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Basketball philosophy

The Carmelo Conundrum, how good is he?

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Carmelo Anthony during an NBA preseason game i...

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Carmelo Anthony has been a lightning rod for debate for a long time, but with his recent decision that he doesn’t want to play for the perpetual playoff team Denver Nuggets any more, we’ve reached a local peak in activity.

A few days back political statistical superstar Nate Silver wrote an article about Melo.  I’m a big fan of Nate’s – but it really was a terrible article.  First off the title was “Why Carmelo Anthony is the Ultimate Team Player”.  Aside from the fact that “ultimate team player” isn’t something that can be measured by statistics completely, it’s not like Silver actually went about comparing him to other players and showing Melo’s superiority.  I really hope that the title choice was done by someone other than the statistician.

I focused though on Silver’s specific analysis.  He’s saying that teammates do better at shooting efficiently with Melo.  Taken at broad strokes, this is essentially a +/- argument using shooting efficiency instead of the scoreboard.  While such an analysis can be useful because it is specific enough to suggest a particular means of impact, if we’re talking about a player’s overall impact it’s inherently weaker than what we call +/- statistics because it factors in only one part of the game, and so I said as much:  Whatever Melo’s factor on his teammates shooting, his total impact based on the +/- stat of greater scope and at least as much credibility is not anything like the true superstars of the world like draftmates LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.

Today Henry Abbott over at TrueHoop has an article about the debate about how good Melo is, and it’s pretty good.  It mentions things from both sides.  Among other things it mentions a more clean take down of Silver’s analysis:  Silver analyzed this by measuring efficiency of players when they were on Melo’s team compared to on other teams, but if you actually look at his on/off numbers on 82games.com, you see that for both this year and last year, his team shoots better when he’s on the bench.

I want to respond to some specific points from Henry’s article:

The Talented Mr. Anthony

He quotes the respected David Thorpe on Melo:  “He’s the best pure scoring small forward in the world, 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.”

This is something that gets said pretty reliably:  Any kind of scoring you want, Melo can do it.  That’s great, but I’ve never seen anyone really go into detail about why that matters so much simply as a fact.  One would expect that such scoring skill would lead to great efficiency for Melo, but it doesn’t.  One can certainly say that without all that skill, Melo would be a much less effective scorer, but that doesn’t change others are still doing better than he is.  In other words, the fact that Shaq can’t shoot a 3 pointer doesn’t mean he’s a worse scorer than someone with better range, obviously.  To Abbott’s credit he’s not just going by what Thorpe says about the specifics in Melo’s game to state an opinion about Melo’s general ability level though.

Is Melo helping teammates score from the bench?  Wait, what?

Abbott next points out something very interesting, but he doesn’t do enough with it to satisfy.  He says that offenses are efficient in the bonus, because of the amount of free throws they get, and so Melo can help teammates scoring efficiency by getting the team in foul trouble early on, and thus can help his teammates look good even when he’s on the bench.   Okay but:

1) Melo’s good at getting to the free throw line, but not ridiculously good.  It’s not just the guys like LeBron and Wade who are better.  Corey Maggette and Kevin Martin have posted seasons with better FTA per minute rates than Melo in his best season.

I’ll remind again, for most of us Melo skeptics, we aren’t saying Melo is a bad player, just that he doesn’t deserve mention as a superstar with the LeBrons and Wades of the world.  So if Melo’s not even matching the level of those guys in an area, why bring it up as possible point in Melo’s favor?

Well, probably because the Nuggets are leading the league in free throws attempted, so maybe that’s on Melo right?  However, aside from the fact that Melo isn’t the best in the league at getting to the line, Melo’s missed 7 games this season already, and we still see no trends of the team getting more free throws with Melo on the court than when he’s off it.

What we’re really seeing it looks like is George Karl‘s scheme and how well it can function with or without Melo.

2) The shooting efficiency stat that 82games lists on/off for is actually eFG% (effective field goal percentage), which factors in 3 point shots by counting them more than 2 pointers, but doesn’t factor in free throws.  So no, Melo’s ability to get to the line is really not closely related to the team’s bonus efficiency with him on the bench.

Also, for comparison, here are the eFG% differentials for Melo, LeBron, and Wade last year (things get complicated this year with LeBron & Wade on the same team):

Carmelo Anthony -1.8%

LeBron James +6.4%

Dwyane Wade +6.8%

3) Do we have any analysis saying Melo plays significantly less bonus time than other stars?  Abbott doesn’t mention any and it’s a hell of a thing to assume.  I’d love to such an analysis done, but considering the high efficiency of teams in the bonus because of the ability to get free throws, the fact that stars are typically the best at getting to the line, and the fact that Karl’s a pretty smart guy, I’m not going to believe Melo’s at a major disadvantage there until I see real proof.

1 Dork Elvis can’t be wrong

Last, Abbott mentions that “dork elvis”, the most advanced stat friendly GM in the league, Daryl Morey of the Houston Rocketsreally wants Melo.  If he respects Melo, shouldn’t we all?

Well again, I do.  I think those who say Melo is only an average player (the Wages of Wins community) are silly.  He’s certainly a good player.  If I were running a team, I’d love to have a scorer as capable as Melo is, and the Rockets don’t have one.  If Morey can score Melo without totally tearing apart his team, he absolutely should even before looking at Melo’s starpower as a direct revenue generator.

In the end, I remain firmly on the side saying that Melo’s having never been a real MVP candidate in 8 years in the league is not a coincidence.  Not saying he couldn’t be one in the right circumstance, but so could Melo’s putative sidekick Chauncey Billups – and in fact Billups was a stronger candidate than Melo has ever been in ’05-06.  The true top tier of players would not go 8 years without having such a season, even if they had a terrible supporting cast, which Carmelo Anthony certainly does not have.

Written by Matt Johnson

January 18, 2011 at 11:01 am

7 Responses

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  1. Hi, I enjoyed this. I don’t watch a lot of bball so I won’t pretend that I have a well-informed opinion but I’ve got an urge to type some.

    (1) I don’t think anyone is saying that Melo is on Wade or Lebron’s level. Even saying something like “the Lebrons and Wades” of the world is silly because they are truly special players that have no duplicates. Maybe that’s just a figure of speech but it’s worth being precise on that point. So I feel that’s a little straw-mannish of you.

    (2) On the advantages of so-called pure scorers. My intuition is that when the game slows down playoff-style (because the teams tend to have better defenses + are good at stopping the transition game), inefficiency is to be expected. The question is how inefficient is your team’s #1 option going to be. A pure scorer like Melo/Kobe is going to be inefficient, but the fact that they can score from so many spots shifts the defense in a way that opens things up for other players. Here, the most relevant thing is not whether Melo opens things more than Wade/Lebron/whomever but whether a team can win a championship with Melo as the #1 option and maxed-out franchise player. My feeling is hell yeah. My hell yeah would be more resounding if we were talking Wade or Lebron but it’s still a hell yeah.


    January 18, 2011 at 11:43 am

  2. Welcome Will, you make reasonable points. To address them:

    -Are people saying that Melo is on LeBron or Wade’s level? Well some do indeed do that, though I’ll readily admit that I think any poll along those lines would favor LeBron or Wade.

    People do though call Melo a superstar, and I think a large number of people would rate Melo closer to LeBron & Wade than they would to Bosh, and I disagree with that. Look at any advanced metric over their career, LeBron & Wade are at one level, and Melo is only debatably superior to Bosh.

    Beyond that, it’s my belief, that if there hadn’t been a manufactured rivalry between LeBron & Melo when they were rookies, Melo wouldn’t have the same rep he does today. There are quite a lot of people who think that LeBron’s only a tad superior to Melo, and only because of his “all around game”, and I disagree.

    Re: LeBrons & Wades of the world. Ha, well it is an odd phrase because people tend to use it with people who standout. As far as how much these guys standout, well LeBron’s way out there, Wade not quite as much. He’s arguably the 2nd best player in the game, but over past year guys like Kobe, Duncan, Nash, Garnett, and Paul are right with him generally, and if you go on a per minute basis, Ginobili too. When I refer to the Wades of the world, I’m saying there’s a tier of a half dozen or so guys who are well ahead of Melo – and that essentially answer the question “Do you think Melo’s a superstar?” which absolutely gets asked regularly.

    So no, I don’t think I put up a straw man, but I do understand why you’d feel I had.

    -More versatile scoring means more robust offense in the playoffs? This is a pretty insightful point generally, but I’m not sure about the specifics. It is Wade and LeBron though who are most known for having ridiculously effective performances in the playoffs, so while Melo’s versatility certainly gives an edge over some, what tier of players are we talking about there?

    -As far as whether Melo could be the lead scorer on a champion, absolutely. I mean, the Pistons won the title with Richard Hamilton as their lead scorer, and Melo is WAY better than Hamilton. On the other hand, the fact that a team could win a championship with Hamilton I think gives an indication of just how not crucial a superstar scorer is to win a championship in the theoretical sense.

    There are many, many players capable of being the lead scorer on a championship team, but how many of them are such good players that we can reasonable expect it with a supporting cast that’s not too hard to acquire? I say very few, and Melo isn’t on one of them.

    Matt Johnson

    January 18, 2011 at 12:23 pm

  3. Meh. Melo’s never hugely impressed me. The “diversity of scoring” argument can easily be turned around to argue that Melo is a jack-of-all-shots and master of none. And what else does he actually do well, as in significantly above-average well? So strip out the ability to take a large amount of shots and hit at an average-ish ability and what’s left?


    January 20, 2011 at 1:53 am

  4. Is it worth gutting your team to acquire Carmelo Anthony?…

    No it’s not worth it. People don’t seem to realize that Anthony already has an excellent supporting cast right now, and his team still isn’t a contender – so if you gut your team and give him a bad supporting cast, expect mediocrity.  If you look at…


    January 21, 2011 at 11:59 am

  5. […] posted before on the question of how good Carmelo is, so you know I’m not a huge fan. It’s funny though, the thought about how good the […]

  6. […] Never been a huge Melo fan (as was clear in my Carmelo Conundrum piece). I remain steadfast in my opinion that however many tools are in his arsenal, he never came […]

  7. […] idea that he makes his teammates shooting skyrocket. I commented on this and on him generally in my Carmelo Conundrum piece. The most amazing fact was that if you actually looked at his effect on teammates shooting […]

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