The Chicago Bulls had the first meeting with Carmelo Anthony on Jul. 1, the first day of free agency. If he agrees to sign with them, Tom Thibodeau’s first priority will be to turn around Anthony’s beleaguered defensive image.
The 2012-13 scoring champion is noted for his offense. He’s posted an average of 25.3 points with a true shooting percentage of .547 over the course of his career. For a team that finished last in scoring last year with just 93.7 points per game, Anthony is exactly what the Bulls need.
The Bulls struggled particularly doing the things which Anthony excels at, creating shots and knocking down threes. Anthony tied with Stephen Curry last year for most unassisted field goals with 456 and shot .402 from deep.
On defense, the match is the literal opposite. Anthony is regarded as a liability on the mirror end of the court, but last season, Chicago yielded an average of just 91.8 points, first in the Association. There, Thibodeau can help Anthony to reform his tainted reputation.
Reputation vs. Reality
The first thing that needs to be established is that defensive reputation and reality aren’t always the same thing. It’s not uncommon for a player to receive too much credit or blame, based on perceptions developed in his early career.
If a player improves over time, the world doesn’t always notice.
With Anthony, that seems to be at least part of the reason for his present image. Early in his career, Anthony was a bad defender on a reasonably good defensive team, but as he aged, his guard improved.
From his rookie year in 2003-04 to the 2008-09 season, the Denver Nuggets were a top-10 team in defensive rating four times, finishing between eighth and 13th each year.
Since then, his teams, whether the Nuggets or the New York Knicks, have been much worse. With the exception of the 2011-12 season, when the Knicks finished fifth, Anthony’s teams finished 16th (Denver) and 22nd (New York) in 2010-11, 18th in 2012-13 and 24th last season.
Over that time Anthony’s improved defensively, but because he’s been on bad defensive teams, it’s gone unnoticed. The chart below shows how his individual defensive rating fared relative to his team’s over the course of his career.
The red line is a trendline proving Anthony’s improvement. Per 82games.com, last season, the New York Knicks were decisively better at frustrating their opponents’ scoring chances with him on the court, giving up 2.4 fewer points per 100 possessions.
Furthermore, Anthony’s Synergy numbers (subscription required), with one exception, are better than average.
Synergy’s ranks can easily be misunderstood since they just include every player, regardless of position, together. Last season, 482 players logged minutes, so the ranks have to be seen on a larger scale.
To help simplify, I provided an estimate of what percentage of them meet Anthony’s thresholds. Since not everyone recorded the minimum number of plays in every category, it’s not perfect, but it should be relatively close.
|Carmelo Anthony's Defensive Synergy Numbers, 2013-14|
|P&R Ball Handler||0.76||81||16.80%|
Anthony’s overall numbers are better than over a third of all NBA players. That’s in spite of playing for the 24th-ranked defense. So, it’s doubtful that he was just benefiting from great help. Additionally, the two categories which rely the most on the individual performance—isolation and post—are where Anthony excels the most.
Anthony has great physical tools. That's why he's such a great scorer. He has a combination of strength and speed that makes him hard to to push out of the way and difficult to get around. As an on-the-ball defender, he's tremendously underrated.
And, as Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today argued, during his 2012 Olympic run, Anthony demonstrated a complete game:
With the U.S. men's team, Anthony has been anything but selfish. He's been a team player, willing to do whatever it takes: play defense, rebound, pass, score. He's been one of the best all-around players in international competition.
Some say perception is reality. Sometimes it's just laziness lagging behind.
The Real Problems with Anthony’s Defense
Some feel that Anthony is a poor defender, but an NBA scout told ESPN’s Ian Begley that’s not really the case. The problem is that he’s an inconsistent one.
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.
And that is one area where Thibodeau will help. If there is anything to be said about his defensive system, it’s that he demands constant effort. It’s what makes his scheme work. Yes, the design is flawless, and the execution matches, but effort is the substance of it.
It’s not just Thibodeau that preaches it, either; it’s the team culture he’s developed. The attitude is contagious. Players pick up on it as they come to the Bulls.
Even formerly woeful defenders like Kyle Korver now carry better reputations elsewhere. It can be tough to change life-long habits, but it gets easier if those around you are encouraging you to do it.
If Anthony sacrifices money to win a championship, he’s going to get with the whole program—defense included. That package is the allure of Chicago.
Houston can offer Dwight Howard and James Harden, but they can't offer an elite defense or much of a bench. Dallas offers two-way ball, and a great coach in Rick Carlisle, but they offer a 36-year-old Dirk Nowitzki, too. The Bulls have the fewest holes, and they play in the East.
With Thibodeau, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson pushing Anthony to stay engaged on defense, expect that he will.
And really, the biggest problem Anthony has is a surprisingly simple one to solve. Sometimes numbers lie. Sometimes their metaphorical breeches are engulfed in flames.
But sometimes, a single number can cut through all the nonsense and reveal one glaring truth. Such is the case with Anthony.
Per Synergy, Anthony was the primary defender on 626 total plays, giving up .86 ppp, which means his opponents scored a total of 538 points on him. That includes 90 three-point field goals for 270 points. So, slightly more than half of all the points that Anthony gave up were on treys.
Most of those came up on spot-ups—the one area where he was in the bottom half of the league. There he yielded 69 threes, allowing his opponents to shoot .383 from behind the arc.
To illustrate the problem, let’s play a little game I’ll call, “Who’s about to drain a three?” I’ll show you three screen caps and you guess who’s about to shoot and score. (I’ve provided a subtle hint.) Look at Anthony’s positioning in each cap.
I didn’t go looking through tons of film to cherry pick a few plays that make a point. These are the last three three-point makes on spot-ups Anthony defended, and they all have the same mistakes in common.
First, in each case Anthony’s eyes are so locked onto the ball, he becomes oblivious to the fact that his man has leaked out for an open three. In the last instance, Shane Battier of the Miami Heat was camped out for nine full seconds without Anthony even once glancing in his direction!
Second, when Anthony does finally pay attention to his man, it’s too late. And just in case it’s not, he basically lopes towards the shooter with a halfhearted hand raised in the air.
It’s not often that you can distill a man’s defensive weaknesses down so easily, but the facts are there. Overall, 38 percent of all points scored on Anthony came specifically on spot-up threes. Yet, they accounted for only 28 percent of the plays he defended.
That’s because of his loss of focus on the man he’s defending and lack of effort in closing out on shooters.
That’s where Thibodeau comes in. It’s hard to lose track of your man when Thibodeau is bellowing “’MELO! WATCH BATTIER!” over and over again from the sideline. No coach is more actively involved in his team’s defense than Thibodeau. When a coach is that involved, the player is, too.
And those tough practices that Thibodeau is famous for? They are designed to ingrain habits into his players that prevent just this sort of thing from happening.
Thibodeau is also famous for hiding defensive liabilities. He’s done so with the likes of Carlos Boozer and Nate Robinson. With Anthony playing between Jimmy Butler, Gibson and Noah, it sure would compensate for a lot of weaknesses.
But the truth is that Anthony could actually become a strength on defense for the Bulls, given the right motivation, system and coaching.
As much as he is the perfect solution to the Bulls’ problems, Thibodeau’s coaching solves Anthony’s other issues. By being a contributor on an elite defense, the perception of Anthony as a one-dimensional player can change. And to the degree it needs to, the reality of it as well.