Testing the Theory That Carmelo Anthony is a Lousy Defender

Synergy Sports lets you research just about anything to do with NBA basketball, and see actual video clips, sortable by a million categories. (The free consumer trial isn't happening right now, but you can see it in action on this video. And, although I may seem salesy about this, please know they're not paying me to promote Synergy, although they are giving me free access to their product.)

In short, it lets you test just about any theory, with video evidence. I tried it once looking at Jamaal Magloire's offense. Time to try it again.

In the last weeks a few different basketball people I respect have told me that they were thrilled to see Carmelo Anthony at least "trying" to play defense for Team USA. (He has been playing hard. I don't know if it's the boxing training or what, but the man has been 2000% effort all over the court this summer. As I've said before, I'm impressed. Maybe he's one of those guys who gets a few years into his career and then just suddenly starts to get it.)

But the bigger implication there, of course, is that Anthony's NBA defense has been pathetic. There aren't really good statistics, that I have seen, to demonstrate an individual player's defensive prowess. 82games.com looks at points allowed when the player is on the court vs. when he isn't, which sort of encompasses that. Those numbers, in the case of Anthony, tell something of a story.

Using those numbers and my trusty calculator, I figured out that last season, opponents scored 6,134 points in the 2,938 minutes Anthony was on the floor, meaning 2.088 points per minute. In the 1,042 minutes he was on the bench, opponents scored 2,076 points, meaning 1.992 points per minute. That's approaching a 5% difference. I can already hear the APBRMetrics people making mincemeat of my crude measurements here. I acknowledge: this proves nothing. It might not even be science. But it's something.

So, I put the theory to the eye test. Synergy's analysis of defense isn't yet nearly as sophisticated as their offensive breakdowns. (They tell me next season that will be changing.) But still, I was able fire up ten or twelve possession per playoff game when Anthony played a key role on defense.

And I was amazed at what I saw. Right out the box, the first game I watched happened to be the one when Corey Maggette got super hot. It would be unfair to go into a lot of detail about how Carmelo Anthony looked in that situation.

So I watched all the available plays of Denver's five playoff games against the Clippers. Synergy only tracked defensive video at all starting in the playoffs, so it wouldn't be easy to go back much further. I figured this would be an unfair sample, because everyone plays hard defense in the playoffs, right? Here is what I found:

  • The slightest pick, from anyone, and Anthony will give his man a enough time and space to get off ten shots. Coaches argue all day about whether it's better to go over or under picks. No one really argues that the best policy is just stop cold, esentially double-teaming the pick, while abandoning entirely the dangerous scorer with the ball. But that's pretty much what Anthony does. With one exception, out of the fifty or sixty plays I saw, Anthony simply did not get through picks. No doubt, this isn't 100% Anthony's fault: it's possible that some of those times his teammate is supposed to be switching.

  • Anthony spends a ton of time in what could charitably called a weak double team. Uncharitably, you could say he's standing in no man's land, guarding no one at all, out of position for any defense I have ever seen. If you had to defend this approach to defense, you'd say it might be helpful to cut off passes. He didn't cut off or even really frustrate one pass in the clips I saw. He did, however, frequently look mystified as passes sailed past him to the open player he probably should have been guarding.

  • He backs off shooters on the perimeter, daring them to shoot. We're talking about good shooters here. Again, I guess this might work if you think you can cover that ground and block or alter the shot. But Anthony really doesn't. OK, once he stripped a shooter of the ball as he went up with it, which was nice. But other than that, it really looked to me like the Clippers all knew: if you get Anthony on you, let 'er rip. Corey Maggette, Sam Cassell, Cuttino Mobley, Quinton Ross, Elton Brand--they all got wide eyes when they saw Carmelo (not really even) coming, and stuck jumpers in his face again and again. It's defense so bad it makes the other team's offense better.

  • The curious thing is that the Nuggets almost always used Anthony as a perimeter defender in this series. Poor guy. He just doesn't look comfortable out there. He gives up all that room to shooters, yet even though he's hanging way back, many of them can drive past him anyway. He just doesn't have the lateral quickness. Makes you wonder why George Karl wouldn't stash him in the paint somewhere. He just doesn't have the appropriate reaction time. When his defender gets the ball on the perimeter, and there's no help, it's a good bet that the possession will end with what I have come to see as Anthony's signature defensive move: leaping and extending an after-the-fact hand in the shooter's face as the ball is well on its way to the net.

  • There's one other thing: Anthony seems to get rattled on defense. Not angry, but a little disoriented. When events unfold quickly, lots of movement, cutting, passes, and the like, he often seemed off-balance, surprised, and in need of an excessive amount of recovery time.

Maybe this off-season is his time to change all that. Hope so.