Melo Ball goes back to the future

Once a poster boy for an outdated, iso-based game, Carmelo Anthony is a face of change in the NBA. AP Photo/Seth Wenig

There was a time when it didn’t look as if Carmelo Anthony would be so sought after at age 30. When he was traded from the Denver Nuggets to the New York Knicks in February 2011, he was the bane of the advanced-stats community, his reputation sliced sharpest by cutting-edge analysis.

With his less-than-super-efficient high scoring average, Anthony might well have symbolized how casual fans get snookered into worshipping false idols. His volume shooting was the past, and players of more balanced yet subtle skill sets were the future. That iso ball that the "eye test" loves was so early Iverson era. It had no place in the NBA’s version of a Moneyball revolution.

Less than four years later, Anthony plays host to a vigorous recruitment effort from advanced-stats godfather and Rockets general manager Daryl Morey. Melo is the missing piece in Chicago, the foundation of a new era in Los Angeles. Yes, there are still concerns over whether Anthony will be worth a five-year max contract, and there remains criticism of Anthony's defense. But ultimately, Anthony’s New York adventure has seen a rehabilitation of his game, if not his reputation.

It took some unfortunate injuries to Amar'e Stoudemire, but the Knicks managed to stumble upon a Carmelo Anthony better suited for this era. Playing power forward, Anthony received better spacing, and he ultimately started making better choices. In the season before his trade to the Knicks, fewer than 14 percent of Anthony’s shots were 3-pointers. Last season, 25 percent of his shots were from behind the arc.

By shifting his shot selection from the dreaded “long 2” zone out to where shots count for an extra point, he moved to the forefront of basketball. Shooting is in, "stretch-4s" are in. The game had seemingly left isolation scorers behind, but Melo, one of the shiniest examples, has persevered.

After a shaky, injury-addled first full season in New York, Anthony notched his two best seasons according to player efficiency (PER) and win shares. Not only did the numbers look better, but his game got more aesthetically pleasing. Decisions were quicker, the ball stuck less often. He turns the ball over far less than he did back in Denver. There are still bouts of grinding iso-ball, but it’s not like the old days, when Anthony would average more turnovers than assists.

You can blame him for the lack of options (the Knicks were strip-mined because Anthony forced a trade to New York), but it’s getting harder to find fault with his offensive approach. His game has matured from headstrong to nuanced. Guard him with a mobile wing and he can post that guy into some pain. Guard him with a burly big and he can lose that guy for many an open 3-pointer.

“Olympic Melo” is the nickname for that sweet-shooting forward we’ve seen in international competition. He thrives in an environment where the ball is shared around the arc and shot from behind it. That’s where basketball is heading, if this latest, emphatic San Antonio Spurs championship is any indication. The NBA is trending toward a drive-and-kick international style that just so perfectly fits the guy who, earlier in his career, was the caricature of American-style hero ball. Melo was the past before he took a few steps back and became the future.