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What defines a superstar? While most of us would likely agree on who many of the best players are, our definitions of the term would likely be very different. For some, it might mean being the best player on a team. For others, it might be the player that can hit the toughest or most important shots. Still, others will argue that it’s the ability of a player to singlehandedly carry his team to victory when necessary, and many would likely define the term using a mixture of these qualities. Is there one definitive answer? Probably not, especially across different sports with emphasis on different skill sets.
But pare down the qualifications a bit and the task becomes more manageable. Let’s focus on basketball. Is this player one of the first 10-15 guys you’d pick for your team to win a single game? How about a playoff series? Does this player’s game elevate his teammates? To me, these are some of the specific questions that can help us really define the term “superstar.” But why stop there? Using a specific example, let’s delve into this more deeply.
Is Carmelo Anthony a superstar? ”of course,” is the instinctual answer most basketball fans would give. The guy was part of (or helped engineer, whichever you like) one of the larger blockbuster trades in recent years, commanding a massive price from the Knicks just for his personal services. He has been in the top-10 in scoring each of the past six seasons (the only player besides Kobe and LeBron to do so) while functioning as the de facto go-to-guy for both the Knicks and Nuggets. He is a monster one-on-one, perhaps the most talented face-up scorer in the entire league. And until his trade to the Big Apple, he was doing this without the help of a single other legitimate All-Star. On the surface, it seems entirely correct to label Carmelo a bona fide superstar.
But as our Moneyball Diaries readers are hopefully coming to understand more and more, appearances can be deceiving. There must be a reason, for instance, why in Anthony’s eight complete seasons in the NBA, his team has advanced past the first round of the playoffs only once, despite making the postseason all eight years. Surely a true superstar would be capable of engineering multiple playoff runs, rather than year after year of one-and-outs? Not in Carmelo’s case. In fact, in his NBA career, Anthony’s playoff win-loss record is – wait for it – 16 wins, 34 losses. That equates to a dismal .320 winning percentage. Sure, many superstars (especially those drafted highly, who play for lottery teams upon entering the league) take a few years to develop their teams into winners. There are even cases of other true superstars who, like Melo, have never achieved any playoff success (Chris Paul is a name that comes to mind, but his situation is entirely different from Melo’s. Not only have his teammates been far worse than Carmelo’s in his career, but injuries have drastically impacted multiple seasons for Paul, in a couple cases resulting in his team not even reaching the playoffs.)
But in the vast majority of instances, you’d be hard pressed to find another “superstar” with as many years in the league as Anthony who has accomplished so little in the most important part of the season. Even LeBron, the “choke-artist,” has been responsible for several deep playoff runs.
Why is this? As I mentioned above, there might not be a tougher one-on-one guard assignment in the entire game. Carmelo’s ability to draw double-teams and fouls is clearly elite, with Hollinger noting that he draws .4 free throw attempts per field-goal attempt, one of the highest rates in the league. He is also an above-average rebounder for his size and position, something often overlooked. But still, there’s the lack of team success. Obviously we are going to need some advanced metrics to help us out here.
In each of the past five seasons (not including this season, we will get there in a moment), Carmelo has finished in the top-five in the NBA in usage rate. As I mentioned in my recent piece regarding LeBron and the MVP award, usage rate is a metric used to track the percentage of a team’s possessions a single player uses up. Essentially, it’s a measure of which players have the ball in their hands the most often, and Anthony has been at or near the top of the league in every season in which he has been considered a superstar. However, during this time period he has failed to appear in the top 10 for overall per-minute production, measured by John Hollinger’s Player Efficiency Rating (PER) even once. The gap in places between his usage rate and PER has never been lower than nine places, and has been as high as 28 places. 28 places! This year, despite playing alongside another All-Star in Amare Stoudemire, things have gotten even worse. Carmelo is down to eighth in usage rate, which seems like a decent start…until you realize that his PER of 18.69 ranks 54th in the NBA. That is an astonishing gap of 46 places between his usage rate and efficiency. What this means, to put it in short terms, is that Carmelo is being overvalued. Whether it’s his coaches drawing too many plays for him or Anthony just demanding the ball too often, the simple fact is that based on his efficiency, Melo should not have the ball in his hands nearly as often as he does.
Whether or not the players around him are All-Stars can only count for so much. These players are in the NBA, after all. Most of them can be expected to hit a decent percentage of open jumpers. And as I touched on earlier, Melo is a beast at drawing double-teams, something which is guaranteed to leave at least one teammate wide open. So why has one of the best in this area averaged a measly 3.1 assists for his career? That makes about as much sense as the Kony 2012 campaign (too soon?). As we immerse ourselves more and more deeply in the numbers, it’s becoming painfully clear why Anthony has had so little overall team success. It’s because he’s not a teammate, he’s just a talented individual. And while there may be instances through history of a single talent delivering team success (that Jordan guy comes to mind again), they are few and far between. Basketball is a team game. And clearly, Carmelo isn’t a team player.
You want some more proof? One of America’s most popular sportswriters, Bill Simmons (AKA the Sports Guy on ESPN.com), loves to reference a phenomenon known as the “Ewing Theory.” Simmons credits his friend Dave Cirilli with coining the term in the mid-90s after he became thoroughly convinced that the teams Patrick Ewing played on, both the Knicks and Georgetown in college, played significantly better during stretches where Ewing was either injured or sitting with foul trouble – despite Ewing clearly being the superstar of the team. In Carmelo’s career, I would never have gone quite so far as to call him a Ewing Theory candidate…until this year. From 2007-2011, the teams Anthony played for won 61% of the time when he was playing (180-110), compared to 56% of the time (albeit in a small sample of only 41 games, 23-18) when he missed due to injury. Clearly, not a Ewing Theory player. But this year it all changed.
It’s once again a small sample size, but Carmelo’s current and former teams have been distinctly better without him in the lineup since the trade. In games he has played since joining the Knicks, they have gone a subpar 33-38. In comparison, since he played his final game in Denver, the Nuggets have gone 45-31, good for nearly a 60% winning clip. They have done so without a real star on the roster, unless you consider Nene a real star, something neither the Nuggets nor myself are comfortable with. Danilo Gallinari certainly isn’t there yet, and no one else on the roster comes close. As for the Knicks, they have gone a respectable 7-4 this year when missing Anthony due to injury, with two of the losses coming against powerhouses Miami and Oklahoma City, both on the road. Not only is his current team better when he doesn’t play, but the team he supposedly left in shambles after a season-long ordeal has been significantly better than the team he came to, despite the latter already boasting another All-Star forward on the roster.
And it’s not even just about the numbers, although they are quite convincing. Does anyone remember Lin-sanity? With Carmelo missing his longest stretch of the season, total unknown Jeremy Lin led the Knicks to a 7-1 record, including six wins in a row, and electrified New York like no basketball player had in the last decade or more. Knicks fans forgot that they were barely hanging on to a playoff spot for those eight games. They forgot that their team had drastically underachieved since trading for the player who was supposed to bring them back to the glory days. Every player on that team showed so much more life than they have even approached at any other point since acquiring Anthony, but what has happened since? Carmelo has returned, and with him the endless array of momentum-killing, ball-stopping face-ups and lackluster defense. All the energy Lin brought to the city has been sucked out by the way Carmelo goes about getting his. We’re back to swirling rumors of discontent and locker room discord. Their head coach has been fired and they are still hanging on to the final playoff spot in the East, something which would only guarantee them a first-round date with Chicago or Miami. There have even been whispers that the Knicks will never be able to truly contend with both Carmelo and Amare (who, to be fair, has been almost equally disappointing during all but the first month or so of his time as a Knick) on the roster.
In a team game, there is only so much a supremely talented individual can do if he is unwilling to share the limelight. There’s a reason there are four other players out there on the court and another handful on the bench. If he wants to play an individual game, he should take up tennis.
So is Carmelo Anthony a superstar? You tell me.
By: Ben Dowsett
Welcome to Not Your Father’s Water Cooler!
You know those mind-numbing water cooler discussions about weather, pets and weekend activities? That soul-crushing small talk would be far less demoralizing if it included something you actually cared about.
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