Unlike small forwards Kevin Durant and LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony has a refined post game.
Points per game.
By this measure, Carmelo Anthony, with his career 25 points per game scoring average, is a superstar. He's worth the Knicks' or Nets' max contracts. He'll sell tickets. He'll put his NBA team in the mix to win a title. He has that rare something that the best teams need.
Of course, the field of advanced basketball statistics is fueled in no small part by the broad and growing realization that points per game is about as dumb as basketball statistics get, at least as a ranking of total player quality.
Nevertheless, it's the stat that has long dominated the conversation.
But there's a surprise: In this case, points per game may actually lead, in its kooky foolishness, to a solid conclusion.
Hypnotized by buckets
It's not just fans who are enchanted by big scoring totals -- owners and front offices evidently are too. High-scoring players have a shabby correlation with wins but strong ties to the most important incentive for players: NBA income.
The advanced stats community exists in no small part to assault this mindless stat's choke-hold on the league's analysis. Points per game is such a blunt instrument, without a care even for minutes played, fouls drawn or shots taken (to say nothing of defense played, rebounds grabbed, double-teams drawn, or passes completed).
A player focused on this metric knows no such thing as a bad shot. Stephon Marbury and Allen Iverson won huge contracts playing dazzling basketball which satisfied this measure but -- riddled with misses -- was unlikely to ever lead to a title. Ineffective defense, inefficient scoring, and underutilized teammates condemned those squads to the middle of the pack.
There are strong signs Anthony may be the latest in this line. Do the Nets, who are openly lusting for Anthony to lead their salvation, not realize this?
Among prominent stat geeks, David Berri created the formula that is least appreciative of high-volume shooters, and of Anthony. Berri condemns the perennial All-Star by calling him merely an average NBA player.
John Hollinger's PER is significantly different from Berri's analysis -- generally more favorable to scorers -- but even there Anthony is, hardly a first-team all NBA player, barely cracking the league's top 40. (Anthony's less-heralded teammate Nene, for instance, ranks higher.)
A lot of players make contributions that are not charted in any public way -- individual defensive stops, for instance. The Shane Battiers of the world fare poorly in statistics, like Berri's and Hollinger's, based on box scores. But Anthony's main contribution, scoring, is the most documented act in the game. Nevertheless, the best scoring metric, true shooting percentage, which incorporates the value of 3-pointers and free throws, finds Anthony to be way down in Sebastian Telfair territory, around 200th out of 331 players.
If all he does is score, and he doesn't do that very efficiently ... why is it, again, that the Nets would give up a small army of prospects and picks, not to mention tens of millions in long-term salary ... for him?
NBA players know basketball as well as anyone, and it's hard to find players calling Anthony anything other than an elite force.
What are they seeing?
Part of it, undoubtedly, is scoring skill. This is the category where Kobe Bryant -- another player who shows up better in player quotes than efficiency stats -- excels. That's scoring against all odds. Making more than your fair share of shots when the odds are stacked against you.
I was once lucky enough to spend half a week "training like a pro" under the tutelage of David Thorpe in Florida. Thorpe normally trains NBA players like Kevin Martin and Yi Jianlian. But that week, he trained a posse of weekend warrior NBA journalists.
We spent some time catching the ball at the shoulder, with no defense, and then executing moves Thorpe barked out. Pivot on your left foot, jab step with the right, one dribble, finish. Same thing, with a ball fake after the jab. How about a freeze fake, or a faked pass?
Things to keep in mind: How to distribute weight to be quick to pass, drive or shoot. Not taking a small step backward when you mean to go forward. Where to put the ball (on your hip) as you take that all-important first step. How to make the jab (short and quick). How to jump at the rim (straight up, to enable creative finishes with either hand). The riddle of finishing at the rim with contact. And on and on.
Any one aspect of all this is simple, but even without defense, just about none of us completed perfect sequences before we were out of time. By contrast, making a series of correct reads, decisions and moves, against defenders with NBA size and athleticism, is art.
And in this, Anthony is Picasso.
"He's the best pure scoring small forward in the world," says Thorpe. "By pure scorer, I mean, if you just have one possession, he's the toughest matchup for a defender. He can shoot a 3. He can pull up. He can dribble drive. The triple threat game is very sophisticated. He's dynamite once he gets in the lane. And unlike LeBron James or Kevin Durant, Carmelo has a mature and reliable post game. LeBron is a better all-around player, but Anthony's the better bucket getter."
Of course, it's possible that those skills are mere baubles. So what if you can score against a double team, when the easier play of passing to the open shooter in the corner might just be the smarter move? (Isn't it telling that two of the best "pure scorers" in the game are also surprisingly inefficient?)
Making it easier for teammates to score
Over the weekend, Nate Silver published a quick analysis of Anthony on The New York Times site that pointed out that while Anthony might not pass the ball to his teammates all that much -- his assists are few and far between -- he is evidently still helping them score. Silver based his conclusion on an analysis saying that his teammates who have played elsewhere in the NBA tend to score more efficiently with Anthony on their team.
This makes some sense. There are a limited number of ways to get an NBA defense seriously discombobulated. One of them is to draw a double team, which forces rotations. Teams prepare for that, and have schemes to double the best players in their favorite spots. Anthony has favorite spots all over the court. A more detailed analysis by Kevin Pelton on Basketball Prospectus supports the basics of Silver's case.
Thorpe says he sees it with his own two eyes.
"We have a drill where we teach players to watch for the back of the defensive player's head," says Thorpe, who has trained some of Anthony's teammates through the years. "You're standing on the wing on the weak side, and some guy is guarding you. If he's a good defender, he'll be paying attention to you and the ball, and where the great scorers are. They're going to track Carmelo. When the defense is tuned into someone like him, every now and again, they might turn their head all the way toward Carmelo. I teach my guys: The second you see the back of your defender's head, you cut. Either baseline, or face cut. You go hard and immediately."
Anthony need not be the one to make the pass for that plan to work. He merely needs to be a threat -- to have opponents look at him can be enough, on some possessions. This is surely the kind of thing Silver was talking about -- and it's only a small part of how a star-jittery defense can make things easy for an elite scorer's teammates.
It's worth noting that as Anthony has been a fairly inefficient scorer in Denver all these years, the team has averaged an impressive 48 wins per season, after winning just 17 the season before he arrived. (Worth noting that the Lakers have been winning plenty with another "inefficient" player in Bryant.) There's also another statistic befuddling the idea that Anthony's teams can't win: One. As in, the number of NCAA championships he won in a single year at Syracuse.
That said, Silver's analysis is far from the final word. Critics point out Silver failed to note that his teammates who showed improvement were also largely at ages when scoring efficiency improves anyway, and that George Karl's coaching or Chauncey Billups' distributing could also account for parts of the same effect.
ESPN's Tom Haberstroh adds that Anthony may help his teammates score more efficiently, but wonders at the power of that effect, when you see that his teammates score even more efficiently when he's on the bench (with a 2.4 point better effective field goal percentage this season, and 1.9 percent last season).
Believe it or not, it is possible that Anthony could help his teammates score even when he's on the bench, by drawing the fouls that not only earn his team points, but also help the Nuggets get in the bonus. After a team has four fouls in a quarter, or one in a quarter's final two minutes, every additional foul is rewarded with free throws. NBA offenses are vastly more efficient in the bonus -- imagine points without as much wear and tear on players or time off the clock. The Nuggets are very near the top of the league in time spent in the bonus this season.
Plus/minus numbers can help here, and according to BasketballValue those statistics like Anthony about as much as PER does. His two-year adjusted plus/minus, according to Basketball Value (accounting for the quality of the nine other players on the court), is plus-4.8, which ranks him 33rd this season.
His unadjusted numbers tell a fascinating story, however. The Nuggets are actually producing worse on offense when he's in by about 2.5 points per 100 possessions, but better on defense by 5.4 points. This continues a trend over the last three years where he went from plus-8 offense to plus-4.2 and now plus-2.5 over the last three seasons.
On defense, he's gone from 5.2 points worse per 100 possessions four years ago to close to neutral to, now, making the team 5.4 points per 100 possessions better on defense.
His offense has declined in large part because his field goal percentage has fallen, which has a big effect on players who shoot a lot. His assist numbers are also down.
On defense, he's rebounding better this year and fouling less.
The Daryl Morey factor
This March in Boston, there will be vast halls full of stat geeks, any number of whom might tell you it's nutty to expect Anthony to make a bad team good. But that MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference is organized by Dork Elvis himself, Rockets GM Daryl Morey, who commands the biggest team of analysts in the sport.
There is no case to be made that the Rockets don't appreciate the lessons of modern basketball analysis. In assessing Anthony, it's worth noting that Morey has repeatedly spoken about how elite scorers are necessary to win titles. It's also worth noting that Morey has reportedly been dogged in his pursuit of Anthony. If true, it's a powerful message that at the highest levels of statistical analysis, Anthony can indeed be seen as worth a maximum contract.
A Nets audience beyond geeks
Wins are the end of the rainbow, for most people who matter in the NBA. Anthony may rightly be judged by his ability to deliver them. But he offers more.
For the Nets, there is another game to be played, off the court, which hinges very much on image, narrative and reputation. Let's say the team has a long-term plan to lure Chris Paul when he can opt out of his Hornets contract in the summer of 2012. A first-rate guard like Paul is unlikely to join a starless Nets team, no matter how powerful the lure of big, wealthy Brooklyn.
But remember, players revere Anthony's skills. Becoming the second Nets star, alongside Anthony, may be far more appealing to Paul than being the first. In other words Anthony has credibility with top free agents.
And with Brooklynites.
The Nets will sell plenty of tickets in New York. But they have an opportunity to consume New York City and a sports-hungry and deep-pocketed borough. Remember, though, while New Yorkers have disposable income for things like Nets tickets, they also have nearly limitless competition for those dollars. If the show consists of hard-working types like Louis Amundson, there's little chance the Nets will unseat the Knicks, the Yankees or any other number of music performances as the place for celebrities to be seen in the stands.
Anthony, on the other hand, is a big name who makes highlights. He's also somebody who grew up in Red Hook, about a 15-minute bike ride from the Nets' under-construction arena. Brooklyn will root for a guy like that for reasons that go far beyond basketball. (And, as Amare Stoudemire and the Knicks are proving currently, New York basketball fans have had it so bad for so long that they'll go crazy for a team that is just pretty good.)
Melo's not just a basketball player, he's a narrative: If you won't head out to the arena to see wins, you might come to see a player with a story, much like we all buy tickets to see movies starring celebrities we identify with for some personal reason or another.
An evolving player
Anthony is not quite what he seems. Perhaps the most skilled scorer at his position in the world, he is nevertheless a fairly inefficient, high-volume and maybe even declining scorer with, apparently, only a limited ability to make his teammates more efficient at that end of the floor. Tough though that dynamic may be to demonstrate, his teams also tend to win a lot, all the same.
Beyond the power of hypnotizing all five defenders at once, or getting his team into the bonus, another possible explanation: He' evidently not the laughingstock he once was on defense. NBA front office personnel speaking on background for this article reminded again and again that recent history has shown us that great coaching can make mediocre defenders like Ray Allen and Hedo Turkoglu key parts of elite defenses. Although such transformations are rare, Anthony is well-equipped. His team is playing better defense with him on the floor right now than when he sits, which is new, but supported by a multi-year trend.
Meanwhile, rebounding tells a powerful story about what Anthony can do when focused. His supporters have long conceded that this is simply not his forte. But he has quietly become literally the best rebounding small forward in the NBA. He averaged about two double-digit rebound games a season in his first five years in the NBA. This season he already has four. He has traditionally grabbed fewer than 10 percent of the available rebounds -- this year he's over 13 percent.
Thinking back to all of those drills in David Thorpe's gym, it's clear that anyone who can master all that footwork must have both a massive capacity for work, and a certain brilliance in making exceptionally quick reads and decisions. Anthony's career has demonstrated time and again that he has all of that, which can be deployed in many aspects of basketball: scoring over double-teams, drawing fouls, winning rebounding battles and more.
Is all of that enough of a contribution, given how many shots Anthony's sure to miss, to lead a team to an NBA title? Maybe, if you squint at the numbers the right way. But it's certainly enough to dream on, and for a team like the Nets, that's probably more than enough.