpert went on his hot streak, and lately Felton has been playing better offensive basketball. Over the past four games, the previously slumping point guard has averaged 13.3 points and 6.8 assists per outing, shooting 42 percent from the field.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

Believe it or not, that's a huge improvement. Again, that should speak to the utter futility of 'Melo passing earlier in the season, as each potential dime resulted in a clang off the rim. 

As ESPN New York's Ohm Youngmisuk wrote, "The Knicks are slowly climbing their way out of a deep hole and making progress. But if they are going to take that next step and become a factor, the Knicks need somebody to step up and give Anthony an offensive hand."

The team as a whole is starting to do that, not just a "somebody."

According to Basketball-Reference, the Knicks are shooting 43.7 percent from the field this season, a mark that beats only seven offensively limited squads. Their three-point shooting only checks in at No. 15, and that's just one year removed from a top-five placement. 

But check out these shooting percentages from the field during the five-game winning streak: 

However, let's not just look at the team as a whole—which has produced admirably over the stretch in question, with the exception of the defensive struggles against Detroit and Phoenix. 

Anthony's teammates have shot only 43.3 percent from the field throughout the season. During the last five games, they've hit 140 of their 293 attempts. For those of you without a calculator, that's 47.8 percent, which is a sizable improvement when averaging 58.6 shots per game.

And that's the biggest change during the winning streak.

You could surely say that Anthony's passing is key to New York's sustained success, even though he's been relinquishing control less often. The Knicks desperately need other players getting involved in the offensive output. 'Melo has been tasked with carrying far too large a load in the scoring column this season.

Is Carmelo Anthony's passing the biggest key for the Knicks going forward?

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But it goes deeper than that. 

Anthony has been passing the ball this season, and that's not a recent development. It's the results of those passes that matter. So long as his teammates are making shots when he sets them up, New York will thrive once more.

This roster isn't remarkably different from last year's outfit, and that squad won 54 games and a playoff series. The pieces are in place to have a dominant offense, and we're starting to see that come together.

Anthony's passing is key, but not as key as what happens once his teammates touch the ball. 

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