Is Carmelo Playing a Better Brand of Defense?

Posted by Kevin Arnovitz

Spend some time around the Denver Nuggets this spring and you'll hear how Carmelo Anthony's commitment on the defensive end of the floor has a lot to do with the team's success. When you ask people who know Anthony where that dedication came from, you get an almost uniform response: As a member of Team USA last summer in Beijing, Carmelo rubbed shoulders with the most professional players in the game, and through the Olympic Rehabilitation Program for Uninterested Defenders, he saw the light. He realized that while his offense will always keep him in the conversation for Best Scorer on the Planet, if he was sincere about being a Top 5 player, he'd have to get serious about his defense.

"Is that what they say?" Anthony says with a wry smile. "I always knew how to play defense."

Anthony then explains that the Olympics were important -- particularly his friendship with Kobe Bryant. The conversations he has with Michael Jordan are also helpful, as is his team's decision to make defense a priority this season. More important than anything, though, is the cumulative growth that comes with day-to-day life in the game.

"In the game of basketball you learn a lot each day," Anthony says. For him, that's more important than any single experience.

"The more time you spend in the league the more you learn player tendencies," says Idan Ravin, who has trained Anthony along with several other top NBA players. "He has a great eye for details and can recognize player patterns quickly."

There's a nice illustration of this toward the end of Game 5 of the Nuggets' series with Dallas:

  • [4th Quarter, 2:29] Denver is up 10 points, as Dallas brings the ball up, needing to score to stay in the series. The Mavs run a two-man game on the right side with Josh Howard and Dirk Nowitzki. Howard holds the ball with Carmelo playing off him a little bit. Then Nowitzki runs interference by slipping between Howard and Carmelo -- so now Dallas has the mismatch they want: Nowitzki/Carmelo. Howard feeds the ball to Nowitzki just off the mid-right post, his back to Carmelo, who bodies up on him tightly.

    Trying to back Carmelo into the paint with his right shoulder, Nowitzki takes three dribbles with his left. On each dribble, Carmelo absorbs a blow to the chest by Dirk's shoulder. Dirk picks up his dribble, then pivots on his right foot, trying with his patented ball-fake to deke Carmelo -- only Carmelo doesn't bite. Feet set and ready, chest out, arms extended upward, Carmelo stays grounded. Dirk goes to his contingency plan -- a full 360 twirl on his pivot foot, hoping to get Carmelo to yield him some space for an up and under. Again, Carmelo holds his ground. Only when Dirk falls back for a fadeaway does Carmelo lunge, getting a full hand in Dirk's face. The shot is no good.

Although Nowitzki has made a career of hitting that fadeaway, even after defenders have done a solid job on both the initial backdown and the up-and-under attempt, the best stoppers understand that the percentages play best for the defense when Nowitzki takes his shot of last resort.

According to both Ravin and Nuggets' assistant coach Chad Iske, Anthony has become a cinephile in recent months. "On the defensive end, he's been paying more attention to film studies and what guys do," Iske says. "He pays more attention to detail, whether he's on the ball or on the help side."

Denver forced three shot clock violations in the third quarter of Game 2 against the Lakers Thursday night, and Anthony was instrumental in each sequence. Here's one example:

  • [3rd Quarter, 7:07] Carmelo's capacity to help off Trevor Ariza is crucial to Denver's defensive success in the series. Here the ball starts in Ariza's hands out on the wing. Ariza passes the ball off to Derek Fisher in the left corner, then clears along the baseline. Carmelo follows Ariza only as far as the middle of the key, though Ariza lands in the right corner.

    Carmelo is now officially a help defender on the play, as Fisher kicks the ball to Kobe Bryant on the left wing, guarded by Chauncey Billups. Carmelo has a lot to worry about. Pau Gasol is set up at the elbow just in front of Kobe. If Kobe penetrates and blows by Billups, Martin is going to have to leave Gasol open at the elbow to provide help on Kobe. (Want to know how Gasol gets so many open looks at the elbow? That's why!). If that happens, it'll be Anthony's job to move over to Gasol to make sure Pau doesn't get that open look.

    But wait ... Ariza has just drifted to the top of the arc, and is now only a skip pass away from a wide open look. He's still primarily Carmelo's responsibility, even as Gasol and Kobe need monitoring. As Kobe readies himself to drive left, Martin moves off Gasol. Bryant sees this, but Carmelo sees Bryant seeing this. Just as Kobe darts the ball to Gasol, Anthony zips into the passing lane, knocking the ball away. By the time the Spalding finds its way back into Kobe's hands, the shot clock is about to expire. Kobe heaves a desperation 3-pointer that Anthony gets a piece of.

    Anthony navigates the Ariza-Gasol help axis to perfection and it's his help, as much as anything, that allows Denver to force the turnover.

This sort of recognition by Anthony crops up in conversation about his defensive improvement. Nuggets' guard Dahntay Jones is Anthony's counterpart on the wing much of the time. He says that Anthony's defensive effort has definitely intensified, but the overall improvement has a lot to do with Carmelo's awareness of his teammates -- and the fact that those teammates are much better individual defenders than in years past.

"His awareness of where his help is on the floor is much better," Jones says. "When you have better defensive pieces around you, it makes things easier. You gain a lot of confidence by being with guys who can help you out defensively."

When you have a situation like the possession above, with Billups shading Bryant right, then Martin anticipating the driving lane, it simplifies life for Anthony as a help defender -- as it would any help defender.

"He's always been a pretty good individual defender," Nuggets head coach George Karl says. "It's his off the ball situations, his transition situations, his conceptual situations where he got lost a little bit in the past. But he's cut those mistakes in half."

Individual defense is difficult to quantify, but I consult Aaron Barzilai to get a feel for what his +/- numbers can tell us about Carmelo's D.

"Anthony seems to have been a liability in 2007-2008 but not in 2008-09," Barzilai says. "Maybe that's the story, he quietly became at least a neutral player on defense in the regular season."

By liability, Barzilai means that the Nuggets were a little more than five points per 100 possessions worse defensively with Anthony on the floor in 2007-08. This season, though, it was a wash. (The numbers don't s
how any appreciable improvement from the regular season to the playoffs). The numbers indicate that it might be a little early to start talking NBA All-Defense selection for Anthony, but a five-point bump in defensive adjusted +/- suggests real improvement, provided the trend holds for another season or two.

At the other end of the evaluative spectrum, I ask a scout for an NBA team to tell me if he's seen the improvement in Carmelo's defensive game we hear so much about during the broadcasts.

"It's there. Carmelo's buying into a role," the scout says. "You see it when it comes to containing dribble-penetration and as a weak side defender off the ball. That's one of the reasons his steals are up. Is he becoming a lockdown defender? No. But he's grasping the team concepts in terms of defensive rotations, and that's the big thing."

This postseason has been a revelation for those who've been eager for Anthony to arrive as the complete package. Offensively, he's always been a deadly scorer, but over the past month, there seems to be a new polish to his game. He's not just explosive; he's heady. And those prolific numbers we're seeing every night are as much a product of guile and artfulness as they are brute instinct. To the naked eye, it appears as if this evolution might be surfacing in Anthony's defensive game. The transformation could take another couple of seasons to fully materialize, but if it does, Anthony -- who will turn 25 next Friday when the Lakers and Nuggets are scheduled to meet in Game 6 -- might finally claim his place among the NBA pantheon.