Is Carmelo Anthony Really a One-Dimensional Player for NY Knicks?

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Is Carmelo Anthony Really a One-Dimensional Player for NY Knicks?
Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

Three years ago, in his New York Times blog FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver took a brief but deep dive into how Carmelo Anthony—contrary to conventional NBA wisdom—actually makes his teammates better.

Because he is able to score from anywhere in the court, Anthony draws attention and defenders away from his teammates, sometimes leaving them with wide-open shots. He also allows them to be more selective about the shots that they choose to take, since they know that Anthony can usually get a respectable shot off before the 24-second clock expires if needed.

These effects produce a profound increase in the efficiency of Anthony’s supporting cast when he is on the floor. In the 135 games that he played with the Nuggets, for instance, Allen Iverson’s True Shooting Percentage was 55.9 percent – much better than the 51.2 TS% that Iverson, a notoriously inefficient shooter, posted outside of Denver over the course of his career.

 

The piece was adopted by many as exhibit 1A for why James Dolan had to pull the trigger on a deadline trade with the Denver Nuggets to bring Melo to the New York Knicks.

A player as proficient and gifted as Anthony would be easier to build around, the thinking went, precisely because his supposed one-dimensionality wasn’t really one-dimensional at all.

It might have sounded like a leap of logical faith, but after leading New York to 54 wins and a first-round playoff coup a season ago—the franchise’s first in over a decade—Anthony seemed to be the cornerstone around which the Knicks could continue to build.

Anthony’s own scoring efficiency, which Grantland’s Kirk Goldsberry unpacked in his excellent CourtVision series a season ago, only reinforced those sentiments.

Regardless of the reasons, the bottom line is that Melo is about to wrap up the best season of his career. This is his prime, and with a much-improved jump shot, and a more efficient scoring profile, he’s revealed himself to be a worthy NBA superstar.

 

Now, with the team hobbled and haggard heading into the All-Star break, speculation over Anthony’s future has forced the Knicks to reconsider just how big that initial gamble was.

 

"Greed is Good"

First, some context: Statistically speaking, Melo’s struggles this season haven’t been nearly as pronounced as those of his team writ large.

Not much of a drop-off
Season PER TS% 3P% TRB%
2012-13 24.8 .560 .379 10.8
2013-14 24.5 .555 .416 13.0

Basketball-Reference.com

One area where Anthony has actually improved is his assist rate. The reason? Melo’s ability to pass out of double-teams to open, spot-up shooters has yielded consistently spectacular results. From The Wall Street Journal’s Chris Herring:

Indeed, while Anthony’s game has long been associated with ball-stopping stagnation, the numbers paint a somewhat different picture.

A good place to start is usage rate, or the percentage of plays that end with a particular player shooting. Surprisingly, Melo’s USG% is actually down, from a career high (and NBA-leading) 35.6 a season ago to 32.3 so far this year.

Even as his team teeters on the brink of total collapse, Melo’s has not been the approach of a desperate man—at least on paper.

That's the isolated data. The next level of analysis concerns how the team fares with respect to certain metrics whenever Melo is on the floor.

According to stats provided by NBA.com, the top five Knicks units with respect to assist ratio (with at least 25 minutes logged) all include Anthony, who is featured in 12 of the top 13 lineups in that category.

If you extrapolated out the assist ratios of the top three units, the Knicks would boast the highest such mark in the entire NBA. This despite Anthony having an isolated assist ratio of just 9.9, putting him behind the likes of Tyson Chandler and Cole Aldrich.

The twofold conclusion: Anthony shoots a lot, and does so at a reasonably efficient rate. When he doesn’t, having the right players around him remains the biggest factor in determining how productive the offense can be.

Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

The Defense Rests--Sometimes

The long view of Melo’s defensive abilities is equally context dependent.

For example, of the three units that have registered at least 100 minutes of floor time thus far this season, the most three most oft-used share two things in common: They all include Carmelo Anthony and they all boast defensive efficiencies below 95, as well as attendant positive net ratings.

Even more amazing, two of the three units feature Andrea Bargnani—poster child of New York's defensive woes—at the power forward slot, with Anthony at his more traditional small forward position.

But the knock on Anthony has always been more about isolated incidents than collective statistics. Last June, ESPN New York’s Ian Begley interviewed one NBA scout about Melo’s potential for growth entering the next phase of his career.

What the scout said about Melo’s defense may have been the most instructive:

At times he just gives up on plays a little bit, as opposed to being locked in all the time...It's not that he can't do it. He can be a really good defensive player. He can defensive rebound, he can keep guys in front, he can pressure the ball. So when you see him [give up], you become a little disappointed because you know he can do that. He can do anything on the basketball floor. He sort of cheats the game a little bit in that regard.

 

It’s hard not to appreciate the scout’s take when you see something like this:

A cynic’s response would be to suggest that, given how much effort Anthony has to exert on offense, going 100 percent at the other end would necessarily hinder his overall production.

Whether that’s accurate or not is anyone’s guess. But when you consider Melo’s physical vis-à-vis that of his peers—his is neither the otherworldly brawn of a LeBron James nor the lean, easygoing grace of a Kevin Durant—and the demands that his offensive game has on said build, the explanation isn’t completely without merit.

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And that’s before we consider Anthony’s prowess on the glass, where he ranks ahead of the likes of Carlos Boozer, Paul Millsap and Roy Hibbert, and just behind Chandler and Nikola Pekovic in rebounds per game (8.6).

 

Managing the Myth

So is Carmelo Anthony a one-dimensional star? Just because "yes" is the simplest answer doesn’t necessarily make it the best.

Anthony is one of the best scorers in the league playing on a team that struggles in that department. That, more than anything else, has reinforced the myth that this is where Melo’s value begins and ends.

Four months from now, the onus will be on Anthony to decide what’s more important: retiring a New York Knick—championship prospects be damned—or trying his hand as a second fiddle for a team on the brink of a banner.

The decision is bound to be a burdensome one for Anthony, who, at 30 years old, is no doubt pondering his legacy beyond the box scores.

For Knicks fans still skeptical about their supposed superstar, the dilemma might be even tougher: risk following Melo further into basketball purgatory, or watch as he lifts a championship trophy—and the narrative veil so many made him wear—to the giddy cheers of some other city.

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