Nearing His Peak, Carmelo Anthony Can Be Even Better for NY Knicks

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Nearing His Peak, Carmelo Anthony Can Be Even Better for NY Knicks
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

Long thought of as a selfish player by many NBA fans, Carmelo Anthony is doing his part to change that, playing the best basketball of his career in the process.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, after an early-season game where the Milwaukee Bucks left the Garden with a win, said: "You cannot stop him. He's the most dangerous player on the planet, and you just have to contend with him, find ways to contend him."

Brad Stevens, before the Knicks defeated the Boston Celtics earlier this month, said: "Carmelo's an excellent player. When you're in this market and your team struggles for a couple of years, there's gonna be some scrutiny, but at the end of the day, that guy makes shots that other people can't make, and when he draws two people, he usually delivers the ball. And that's been consistent."

Scarier still, even as Anthony has never played better than right now, his ceiling is still out there.

Rave Reviews

Kathy Willens/Associated Press

Everyone with the Knicks will tell you it's not just how he's playing but his attitude and approach that set the tone for the rest of the team. "The most important part is that guys are following him," head coach Derek Fisher said. "He's setting the tone, and guys are following."

On the year, Anthony is averaging 21.7 points, 7.6 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game. On a per-minute basis, he's only averaged fewer points twice (the first two years of his career), but he's never grabbed more rebounds (7.8 per 36) or dished out more assists (4.2 per 36) than he has this season. He's carrying the third-lowest usage rate of his career at 29.6 percent and has never assisted on a greater percentage of his teammates' baskets while on the floor than he has this year (21.2 percent). 

Rookie sensation Kristaps Porzingis credited Melo's mindset with helping the team's approach in close games, which, as we discussed in this space last week, has been an area of great improvement for the Knicks this season. 

"Melo is setting a great example for us, how strong mentally we have to be in those situations," Porzingis said. "Find that energy to push through those overtimes and get those wins. How important it is to stay strong mentally and win those games. I think a big part of us being able to win is because of him."

Over the last 12 games, he's been even better.

Eric Gay/Associated Press

Per Basketball-Reference.com, his 21.7-points-per-game mark has stuck right at that spot, but he's upped his rebounds and assists averages to 8.3 and 5.1, respectively, in that time. He's also getting those 21.7 points on fewer shot attempts, averaging 17.5 per 36 minutes as opposed to the 18.9 he was taking earlier in the season. His shooting percentage has also shot up from 42.1 early on to 46.9 of late. 

He's gone from grabbing 11.5 percent of available rebounds while on the floor to 13.1. He's also gone from assisting on 19.6 percent of New York's baskets all the way up to 24.2 percent. He's passing the ball on a greater percentage of his touches than at any time in the last three years, per an analysis of the SportVU data on NBA.com.

"I just think it's a winning mindset," Arron Afflalo said. "Not the physical act of passing, but just: What are you thinking about coming into the game? Is it about scoring points, or is it about winning games? He's one of the greatest scorers to ever play this game. His presence alone will draw the defense in. So his willingness to just find that open guy and trust that his teammates will make the shot, I think you're seeing it more and more as he develops as a person and in his career." 

Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

Fisher, though, refuses to say this is the best he's ever seen Anthony play. "To me, that kind of puts limits on something, as though this is the pinnacle of how he can play or how we can play," he said. "I think he's doing a lot of great things. I think he's making the team better by what he's doing individually, but there is still a lot of room for him and for our team to grow."

The only area of Anthony's game that appears to be truly maxed out is rebounding. He's boarding at a career-best level per 36 minutes. The share of available rebounds he's grabbed is the second-highest mark of his career by a mere 0.2 percent. Among players 6'8" or shorter, he has the sixth-best rebound percentage in the league, per Basketball-Reference.com, and everyone ahead of him on the list plays full time at power forward and/or center.

And the Knicks are grabbing a significantly greater percentage of available rebounds as a team with Anthony on the floor than when he's off, per NBA.comIn this department, there is not much else he can do. 

Everywhere else, there's somehow room for even more.

Scoring

Anthony's greatest skill is his ability to score in a variety of ways: near the basket, from mid-range and from beyond the arc; on catch-and-shoots, post-ups, face-ups and off the bounce. 

This season, though, has beennot just in terms of his per-game and per-minute averages but in shooting percentages and efficiencyone of the worst scoring campaigns of his career. 

Stat PPG FG% 3PT% FT% TS%
Rank (Career) 11th 10th 7th 9th 10th

It's not just the deep shooting that's dragging down his scoring and field-goal percentage marks, either. On shots within three feet of the basket, Anthony is converting less often than at any point in his career, per Basketball-Reference.com. His restricted-area field-goal percentage of 52.6 percent is 6.7 percent lower than the league average, according to NBA.com

His true shooting percentage of 0.532 ranks 22nd among the 38 players with a usage rate of 25 percent or higher. We know he can be much more efficient than that. In his last healthy season (2013-14), he ranked 12th among 39 players who met the same criteria. 

Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

Much of this inefficiency is because, though he's passed the ball more often and with greater purpose than in previous years, Anthony has mostly tried to create his own looks when he's looked to score.

He's been assisted on only 27.7 percent of his two-point baskets, per Basketball-Reference.com, the lowest mark of his career. Assisted shots are converted at a much higher rate than self-created ones, so it should come as no surprise that his field-goal percentage would dip in a season where he's creating for himself more often than ever. 

That's not all on him, though. As we explored a few weeks ago, the Knicks' guards rarely get into the paint to draw the defense and create looks elsewhere. Jose Calderon is one of the most drive-averse point guards in the league. Afflalo typically looks for his own shot in the post and also usually needs assisting from mid-range or outside. 

Langston Galloway and Jerian Grant are better creators, but Anthony plays with them far less often than he does with the starters. Grant is by far the most dynamic of the group, but Anthony has shared the floor with him for only 195 minutes all season. 

Barring some sort of roster move, it seems unlikely Anthony will suddenly have more easy looks created for him. So while his scoring can and should be better, it's probably up to him to make that happen. 

Passing

He's become more willing than before, but that doesn't mean Anthony has optimized his passing capabilities just yet.

"I think in our system, there's more playmaking opportunities that'll continue to be a part of his maturation within how we play," Fisher said. "I think there will be times where we can put the ball in his hands more and allow his size and his ability to create shots for other people to be more of a feature. That's a part of our offense that we really want to get to. We're looking forward to being able to play Carmelo at the top of the floor at times."

This is actually something the Knicks superstar is already trying to do a bit more of, but there are still some passes he simply doesn't see, such as this one to Porzingis floating toward the top of the key:

MSG

Then there are some he does see but can't quite get them to go where he wants them to, such as this one to Robin Lopez on a fast break:

He's getting there, though. Check out this pass to Derrick Williams on the drive, which he made after missing a similar one earlier in the game:

It's not a look he necessarily would have made in past years, preferring instead to go up with the ball over the trees inside. But lately, he's been delivering the ball while on the move toward the basket far more often than ever before. According to Anthony himself, it's not a concerted effort but rather a reaction to what's happening in front of him.

Here he is describing the two plays we just showed above: "It's just making that right play. D-Will went back door one time, and I actually fumbled the pass. I couldn't get that laser pass to him. And then one time, I drove baseline, and D-Will happened to be there again. He got the dunk. So those are plays that are just happening. It's not something that I'm being conscious of. I'm just playing in the flow of the game and taking what's out there."

Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

This is all well and good, but it does ring a little hollow that he's being showered with praise for averaging a mere 4.0 assists per game.

These are passes the Spurs make 100 percent of the time, that LeBron James or Draymond Green makes 75 or 80 percent of the time. They're ones that Melo used to make 25 or so percent of the time, and he now does maybe 40 or 50 percent of the time.

He has the vision to make these kinds of passes on a consistent basis if he chooses to. And because the balance of the defense is so often tilted all the way toward wherever he is on the court, the lanes are there if he wants them. 

Defense

This, as ever, is still the area with the greatest room for improvement. 

Yes, Carmelo is playing better defense than in the recent past. But as is the case with his passing, just because he's doing better than before, it doesn't mean he's all of a sudden doing great. By multiple measurements, he's become merely passable on defense. 

Per Basketball-Reference.com, Melo is having the second-best defensive campaign of his career by defensive box plus-minus, which is an estimate of the defensive points per 100 possessions above the league average a player contributes. Melo still checks in with a minus-0.5 mark, which means he's been about a half-point per 100 possessions worse than the league average on defense.

His individual defensive rating of 106 is 51st among qualifying forwards, putting him in the bottom half of starter-quality defenders. He's behind such luminaries as Kyle Singler and Andrew Nicholson and just ahead of Nemanja Bjelica. 

ESPN's real plus-minus has his defense being worth 0.35 points per 100 possessions this season. That figure ranks 86th among forwards (24th among small forwards). 

Whatever the numbers say, Fisher has confidence in his star's ability to guard anyone: "He's, for sure, capable of defending anybody on the floor, honestly. He's big enough to guard inside, and he's athletic enough to guard some guys on the wing."

That's true, but he doesn't always use those attributes to the best of his ability. He'll still do things like go way too far under a screen, botch a switch or fail to hustle back on defense, all of which he did in the first 10 minutes of Wednesday's win over the Jazz:

He also typically does not take the toughest matchup on defense. "Sometimes, if my offense isn't really a focal point, it's good for him to save a little energy [by letting me take the top scorer]," Afflalo said.

And when the Knicks go small down the stretch (which has been their go-to closing lineup lately), Anthony will most often check the lesser offensive threat in the frontcourt.

"More times than not, Lance Thomas will be on the guy that is the more focal point offensively for our opponent," Fisher said. "That's a job that he relishes, and he does a pretty decent job handling those responsibilities. Melo and D-Will, it just kind of depends on who we're playing against and what the matchups are. If they're guarding guys that like to post up or chase off a lot of screens, then we'll kind of go from there."'

With Thomas out Wednesday against the Jazz, Anthony actually did take the big matchup down the stretch, and he acquitted himself quite nicely. Guarding Gordon Hayward for most of the fourth quarter and overtime, Anthony limited him to 2-of-6 from the field and helped force him into three turnovers. He also repeatedly denied Hayward the chance to even get shots or drives by pressuring and face-guarding him off the ball. 

"It's just a matter of wanting to do it," Anthony said. "It's not whether I can do it or not; it's just me wanting to do that. Tonight I think I wanted to do that. I wanted to play him, whether it was [Hayward] or Hood out there, just taking that challenge."

Conclusion

There is no denying that Anthony is playing excellent basketball. In fact, he's arguably more worthy of high praise now than when he was known as one of the league's best players during the first decade of his NBA career. 

But there's a difference between playing better than ever and playing the best you can possibly play. Talented as he is, there are still more areas of his skill set Anthony can unlock.

If and when he does, the Knicks will be that much better off for it. 

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All statistics are current heading into games on Jan. 21 and courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com, unless otherwise noted.

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