The New York Knicks’ new president Phil Jackson knows a few things about overcoming obstacles: He's won 11 NBA championship titles as a coach with the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers and two as a player. But Jackson’s biggest challenge this offseason is supposedly figuring out how to keep Carmelo Anthony, a player so talented that the redoubtable Oscar Robertson recently called him one of the best players in the league—perhaps better than LeBron James or Kevin Durant.
The primary presumption in New York is that the Knicks have to keep Anthony because he is a rare talent belonging to the Mount Rushmore of contemporary scorers. After all, Anthony has scored nearly 20,000 points in his career and appeared in the All-Star game seven times. The secondary presumption—made by both Robertson and Frank Isola of the New York Daily News (among others, I’m sure)—is that the only thing keeping Anthony from winning a championship is the lack of better help around him.
But the empirical evidence suggests that 1) Anthony is not quite the star so many people see, 2) the Knicks’ problems aren’t entirely a result of their lack of help, and finally, 3) losing him might not be so tragic.
Shots, Shots, Shots
Carmelo Anthony was voted by the fans to start in the 2014 All-Star Game, is the fifth-highest paid player in the NBA, and was the season’s second-highest scorer, after Kevin Durant. He is clearly perceived to be a star.
Many people’s perception of a player’s greatness—whether one looks at post-season awards, free-agent salaries, or the NBA Draft—is primarily driven by total points scored. But a player’s contribution to wins, which is arguably the most valuable quality a player can bring to his team, consists of much more than total points.
Scoring (or total points) is the product of two factors: shot attempts and shooting efficiency. Of all the things a player does on the court, shooting efficiency (which—as explained below—can be measured in different ways) is probably the most important factor when it comes to winning games. Gaining and keeping possession of the ball are very important; however, shot attempts—or the other part of total points—do not really matter. Or, more precisely, because a player’s shot attempts tend to come at the expense of his teammates' shots, how many shots a player takes doesn't tell us much about his contribution to wins.
We can see this clearly when we look at what happened to the Denver Nuggets when Carmelo Anthony was traded to the Knicks in 2011. With Anthony on the roster, the Nuggets took 80.0 shots from the field per game in 2010-11. Of these, 19.3 were launched by Anthony. After Anthony left for New York, field goal attempts per game for the Nuggets actually rose to 82.2 per game. So Anthony didn't "create" his 19.3 shots, and they didn't vanish when he departed. Instead, the numbers suggest he simply "took" those shots from his teammates. When he left, his teammates in Denver "took" them back (and also took a couple more).
Because shot attempts are just taken, what matters in evaluating a scorer is his efficiency. And this is where Anthony comes up short. Consider how Anthony compares to the two other leading scorers in the NBA: Durant and LeBron James.
An average NBA player in 2013-14 had an effective field goal percentage (a measure that considers the impact of shooting from two-point and three-point range) of 0.501 and a true shooting percentage (a measure that considers the impact of shooting from the free throw line and the field) of 0.541. Here is what this trio did this past season with respect to each measure:
- LeBron James: 0.610 effective field goal percentage, 0.649 True Shooting Percentage
- Kevin Durant: 0.560 effective field goal percentage, 0.635 True Shooting Percentage
- Carmelo Anthony: 0.503 effective field goal percentage, 0.561 True Shooting Percentage
These numbers tell a simple story. James and Durant aren’t just a little bit better at converting their shot attempts into points. They’re significantly better. In fact, Anthony's ability to get the ball to go through the hoop is only slightly better than the average player. Across his career in New York, Anthony has posted an effective field goal percentage of 0.495 (slightly below average mark) and a True Shooting Percentage of 0.554 (slightly above average mark).
A small percentage-point difference in shooting efficiency can have a huge impact on wins throughout a season.The box score statistics tracked by the NBA can be translated—as explained here (and in a few academic publications)—into how many wins each player produces.
For example, across this last regular season we see that Durant produced 19.4 wins, James produced 17.8 wins, and Anthony produced just 6.9 wins.
Yes, although Anthony had scoring totals that matched Durant and James, his actual production of wins was quite a bit lower. But what would have happened if Anthony were able to shoot as well as James? If Anthony matched James shooting efficiency—and nothing else about Anthony changed—his production of wins would have been 16.3 in 2013-14. So the Knicks could have won 10 more games in 2013-14 if Anthony could have simply shot like LeBron. And if that had happened, the Knicks would have been in the playoffs, and Mike Woodson would probably still be the team’s head coach.
It’s important to emphasize, though, that this was not just a problem in 2013-14. In 2012-13, James produced 21.1 wins, Durant produced 19.2 wins, and Anthony only produced 4.1 wins.
Again, Anthony can score like James and Durant. But because his shooting efficiency isn’t far removed from average, his production of wins doesn’t come close to what we see from Durant and James.
You might be thinking: Okay, Anthony’s not as good as two historically great players, but he’s clearly an elite scorer in the NBA. To see how surprisingly mediocre Anthony’s shooting is, we can compare his shooting efficiency to entire teams’.
Again, his effective field goal percentage this year was 50.3 percent. This past season, 14 teams shot better (or nearly half the league’s teams). In his career as a Knick, his EFG has been 49.5 percent; 16 teams shot better this past season (or more than half the league’s teams). When we take into consideration free throws, in true shooting percentage, Anthony looks a bit better, because he’s quite good at drawing fouls and hitting shots at the line. Still, six teams had higher true shooting percentages than Anthony last year (in fact, on the San Antonio Spurs alone, nine of their 12 players with more than 500 minutes on the court this year posted a higher true shooting percentage than Anthony.)
It’s hard to believe that there are half a dozen teams who collectively score more efficiently than one of the “best” scorers in the league. The alternative is: Anthony is not a terrifically efficient scorer.
It's Not About More Help
While some think that the Knicks have simply not provided Anthony with enough help, when we look back at 2012-13, it’s clear that this story doesn't stand up to scrutiny, either.
The New York Knicks had their best season of the 21st century in 2012-13. Not only did the team win more than 50 games (for the first time since 1996-97), the team also advanced out of the first round of the playoffs (for the first time since 1999). But the team still fell far short of the Miami Heat. Some people might argue that the difference was the teammates surrounding both James and Anthony. But when we look at wins, a different story emerges.
In 2012-13, the wins produced by everyone on the Heat not named LeBron was 41.0. And when we look at the Oklahoma City Thunder, everyone not named Durant produced 46.3 wins. So each of these players had “help.” But perhaps surprisingly, Anthony had even more help. In 2012-13, everyone not named Carmelo on the Knicks produced 48.0 wins. That means that if Anthony could have simply matched the production the Heat received from LeBron James, the Knicks would have been the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs in 2013. And had that happened, the Knicks probably would have had a very good shot at winning a title.
But that didn’t happen. The Knicks exited the playoffs in the second round. Before the 2013-14 season started, the Knicks roster changed a bit. First, Jason Kidd—who produced 11.4 wins for this team—finally retired (and became the head coach of the Brooklyn Nets). In addition, the Knicks traded a collection of players and draft picks to the Toronto Raptors for Andrea Bargnani. In 2012-13, Bargnani produced -3.2 wins for the Raptors (yes, that is a negative number). Why was Bargnani so unproductive? In addition to shooting efficiency, wins in the NBA are also about getting and keeping possession of the ball (i.e., getting rebounds, creating turnovers, and avoiding turnovers). Although Bargnani can score, he does this by launching many shots. When it comes to both shooting efficiency and rebounds, though, he is very much below average. So it is not surprising—at least to those who look at all the box-score numbers—that Bargnani was not going to “help” Anthony and the Knicks. And when the 2013-14 season ended, Bargnani’s production of wins was again in the negative range.
Beyond these changes, the Knicks also suffered some bad luck. Tyson Chandler—who produced 13.1 wins for the Knicks in 2012-13—was hurt in 2013-14. So Chandler’s production of wins declined to just 7.1 wins.
These three changes—the loss of Kidd, addition of Bargnani, and injury to Chandler—are the biggest reasons why the Knicks and Anthony suffered this past season. But although Anthony had less help in 2013-14, surprisingly the difference between his help and the help given to James and Durant remained small. In 2013-14,
- every player not named Durant on the Thunder produced 38.5 wins,
- every player not named James on the Heat produced 36.0 wins, and
- every player not named Anthony on the Knicks produced 32.0 wins.
Again, the problem isn’t really the players surrounding Anthony. The problem is that fans have convinced themselves that Anthony’s game—that of an above-average shooter who takes a disproportionate number of shots—makes him a star.
The NBA's collective bargaining agreement allows the Knicks to offer Anthony a five-year maximum deal of $129.1 million to stay in New York. For a team that has consistently ranked toward the top in the NBA's payroll rankings, finding the money to pay Anthony doesn't seem like an issue. What should be an issue, though, is whether Anthony is really worth more than $25 million per season.
Beyond the issue with Anthony’s impact on wins, it is important to remember that Anthony will turn 30 next month. He will be 35 when this contract expires. Basketball players tend to see their peak performance in their mid-twenties. Although any decline tends to be modest in a player’s twenties, once a player reaches his thirties the decline tends to accelerate. Certainly, there are exceptions to this trend (see: Jason Kidd). But the general pattern suggests that Anthony isn’t likely to get much better across this contract. And what we have seen so far suggests that what seems obvious to many—that Anthony is the key to the Knicks’ future—may not be true.
As teams in Denver and New York have learned for the past 11 NBA seasons, trying to build a championship team around Carmelo Anthony—a player who has only advanced out of the first round of the NBA playoffs twice in his career—isn’t likely to prove successful. At least, to make that title happen, Anthony is going to need quite a bit more help than James has seen in Miami.