October 16, 2016

The ordeal of Carmelo Anthony

"I just looked at it, and it was disrespectful."
- Carmelo Anthony, on being named the 15th-best player in the NBA

Carmelo Anthony is unquestionably one of the most gifted basketball players of his generation, a nine-time all-star, and also the possessor of a scoring title (2013) and three Olympic gold medals.  But, unfortunately for his reputation, no NBA titles or MVP awards.

Anthony has long had a reputation for selfishness.  When coach Mike D'Antoni left New York in 2012, Willing Davidson of The New Yorker wrote:
The consensus—denied by both—is that Anthony and D’Antoni could not agree on an effective court strategy. D’Antoni is the architect of a famously programmatic offense in which every possession runs through a quick-witted point guard. Anthony prefers the Melo system, in which everything runs through himself.

Basketball statisticians have not been kind.  Back in 2014 Michael Erler criticized ESPN's new Real Plus-Minus stat on the grounds that it thought Carmelo Anthony was good:
I know it's fashionable to rake Anthony over the coals for his lackadaisical defense and ball-stopping on offense, but I'm sorry, at some point common sense has to intervene. If Anthony is your ninth-ranked small forward, your stat is faulty.

But the recent Olympics prompted some re-thinking, perhaps even some rehabilitation.  In August Kyle Wagner at FiveThirtyEight wrote:
Anthony is a different player on the international court than when playing in the NBA. Internationally, he’s a spot-up shooting, ball-moving zone-buster; in the NBA, he’s an isolation-heavy volume scorer. It’s not as though Anthony is a fundamentally different player abroad — he’s a perfectly good spot-up shooter in the NBA when he finds time and space to spot up — but the nature of the international game and that of the Team USA roster change the way he influences a game.

Wagner makes a good point about his being a high volume scorer.  Particularly on mediocre teams there's often a guy who gets stuck having to shoot more than he should just because the team just doesn't have enough good players.  But there are players who take a lot of tough shots and make a lot, and players who take a lot of tough shots and miss a lot.  This chart of the top twenty players by total attempts (2015-16) helps us see which is which:

So, yes, Carmelo is a high-volume shooter, but he is an inefficient high volume shooter.  The man who led the Association in attempts last year, James Hardin, is viewed by some as a selfish player (not by me:  he ranked 6th in assists).  But while Hardin takes a lot of shots he actually has fewer misses per attempt than most.  Anthony takes fewer shots than Harden and makes a lower percentage of them (.463 on two pointers vs. .494).

Hopefully the chart also makes it obvious that Curry's MVP award was well-deserved.  Curry took about as many shots as Harden, and they were harder shots to make (402 three point attempts vs. 236).  And yet Curry had 114 fewer misses than Harden.  When you factor in that Curry plays defense and Harden doesn't, it's not a close call.

A couple of other thoughts on the chart:

  • I regret to say that it forces me to re-assess my condescending view of LeBron James.  Damn, he really is good.
  • I'm happy to say that the chart strongly suggests Kevin Durant is also really good.
  • Carmelo does not look compelling here.
You might argue that Klay Thompson looks better than Anthony because Curry spreads the floor, giving him better looks.  Certainly Thompson benefits from Curry's presence - he led the Association in catch-and-shoot baskets last year.  But how big an effect could that be?  Thompson took 79 more shots than Anthony but had five fewer misses.  You could say Thompson benefits from Kerr's offense, which is true - but when Anthony had a 'system' coach in D'Antoni, he couldn't make it work.  It's hard to avoid the conclusion that Anthony is a fairly mediocre high volume scorer.

That's a problem because he doesn't do a lot of other things to enhance his standing.  Here are our top 20 'volume' guys, with their per-game rank in other helpful activities (assists, rebounds, steals).  I've taken the harmonic mean to reward players who do well in several categories:

Again, there are lots of guys who look better than Anthony here.  Westbrook and James, in addition to being effective high volume scorers are the only ones who also rank in the NBA top 50 in all three categories.  Curry, playing fewer minutes per game than most of these guys, ranks 11th in assists, 3rd in steals, and is outrebounding most of the other guards here.  Let's acknowledge that he's good, ok?

Taking it all together, I see only two players - James and Curry - who excel vs. peers at high volume scoring, then do a lot of other things well, too.  Anthony, by contrast, is a below-average high volume scorer, and also below average vs. peers in his peripheral contributions.

Rehabilitation can only go so far.  I just can't see Anthony as a top 15 guy.  Not an MVP candidate, not a pantheon guy, not an immortal.  Top 50 today?  Sure, no question.  But the reality is that he is nowhere near the top fifteen.  He's just a very good NBA player, one of the few hundred best basketball players who ever lived.  It's a hard thing, but he'll survive.


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