Tim Legler was on Mike and Mike this morning criticizing the Knicks, including Carmelo Anthony. “Legs” asserted that the Knicks have more players than any other NBA team whose mentality is just to come down the floor and shoot, without giving a thought to spacing, ball movement and those other things that win basketball teams. Mike, Mike and Legs all asserted that everyone knows this mindset starts with Carmelo Anthony. What fascinates me about Melo – or I should say, the way people talk about Melo – is how self-contradictory is the analysis of his play. On the one hand, almost every mainstream commentator regards it as self-evident that he’s a superstar, one of the top five or ten players in the league. On the other hand, if you ask almost every one of these same commentators what constitutes winning basketball, “shooting all the time” will not be high on their list. And yet, not to put too fine a point on it, “shooting all the time” is really Melo’s main “skill.”
This is as clear a case as you can find of commentators’ evaluations being driven by a single statistic – points scored per game, even as they would deny that their analysis is reliant on stats. It’s because of this self-contradictory way of evaluating players that most talking heads could be so influenced by one stat while dismissing (assuming they are aware of) statistical measures like Wins Produced, which incorporate a range of performance measures and consider missed shots a bad outcome for the team missing the shots.
The Knicks are 3-10 this year and look awful. So, Melo is coming in for a lot of scrutiny, especially since most observers thought the Knicks would good again in 2013-14. But here’s the dirty little secret – Melo’s play this season is not appreciably different than it’s been throughout his career. Yes, he’s shooting a little worse this year than is typical for him, about 43% compared to 45% last year (which is about his career mark). To put this in perspective, last year Melo averaged 22 shots a game, and hit 10 of them. This year he’s averaging 22 shots per game, and is hitting 9.5 of them. That’s right – he’s missing one extra shot every two games. Melo’s actually rebounding better than usual so far this season. Otherwise, he’s exactly what he’s always been – a fairly average contributor. He’s a got a 1-1 assist to turnover ratio. He’s averaging half a block a game. All those stats are more or less average for his position.
So, what’s the difference between the player who was considered the major reason the Knicks won 54 games last year and the player whose me-first attitude is centrally responsible for their 3-10 start this year? The answer isn’t to be found in Anthony himself. It’s his teammates. The Knicks’ most productive player is Tyson Chandler, who got hurt four games into the season. Their second best player last year was Jason Kidd (at least until playoff time). Kidd is, of course, no longer playing (and might not be coaching for that much longer either). J.R. Smith, who makes Anthony look like a model of discretion when it comes to shot selection, appears to have turned back into a pumpkin after his atypically good performance in 2012-13. And the Knickerbockers have added the atrocious Andrea Bargnani, a 7-footer who doesn’t rebound but has a reputation as a “shooter” even though he’s not especially good at it (OK, he’s a decent three point shooter, but that doesn’t come close to making up for his deficiencies). For this, they’re paying the former No. 1 overall pick $11.5 million a season.
In sum, all the talk about the value of guys like Anthony gets exposed as soon as they’re on a bad team. When LeBron left the Cavs, they went from a 60-win team to a 25-win team. Melo is not in that stratosphere. He is not a championship player, though he gets paid like one. That doesn’t mean he couldn’t ever play for a champion. But if you’re going to build your team around a guy whose one standout skill is that he shoots the ball a lot (and yes, in fairness, he gets to the line a lot), you’re asking for trouble, unless you get really lucky in your complementary pieces. The Knicks did last year. This year – not so much.
I know this gets tiresome. I won’t dwell on it (too much).