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.