Don't Look Now, but Carmelo Anthony Has Become NY Knicks' Best Passer

Jared Dubin@@JADubin5Featured ColumnistDecember 30, 2015

New York Knicks' Carmelo Anthony walks down the court after being called for an offensive foul in the second quarter of an NBA basketball game against the Atlanta Hawks Saturday, Dec. 26, 2015, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
David Goldman/Associated Press

New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony has almost always been regarded as a bit of a selfish player.

The reasons for this are surface-level obvious: He takes a ton of shots—his 19.7 field-goal-attempts-per-game average is the 13th-highest all time and the seventh-highest of the three-point era, per Basketball-Reference.com.

And he uses a ton of possessions. He's recorded a usage rate (an estimate of the percentage of team plays used by a player while he was on the floor) of at least 28 percent in each of his 13 NBA seasons. Only three playersKobe Bryant, Michael Jordan and Karl Malonehave done so more often. 

But just because Anthony takes a lot of shots and has carried a "selfish" reputation doesn't mean he's not a smart and capable passer. We've seen over the years that, when he puts his mind to it, Anthony can deliver high-level passes the likes of which few forwards in the league not named LeBron James can make.

Send a double-team at him in the post and Anthony can whip a pass across the court to a shooter in the opposite corner; it's just not necessarily his first instinct like it is for James, for example. 

This season, though, has ranked among the best of Carmelo's career in terms of his passing. While he's previously averaged more assists per game than this year's 3.6 average, he's never assisted more baskets on a per-minute basis, per Basketball-Reference. Basically, the only reason he averaged more assists back in the 2006-07 season is because he was on the court for an extra 4.0 minutes a night. 

Not only that but Anthony is assisting on 20.0 percent of his teammates' baskets while on the floor, the second-highest mark of his career behind only the 2011-12 season (21.0 percent). Anthony's usage rate of 30.7 percent is also at its lowest point since his second NBA season, all the way back in 2006. 

All of this information begs the question of whether Anthony is, in fact, being more unselfish this season or if there is something else going on.

Using NBA.com's SportVU player tracking database, we can compare Anthony's passing willingness and performance this season to that of the last two years. Considering the Knicks' poor overall performance during those two seasons despite Carmelo's continued good play and their overall improvement this season despite his subpar (for him) shooting and scoring, it makes for an interesting snapshot. 

Below are Anthony's touches per game and passes per game, per the SportVU database, as well as his pass percentage, which is pretty self-explanatory. It's the percentage of his touches on which he then passed the ball, as opposed to shot it, got fouled or turned it over with a charge, travel, step out of bounds or lost dribble (essentially any turnover other than a bad pass).

YearTouchesPassesPass %
2013-1470.241.258.7%
2014-1569.542.561.2%
2015-1665.039.660.9%

Anthony is actually passing on a slightly lower percentage of his touches compared to last year, but it's only 0.3 percent. He is, however, passing somewhat appreciably more often than two years ago.  

The difference appears to be in the quality of his passes, which is reflected by how often they have turned into potential assists, actual assists and adjusted assists (assists plus free-throw assists and secondary or "hockey" assists, per the SportVU database). 

YearPassesPotentialAssistsAdjustedPOT %AST %ADJ %
2013-1441.26.13.14.115.4%7.8%10.4%
2014-1542.56.13.13.914.4%7.3%9.2%
2015-1639.66.63.64.716.7%8.7%11.4%

As you can see, Anthony has recorded more potential assists, actual assists and adjusted assists despite passing less often on a per-game basis than either of the last two years.

He's gotten better at delivering high-quality passes. Take this gem to Kyle O'Quinn, for example:

That's a great look that creates an easy shot, but it's not necessarily one Anthony would have thrown, say, last year when he and the Knicks were slogging through the worst season in team history. 

For what it's worth, Carmelo attributes his increased willingness to make these types of passes to better familiarity with the offense and increased knowledge of where his teammates will be and when. 

"A lot of times now, the way that we're playing, when you get a year under your belt in this system and try to figure it out, everybody is kind of on the same page," he said. "It's easier to know what spots guys are going to be in. It's easier to kind of pick your spots of when you're going to attack, when you're not going to attack."

Head coach Derek Fisher concurs.

"I think he's been great [at finding that balance]," Fisher said. "And I know that was part of probably why he didn't shoot the ball as well at times because he was thinking about how to facilitate or how to make other players better or how to fit in and buy into what we're doing. I think as the season's gone on, he's found more opportunities to play his game and do what he needs to do.

"I think he's a great passer, especially early. And I think the trick for us is how to continue to provide spacing where he has outlets after he's gone into his move or his attack."

That last point from Fisher is an important one. The Knicks' secondary options move around and look for an opening while Anthony holds the ball and surveys the court, but once he goes into his dribble or a back-down move, they tend to just stand around and watch. That doesn't benefit anyone, least of all Anthony, who then sees late double-teams once he puts the ball on the floor.

Oftentimes, it's then simply too late in the shot clock to deliver a pass and look for a shot elsewhere. (A lot of this blame lies with the fact that the Knicks guards often spend four to five seconds just trying to enter the ball into the post, as we covered last week.) 

The balance between finding his shot and looking to pass is one Melo himself is still working to master, but it's gotten tricky for Fisher as well.

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 29:  Carmelo Anthony #7 of the New York Knicks shakes hands with Robin Lopez #8 of the New York Knicks and Jose Calderon #3 of the New York Knicks during the game against the Detroit Pistons on December 29, 2015 at Madison Square G
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

Anthony is obviously the Knicks' best scorer, but he is also probably their most effective passer at this point—Jerian Grant can't get on the floor because teams don't respect his jump shot, and Jose Calderon can't draw multiple defenders toward his dribble because he's not a threat to drive.

It's tempting at times to throw Melo the ball and ask him to score every time. But Fisher said he knows that he has to find opportunities for Anthony to make plays for otherssimply so the defense doesn't always concentrate on cutting off his shot. 

"That's a tricky balance for us—how to best utilize him," Fisher said. "That's something we daily are trying to find a balance in: How much is too much and how much is not enough because he definitely makes plays for us."

Even if Anthony is not directly asked to make plays for others through a specific call, it's still on him to make the correct choice based on what the defense dictates. And he's not always done that.

While that's seemingly been because he hasn't had that many teammates he's trusted to actually make the shot or the "right play" upon receiving the ball, it shouldn't be excused.

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 19:  Kristaps Porzingis #6 and Carmelo Anthony #7 of the New York Knicks looks on against the Chicago Bulls at Madison Square Garden on December 19, 2015 in New York City.  Knicks defeated the Bulls 107-91. NOTE TO USER: User expre
Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Luckily for the Knicks, they seem to have finally found a player Anthony trusts implicitly: Kristaps Porzingis. Carmelo has passed the ball to Porzingis more often on a per-game basis than any non-point guard teammate he's had in the three years for which the NBA has SportVU data.

He's thrown Porzingis an average of 7.5 passes per game, a full two passes more than the next closest player in the database: 2013-14 J.R. Smith. Those passes have also put Porzingis in position to shoot more often than any other teammate of Anthony's.

Over 20 percent of Porzingis' shots have been created directly off Anthony passes. Melo's passes have led to 2.6 shots a game for KP. The next closest player in the database is 2013-14 Raymond Felton at 2.2 passes per game. 

The issue is that Porzingis has rarely made those shots. Among Knicks players who have taken multiple shots off Anthony's passes (Lou Amundson is 0-1), Porzingis is shooting the second-lowest percentage on the team at 35.3 percent.

That's not necessarily a big issue, though. Porzingis isn't shooting all that well overall as he transitions from Europe to the NBA. Given his smooth, repeatable stroke, one can expect his percentages to increase over time, just as they have for nearly all European shooters.

The more important factor is that he has already earned Anthony's trust in such a short period of time. As he starts knocking down more and more of those looks, it's possible he could bring out increased playmaking instincts in Melo's game.

Considering the burden Anthony has had to shoulder as a scorer throughout his career, being able to decrease that as he gets older (he turns 32 in May) should help him stave off some of the effects of aging.

 

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All statistics courtesy of NBA.com/stats unless otherwise noted.

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