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Carmelo Anthony: Star Not Bright Enough for The NBA’s New Golden Age

Carmelo Anthony (photo courtesy of Sports.Gearlive.com).

There’s an intoxicatingly hard scrabble Brooklyn-born aura about 27-year-old Carmelo Anthony of the New York Knicks that impels sports fans to believe that the career 25-point-per-game scorer – whose teams have been thrashed in the first round of the playoffs in seven out of eight appearances at a clip of 6-28 – won’t be ultimately classified as a one dimensional offensive juggernaut and ultimate playoff dud alongside the likes of Mitch Richmond, Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, or Gilbert Arenas. At first glimpse, Carmelo Anthony’s one deep playoff run with his former Denver Nuggets team in 2009 seems to validate this high hope.  However…

2009 Recap:  Anthony Surged while Chauncey Billups Remained Invaluable At the Helm

Carmelo Anthony’s blistering offensive output in the 2009 Western Conference playoffs (27.2 points per game that included six 30+ point performances) was strongly responsible for buoying the Denver Nuggets to the Western Conference Finals against the eventual NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers.  Anthony exploded for 39 points in a 105-103 Game 1 road loss at the Staples Center, a contest decided in the last minute of play.  He then re-ignited in Game 2 for 34 points – albeit on a highly streaky 12/29 FG shooting – in a Nuggets upset road win.

NBA pundits, who evaluated Anthony as both temperamental and an ignominiously bad defender prior to the 2009 playoffs, declared that Anthony had turned a new leaf during the Nuggets playoff run:  Coach George Karl noticed that Anthony had stopped losing focus when in foul trouble, and ESPN broadcaster and Hall of Fame  coach Hubie Brown – a stickler for sound fundamental play – noted that Anthony executed a handful of strong defensive stops in the Western Conference Finals, particularly when he utilized his 7-foot wingspan to stifle Kobe Bryant’s floor movement at the top of the key and on the wings.

Doug Pensinger / Getty Images

However, notwithstanding Anthony’s offensive outburst in the 2009 playoffs, he was certainly not the leader, and arguably not the integral reason for the Denver Nuggets success that year. Yes, Anthony was the Nuggets’ leading scorer in the regular season at 22.8 ppg, and his play in the playoffs showed signs of improvement in other areas outside of scoring – he had moments of strong defense, averaged only 2 turnovers a game, and increased his his assist output from his regular season average of 3 to 4 a game.  Still, it was the then-32-year-old point guard Chauncey Billups – acquired from the Detroit Pistons for Anthony’s twin high-volume shooting machine Allen Iverson – who was ultimately responsible for transforming the Nuggets during the entire 97-game year (including playoffs)  from merely a high scoring NBA attraction to a legitimate playoff contender.

Billups, voted 6th in the MVP ballot that year (Anthony didn’t make the top fifteen) did not have what would a statistically gaudy NBA regular season:  17.9 ppg on 42% shooting, 6.4 assists, and an 18.8 Player Efficiency Rating (the league average is 15) comprise borderline all-star material. Insofar as more advanced statistics may more accurately indicate Billups’ value (he was ranked the 7th in offensive efficiency, which factors in points produced by points, assists, offensive rebounds, and turnovers)  his success was more firmly rooted in his canny point guard play.

Billups orchestrated a methodical and optimal half-court style offensive pace for a team that the past two years were known for taking several wild forced shots and executing broken plays (to which Anthony was responsible for some of the latter).  In doing so, he changed the culture of the Nuggets organization one reputed for having the most undisciplined and inconsistent players in the league, to a cohesive unit that had begun to optimize their remarkable size, athleticism, and talent in the Western Conference.  Chauncey Billups.  Not Carmelo Anthony.

Two Years Later:  Carmelo Anthony And the NBA’s New Golden Age

Since 2009, the NBA’s ecology – particularly in Carmelo Anthony’s new home in the Eastern Conference – has become strikingly more competitive, and requires that a team have a true #1 option to reach the conference finals, let alone win an NBA championship.  The Eastern Conference’s best individual players, all in their mid-to-late 20s – combination guard Derrick Rose of last year’s 62-win Chicago Bulls, point forward Lebron James and combination guard Dwayne Wade of the NBA finalist Miami Heat, and center Dwight Howard of the Orlando Magic (just one strong #2 option away from being a championship contender themselves) – are all already being lauded as future Hall of Famers. Each of these legitimate #1 options can not only score 25 ppg or more, but they can rebound, assist, steal, make key defensive stops, get to the line, and make timely clutch 4th quarter baskets at elite levels in their respective positions.  As true #1 options, they can influence play at both ends of the floor, and optimize their teammates’ value on the floor.  And then you have the 2007 world champion Boston Celtics, who assuming the health, their three-headed monster of guaranteed future Hall of Fame veterans Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen, as well as 24-year-old Rajon Rondo, a top-five point guard in the NBA, can still contend for a championship.

Carmelo Anthony’s game, on the other hand, has plateaued well short of this company.  Since 2009, he has remained a one-dimensional small forward and high-volume shooter (20 shots a game). Yes, Anthony is considered to be a fearless 4th quarter threat-to-score on the offensive end.  However, the remainder of his game is still grossly underdeveloped: his ability or willingness to create shots for teammates remains mediocre:  between 2010 and 2011, Anthony averaged only 3 assists-per-game to an offensively talented Nuggets squad along with 2.8 turnovers, for a subpar 1:1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Anthony’s field goal percentage has declined steadily from a strong 48% back in 2006 to an unremarkable 45% by 2010. This decline has been precipitated by Anthony’s increased preference toward taking jump shots as opposed to more fully utilizing his magnificently quick first step and strength to get to the paint more for higher percentage shots. In 2006, Anthony’s jump shot to inside scoring ratio was 56/44%; that year, and he averaged 28 ppg on 48% shooting. By 2009, the ratio increased to 64 to 36%, and once he was traded by Denver to the Knicks at the end of the 2011 regular season, it ballooned to 74 to 26%.[1]  As for Anthony’s defensive skills, that handful of strong defensive moments versus Kobe Bryant in ’09 feels like an anamoly, as Anthony’s defense remains shoddy and exploitable.

Still, Carmelo supporters will opine that alongside the offensively prolific New York Knicks power forward Amare Stoudamire (25.3 ppg in 2011), the now 35-year-old yet still crafty Billups also acquired by the Knicks in the trade from Denver, and what we will presume to be a squad of serviceable bench players, the Knicks have the firepower to compete against any elite team in the NBA. This is true: if Carmelo Anthony’s game maintains just as it is now, the Knicks will indeed “compete” against the very best NBA teams. You will witness about 42 or so minutes of intense bucket-to-bucket trade-offs against the NBA’s elite competition. Anthony will lead the show, taking a high volume of jump shots at probably the same unremarkable 45% clip; a good number of the made shots will be of high difficulty and will set fans agog.  The Knicks are once again a major marquee attraction.

However, Anthony will do little to help improve serviceable players with reasonable upsides like Landry Fields and Sheldon Williams, nor will he play strong defense against an Eastern conference loaded with elite wing players like Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, LeBron James and Luol Deng. Also, #2 option Amare Stoudemire will see less high-percentage shots from in the paint when Anthony chooses to run a lower % iso-play; a trend which may cause some issues in the lockeroom with the somewhat individual-statistic-orientated Stoudemire. And when a 2nd or 3rd round quality playoff opponent like the Bulls or Heat  really clamp down on defense (both were in the top 5 team defenses last year) and switch gears to a torrid fluid team offense over those crucial six minutes of the 4th quarter, a one dimensional small forward with poor defensive skills and mediocre court vision is simply not the leader you want to depend on to grind out a win.

The Knicks don’t have another legitimate #1 option to assume this crucial role.  They can’t depend on the now 35-year-old Billups. Billups was riddled in injuries in late 2011, including most of the first round of the playoffs against the Boston Celitics, where despite Carmelo Anthony’s 26 ppg average, the Knicks still lost in four games.  Billups will probably see some diminishment in offensive numbers and games played this year; he’s a formidable 3rd option and a steadfast veteran presence on the Knicks, but nothing more. As to Stoudemire, he’s not a strong enough outlet passer (1.5 career apg) or ball handler (2010-2011 rookies Demarcus Cousins and Blake Griffin are the only power forwards in the league’s top 20 for turnovers) to control the last six minutes of an NBA game on the offensive end.

The Knicks Evolution is in his Hands:

If the Knicks are to advance deep in the playoffs, the onus is on Carmelo Anthony, 27 years old in and his prime, to finally evolve into a true #1 option; to translate his unique skill set into fluid, dominating play on both ends of the floor. Anthony’s evolution will need to entail the following:

  1. Assuming Stoudemire and Billups are healthy, Anthony should be able to increase his assists per game from 3 to 5 just by slashing to the paint at a higher frequency and dropping passes off to Stoudamaire for high % inside shots and dunks, as well as orchestrating outlet passes to guards Billups, Sheldon Williams, and Landry Fields, all who will be lurking around the three point line under Coach Mike D’Antoni’s system.
  2. Through some unselfish play, Anthony can help Stoudemire become a #2 option under a #1a option cloak: a 23-ppg guy who will then be sufficiently pleased with his statistical output that it may bolster his play in other areas (defense would be nice).
  3. Rather than relegate himself as a high-volume jump shooter, Anthony needs to use his remarkable foot speed and what is perhaps the strongest small forward’s body in the NBA to attain a more optimal balance between jump shots and inside shots; in this regard, if Anthony and Stoudemire play an unselfish give n’ go game, with the latter setting picks and screens on the inside, it will only be a question of Anthony’s willingness to take contact when driving to the hoop as to whether he can increase his scoring and kick-out assists in the paint.
  4. Finally, if the Knicks are to have a strong chance at making a push late into the playoffs, Anthony’s wing defense must no longer be a liability; with his size and speed, Anthony is well capable of causing defensive havoc on the wings. It’s time for him to get started.

All of these requisite improvements to make Carmelo Anthony a true #1 are plausible. Whether that augers a not-too-surprising Game 7 win over the Bulls or Heat deep into the playoffs, or, is nothing more than the emblem of a romanticized Brooklyn basketball aura, depends on Carmelo’s willingness to evolve from superstar limbo into the NBA elite. In that rare and lucky occasion that so few have in their lives, the next step really is in Carmelo Anthony’s hands.

[1] Jump shot to inside scoring ratios are courtesy of www.82games.com

About Argun M. Ulgen

When I was young, my dad and I used to watch a lot of MSG midnight replays of Knicks basketball after he came home from work. One night at 1am we grilled steaks and watched the Knicks somehow hold onto a 4th quarter lead. Sometime later, I started to fall in love with reading all sorts of literature, including sports books.The dawning of this romance came soon after my deep relationships with HBO reruns of its fine series programming, not to mention the Encore channel's more than generous replays of Scarface, came to a close. I write, but only when I don't feel like being idle. Feel free to AIM me at YoProtein (that's "Yo, Protein!") with comments or suggestions about my work. I more than welcome feedback.

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