And so are a lot of New York Knicks fans.
Bill Simmons put out an article yesterday subtitled “With Carmelo Anthony staying with the Knicks, will we ever find out how truly great he can be?” This type of ‘expert analysis’ becomes the basis of so many misunderstandings about the game of basketball and further illustrates how the media and fans are obsessed with perception than actual performances on the court. The subtitle itself implies that Carmelo IS great, and subtly shifts winning responsibility off of Carmelo, and onto a variety of reasons from the common; his teammates, his coach, and the system he plays in, to the bizarre; his position (?), his contract extension (huh?), his draft selection (what?). What is up with this invention of so many excuses when the numbers are staring you directly in the face?
Simmons ask the question, “How did Carmelo Anthony, only 30 years old and still in his prime, become the NBA’s most under-appreciated and misunderstood player?” To put it bluntly, Carmelo Anthony has not demonstrated the ability to be an NBA superstar, and is only misunderstood by this ill conceived perception. He’s been a fringe All-Star at best, but somehow his stature has been elevated to that of a franchise player. His career lines show he converts shots like an average shooting guard (45.5% FG%, 81.1% FT%), passes like an average big man (1.1 assist/turnover ratio), rebounds like a average small forward (6.5/gm), and plays defense like my uncle … and my uncle plays cricket. He doesn’t really excel in anything, except taking a lot of shots, and his career line looks pretty darn boring, nothing like an elite NBA player.
Simmons and Melo’s large immediate foster family will point to his career 25.3 ppg, and throw meaningless phrases around like “he can score from anywhere” and “he’s unstoppable.” Except they largely don’t realize that missed shots means missed scoring opportunities. That means that there are GOOD points per game and BAD points per game, and since Carmelo’s shooting percentages aren’t elite, the volume of his misses diminishes the benefits of his makes. How can someone be ‘unstoppable,’ which be definition implies a 100% FG%, when he can’t convert better than Chris Copeland? Even with the understanding that statements like that are figurative hyperbole, it’s not anywhere close to being a reflection of his play.
The next question Simmons poses is “Can you win the NBA championship if Carmelo Anthony is your best player?” He answers himself with “The short answer: Yes,” but then goes on to compare Carmelo to a far superior player, Dirk Notwitzki. This is like saying, “Hey, just give that yellow mustard a few more years to develop, surround it with organic ketchup and relish, and it’ll be just like Grey Poupon.” Introducing this comparison diminishes how great Dirk actually was before he won the championship, and somehow equating Dirk’s actual pre-championship play with Melo’s. Dirk’s Win Share/48, playoffs and regular season combined, hovered around .200 before he won in 2011, while Melo’s is about .130. In other words, Dirk is Polaner All Fruit; Carmelo is jelly.
To be fair, Simmons does go into great detail on why Dirk is better, using a plethora of actual game performances, none of which Melo has ever come close to replicating. However, he oddly tries to drum up a [weak] comparison of their best year playoff numbers, which he thinks are ‘not THAT far off.’ Have a look for yourself, and if you understand that being efficient is a serious advantage, it’ll be obvious why even these two lines are not comparable:
2011 Dirk (21 games): 27.7 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 2.5 apg, 49-46-94%, 8.9 FTA, 25.2 PER
2009 Melo (16 games): 27.2 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 4.1 apg, 45-36-83%, 9.0 FTA, 24.3 PER
Now, this was by far Carmelo’s best play-off run, and his Win Share/48 showed that as he checked in at an All-Star Level .201. In his prior five play-off appearances, he was shockingly bad, and in three (3!) of those years, he actually had a negative Win Share/48. That pretty much means that Denver would have been better off if he didn’t play at all! And if we really look at 2009 playoff Carmelo, we’ll see that while Simmons tries to deflect the blame to his ‘substandard’ team and J. R. Smith, let’s not forget that this is what Melo’s stat line was against the Lakers. Not only are his rebounds and assists down, his shooting from the field was abysmal against the stiffer competition.
2009 Melo vs Lakers (6 games): 27.5 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 3.7 apg, 41-25-83%, 20.0 FGA, 12.5 FTA
Simmons likes to point to team composition as an issue, but even in Melo’s best playoff performance, he wasn’t the best player on the team. That honor went to Chauncey Billups, who put up an elite Win Share/48 of .249 in the playoffs after a season Win Share/48 of .176 (note Denver’s season Win Share/48 leaders – Nene .177, Billups .176, Anderson .176, J. R. Smith .124, and finally Carmelo hovering around league average .105). We tend to think of those Denver teams as Carmelo’s teams, mainly because of his inflated point per game numbers, but the reality is that those were Billups’ teams, by both contribution to winning and by his NBA Finals MVP pedigree.
The fans and the media overvalue points per game, and that’s likely why the Melo elevation is happening. Instead of using this oversimplification stat as gospel, they should think about how those points are scored, and realize that a missed shot is more detrimental than a made shot is rewarding. This is because there is a cap on how many shots a team can take in a game, so any missed shot is a missed opportunity to maximize your team’s points and win. When your best player is not an incredibly efficient volume scorer, your team doesn’t have much of a chance unless that player is also incredible possession guy (elite rebounder/defender) or team FG% enhancer (elite assister).
Carmelo has been neither of those in his entire career, so it’s a wonder why fans and writers constantly elevate him to some greatness he’s never showed a glimpse of consistently achieving. In fact, at least in terms of win contribution, Carmelo has been the best on his team only once, and that was with last year’s Knicks. Why don’t we compare him to a player that was actually very similar to him, someone like let’s say … Glenn Robinson.
Big Dog (career): 20.7 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 2.7 apg, 46-34-82%, 17.6 FGA, 4.4 FTA
Melo (career): 25.3 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 3.1 apg, 45-35-81%, 19.7 FGA, 7.7 FTA
The ‘Big Dog’ played the exact same style of basketball in the 90s as Carmelo plays now. He was considered an incredible scorer, a volume shooter not known for much defense, with a career mediocre win/loss record. His numbers are eerily similar to Melo’s, with the exception of points per game, which upon normalization, is nearly identical. Had Robinson been a shot consumer in the same neighborhood as Melo, assuming Robinson’s efficiency was roughly the same, he would suddenly be a 25 ppg scorer. Watch some of his highlights for yourself; the guy could get a shot off from anywhere, and back then, people thought he shot too much.
Robinson only made the playoffs three times as a big minutes contributor, and those appearances include two 1st round knock-outs, and one deep run to the Eastern Conference Finals. Does that sound like anyone we know? Robinson did win an NBA Championship with the Spurs as a deep bench guy, which better answers Simmon’s question, “Can you win the NBA championship if Carmelo Anthony is your best player?”
The short answer: No.
Carmelo has made some strides in improving his game, and while the Knicks supporting cast is not fantastic and their front office has been hauntingly bad, we have to start holding him accountable for his on-court performance. This pervasive thought that because you’ve looked dominant in small samples, means that you actually are dominant on average, is foolish and absurd. Until Carmelo proves he can do SOMETHING better than average, whether it’s increasing his assists, or controlling the glass, or play great team defense, or just simply shooting the ball better, any team that choses to employ him is destined for disappointment.
What Are You Talking About Bill Simmons Bonus Material:
“Carmelo? He’s 92 percent as frightening as 1984 Playoff Bernard was.” – King averaged 7.5 more points per game, shot a whopping 12% better than Melo, and was about 16.4% better as per Win Share/48. How does one quantify ‘frightening’ anyway?
“He’s just playing in a more difficult league — better scouting, better game planning, better defenses, better athletes, better everything.” – Era comparisons like this are hugely misleading because Simmons is singularly applying to Melo the advancements that apply to the entire player pool. Melo has benefitted from better scouting and better game planning as much as he’s been hurt by it. Better defenses are largely rules-based (i.e. hand-check rule, zone defenses) which again, would apply to everyone. Better athletes are probably not true based on this TED Talk which shows the bulk of ‘improvement’ is really due to technology and specialization.
“That pathetic Knicks team didn’t employ a single creator who could get Melo wide-open jumpers off slash-and-kick drives.” – If the point guard is to blame for this last year, that either means Kidd, Billups, and Lawson were guilty of the same thing since Melo’s shooting has been roughly the same, or Carmelo is just not that great of a shooter Simmons thinks he is.
“Just a slew of possessions, one after the other, with everyone standing around waiting for Carmelo to do something. They were like the pickup team from hell, only Carmelo couldn’t just throw the game and hop on someone else’s team.” – Anyone that has ever played pickup basketball has at one point played with a guy who ball hogs on offense, and doesn’t get back on defense. Everyone else ends up standing around, because you know that you will not see the ball no matter how good your back-door cut is or how wide open you are in the corner. This sounds more like what happened to the Knicks, which Tyson Chandler said in the playoffs. I’m not sure Simmons has ever played pickup basketball after an analogy like that. Plus, didn’t Melo basically try to hop on someone else’s team by opting out? No takers? I’m not surprised.