This week's mailbag features your questions on the ranking of Carmelo Anthony, bad position groups on playoff teams, and more.
— Steven Curie (@GooniTunes) September 14, 2017
I do. First off, let's be clear that we're not talking the prime Carmelo Anthony that was a deserving All-Star and finished with a better ranking in previous editions of #NBArank.
Let's take a look at the two primary components of scoring -- efficiency and volume -- graphically over Anthony's career with the Knicks (starting in 2011-12, his first full season in New York).
Oddly, Anthony's share of the Knicks' offense has moved downward almost in lockstep with his efficiency (measured here by true shooting percentage plus, or TS+, Anthony's true shooting relative to league average). In 2012-13, when New York won 54 games, Anthony led the league in usage rate while still scoring at above-average efficiency. By last season, despite playing a smaller role in the Knicks' offense, Anthony still scored with the worst relative efficiency of his NBA career.
Here are the players with the most similar seasons to Anthony's 2016-17 in terms of usage and TS+:
It's telling that besides Anthony, Terry Cummings is the only other player on this list to be chosen as an All-Star that season -- and Cummings was chosen as an injury replacement. It's also interesting to note that Cummings was the only player on the list whose team was .500 or better, showing the difficulty of building an effective offense around an inefficient, volume scorer.
Given Anthony has always been an indifferent defender, it's difficult to make a statistical case that he's still a top-50 player at this stage of his career. If you want to make the case that he belongs somewhere in the 51-to-60 range, that's perhaps reasonable, particularly if you believe he can make the transition to better efficiency in a smaller role on another team. But I don't think Anthony's ranking should be cause for outrage if you're evaluating his current ability rather than his legacy.
— Todd Wight (@toddwight) September 11, 2017
The trick here is defining what constitutes a "superstar." Unlike Penny Hardaway, I'm not going to incorporate off-court popularity as part of the definition. And because they're constant from year to year, we can't utilize subjective factors like All-Star appearances and All-NBA selections. So I'm going to look at players who met various thresholds of production as measured by my wins above replacement player (WARP) metric over time.
Here's a look at three thresholds: the number of players with at least 10 WARP, at least 15 WARP and at least 20 WARP per season dating to 1977-78.
I feel a little like Goldilocks looking at that chart. The first cutoff, 10 WARP, is too low. A couple of dozen players qualify on average; these players are stars (and typically All-Stars) but not necessarily superstars. The last cutoff, 20 WARP, is too high to be useful here; only a couple of players qualify most seasons.
(The outlier was 1989-90, when an incredible seven players surpassed 20 WARP, more than the past three seasons combined. It's not a coincidence this came shortly before the 1992 USA Olympic men's basketball team was nicknamed "The Dream Team.")
That leaves 15 WARP as just right to capture superstars, as I see it. And indeed, the number of such players was up last season: 12, tied for third most behind 2001-02 (13) and 2005-06 (an improbable 16). That reversed a recent trend of decline among players with 15-plus WARP, which can be attributed largely to stars playing fewer minutes and tending to get injured more frequently.
"When the NBA addresses tanking, don't you think they need to expand the discussion beyond draft lottery reform to also include trade reform? Allowing trades involving conditional draft picks and protected draft picks can provide the same incentive to tank as the draft lottery provides. For example, this past year, if the Los Angeles Lakers' first-round pick had landed outside the top 3, they would have lost both their 2017 and 2019 first-round picks because of past trades. That gave them a very strong incentive to tank."
-- Russ Needler
I wouldn't separate those two issues. While I agree that protected picks tend to often create the most blatant examples of tanking we see in the NBA, of course that's partially because of the structure of the lottery. In a world where the Lakers wouldn't increase their chances of securing a top-four pick by finishing with the second-worst record instead of the third-worst -- as would be the case under the proposal the NBA's board of governors will vote on later this month -- there is certainly less incentive for them to lose additional games.
If the proposal is approved, it's worth monitoring how that affects traded picks and considering additional changes to the rules.
"Listening to the Dunc'd On New Orleans Pelicans outlook with Mason Ginsberg, the glaring lack of a small forward on the roster really sticks out. What team(s) have gotten the lowest production from one position and still made the playoffs?"
-- Mike Girard
Mike asked this question before the Pelicans signed Tony Allen earlier this week as another alternative at small forward, but I think it still stands. Believe it or not, the bar for the Pelicans to clear -- if they make the playoffs despite as poor play from their small forwards as we expect -- is actually quite high (or low).
Here are the team positions with the most negative combined WARP in a single season:
1. 2000-01 Orlando Magic centers (minus-7.5 WARP)
This counts John Amaechi (minus-4.6) and Michael Doleac (minus-2.9); you could also count Andrew DeClercq, who would help that rating slightly with his plus-0.4 WARP. This was all the more painful because one of the league's better centers was Ben Wallace, who left the Magic for the Detroit Pistons via a sign-and-trade the previous summer.
2. 1993-94 Orlando Magic power forwards (minus-7.4 WARP)
The best team on this list, the Magic won 50 games with Shaquille O'Neal in his second season and the aforementioned Hardaway in his first. With Nick Anderson and Dennis Scott on the wings, Orlando had four positions covered. So when the Magic signed Horace Grant to replace the trio of Anthony Avent, Larry Krystkowiak and Jeff Turner, it helped propel them to the NBA Finals the following season.
3. 1992-93 Utah Jazz shooting guards (minus-6.2 WARP)
How does a team with John Stockton and Karl Malone in their prime win only 47 games and get bounced in the first round of the playoffs? A terrible set of shooting guards helps explain that. An aging Jeff Malone (no relation) provided nothing beyond scoring, averaging 2.4 rebounds and 0.6 steals per 36 minutes. Jay Humphries, also Stockton's backup at point guard, started 20 games at the 2 and was little better. The next season, the Jazz swapped Malone for Jeff Hornacek in one of the most lopsided challenge trades in NBA history, setting the table for the Jazz to reach greater heights later in the 1990s.
4. 2004-05 New Jersey Nets centers (minus-5.5 WARP)
This is one case where WARP doesn't tell the whole story. Nets center Jason Collins had minus-4.1 WARP but also rated as the NBA's best defender, according to ESPN's real plus-minus (plus-6.9). Collins consistently performed better in plus-minus stats than in terms of box-score output.
5. 2001-02 Utah Jazz shooting guards (minus-5.4 WARP)
Two years after Hornacek's retirement, the Jazz found themselves back at square one at shooting guard. In his second year, prep product DeShawn Stevenson had minus-2.7 WARP. So too did John Starks, signed late in the season after being waived by the Chicago Bulls. (His whole total counts here.) Bryon Russell isn't included, but he also played regular minutes at shooting guard and rated worse than replacement level too.