Was Carmelo Anthony Better as a Nugget or Knick?
Carmelo Anthony has done it all in his basketball career.
An NCAA champion with the Syracuse Orange in 2003, ‘Melo’ is a 10-time NBA All-Star and scoring champion (2013), as well as a multi-time Olympic gold medalist. Critics, however, have always been quick to point out his ball-stopping style of play. Another common notion is that Anthony has failed to adapt to the changing nature of the NBA game.
I took a deep dive into Anthony’s numbers over the years and found that, actually, Melo adapted his game more than he gets credit for.
Despite his averages being broadly similar year-over-year, a more subtle shift in his style was already evident when he made his famous transition from the Denver Nuggets to the New York Knicks during the 2010-11 season.
To compare, I chose two of Anthony’s best seasons (in terms of team success): the 2008-09 season where Anthony led the Nuggets to the Western Conference Finals; and the 2012-13 season in which a prime Anthony led the Knicks on a dream run, finishing with a second-round appearance in the playoffs.
2008-09 DENVER NUGGETS
There was no looking back for the Denver Nuggets after picking their 6’8” forward third in the 2003 NBA draft. Anthony was a clear franchise guy right from the start.
Playing well beyond his years, he brought a fierce one-on-one game that was punctuated by impeccable footwork and a post-game to match. Too tall and strong for the average small forward to guard, and too quick for a bigger defender, Anthony put himself into a triple threat position almost every time down the floor.
And the results followed: The Nuggets turned in their first winning season since the 1994-95 campaign, finishing with a 43-39 record and making the playoffs during Anthony’s rookie year.
Denver never missed the playoffs during the 7.5 years of the Anthony Era, but he also never led the team in win shares either.
In their quest to contend for a title, the Nuggets continued to tinker with their caste around Anthony, at one time even pairing him up with a multi-time scoring champ, HOF-er guard Allen Iverson.
The duo was fun to watch, but serious contention still proved elusive until the 2008-09 season.
Barely four games into the campaign (sporting a 1-3 record), the Nuggets pulled the trigger on a trade that sent Iverson to the Detroit Pistons for ‘Mr. Big Shot’, guard Chauncey Billups and aging forward Antonio McDyess (this was his third stint in Denver!).
Team brass hoped that Billups, a proven champion, would bring that winning mentality and steady leadership while meshing with cornerstones Anthony and guard J.R. Smith. The team’s response? A remarkable finish with a 54-28 record (good for second in the Western Conference).
The magic didn’t end there, as the Nuggets went on to beat the New Orleans Hornets and Dallas Mavericks in the first two rounds of the playoffs (4-1 apiece) before ultimately losing the Western Conference finals in six games to the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers.
Anthony was undoubtedly the team’s leader, but it was the combination of Billups’ floor general skills, his poise under pressure, and the team’s physicality (dictated by bigs Nene, Chris Anderson and Kenyon Martin) that wheeled the Nuggets to within striking distance of a championship.
Anthony’s averages for the year: 22.8 points, 6.8 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.1 steals on 44.3 percent shooting from the field; 37.1 percent three-point shooting
2012-13 NEW YORK KNICKS
The Knicks struggled to even be relevant for much of the 2000s. They managed just one (short) trip to the postseason in 2004 before stringing together a number of losing seasons punctuated by controversy, mismanagement, and a rotating cast of senior managers, coaches, and players.
It wasn’t until the turn of the decade under the leadership of President Donnie Walsh that a serious effort was made to completely rebuild.
Through a variety of mechanisms that included trade and free-agency, the Knicks were able to put together an ensemble cast of superstars and savvy veterans including Carmelo Anthony, big men Amare Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler, plus guards J.R. Smith and Jason Kidd.
By the time the 2012-13 campaign kicked off, the roster was also complete with a deep bench consisting of veteran bigs like Kurt Thomas, Marcus Camby, Rasheed Wallace and Kenyon Martin (signed to a ten-day contract in time for the postseason).
An oft-injured Stoudemire handed over the leadership mantle to Anthony (now in his prime) and Melo put together one of the best seasons of his career while leading the Knicks to a 54-28 record, (good for second in the Eastern Conference).
The Knicks climbed out of the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 1999-00 by defeating the Boston Celtics in six games before losing to the Paul George-led Indiana Pacers in six.
Anthony’s averages for the year: 28.7 points (as league leader in scoring), 6.9 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 0.8 steals on 44.9 percent from the field, plus 37.9 percent from behind the arc.
Anthony’s much-anticipated move to New York couldn’t have come at a better time for him personally. Disgruntled and frustrated in Denver, he was aching for a fresh start and had been campaigning publicly for the team to trade him to either the Nets or the Knicks.
When you compare Anthony’s averages from 08-09 to those in 12-13, the numbers don’t look too different (with the exception of the bump in scoring).
But it’s when you take a deeper look that a change in his game becomes apparent.
Per Advanced NBA Stats, when Anthony played for the Nuggets, the bulk of his shots came within eight feet of the rim (494 attempts at 54.3 percent shooting). Second to this were attempts from the 16-24 ft range (353 attempts at 40.2 percent shooting). Through the 2008-09 campaign, Anthony only attempted 167 three-pointers, making 63 of them (37.1 percent).
During his best season in New York, Anthony continued to attempt the bulk of his shots within eight ft of the rim (473 attempts at 51.6 percent shooting), but the greater share of Anthony’s residual scoring now came from beyond the arc (408 attempts at 38.5 percent shooting), followed by the 16-24 ft range (335 attempts at 44.5 percent shooting).
On a per-game basis, this translated to 6.2 three-point shot attempts, more than double his average in Denver (2.6 attempts).
Fresh off his 2012 Olympic experience, Anthony had clearly made the transition to becoming a more perimeter-oriented scorer. It’s hard to attribute this shift to any one thing in particular, and the narrative has always been that Anthony became more of a jump shooter as his athleticism declined.
But 2012 Anthony was still in his prime. So had he already adjusted his game to the more modern nature of the league? A more proactive than reactive shift?
The pace of play aside, there may have also been another fundamental factor contributing to the change: the composition of Anthony’s teams.
In Denver, Anthony played beside Nene, Kenyon Martin, and Chris Anderson. They typically worked out of the “dunker’s spot” in the short corners or the elbows but did not have the offense run through them. The Nuggets especially relied on Anthony to create interior gravity for the outside shots of his backcourt mates like Smith and Billups.
In New York, Anthony simply didn’t have to venture into the post as much, relying on Stoudemire, Chandler, Wallace, Camby, and Thomas to do the bulk of the dirty work. Perhaps Anthony was more capable of changing his game when he needed to than we give him credit for.
So which version of Melo was more valuable to his team? For this, I turn back to that metric known as win-share, an estimation of how many wins can be directly attributed to a player in a given season.
Per Basketball-Reference, during the 2008-09 season in Denver, Anthony’s usage rate was tops on the team (31.5 percent) but his win-share was fifth (5.0). In New York, however, Anthony led the 2012-13 Knicks across the board, both in usage rate (35.6 percent) and win-share (9.5), nearly double his contribution during 2008-09!
So it’s safe to say Melo’s best year in New York topped his best season in Denver from an individual standpoint.
But how do the numbers stack up when you compare his time in each franchise as a whole?
Through nearly eight seasons in Denver, Anthony averaged 24.8 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.1 steals on 45.9 percent shooting (31.1 percent from behind the arc). He contributed a win-share of 53.5 games in 564 games with the franchise.
Through six-and-a-half seasons in New York, Anthony averaged 24.7 points, 7.0 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.0 steals on 44.3 percent shooting (36.9 percent from behind the arc). In 412 games with the franchise, he contributed a win-share of 43.6 games.
At this rate, and excluding factors around age or other potential reasons for slow down, if Anthony had played 564 games in New York (equivalent to his Denver stint), he would have contributed a win-share of 59.6 games, clearly making him more valuable in his time with the Knicks.
With a more mature game and a bigger arsenal of offensive moves, Melo was certainly playing his best ball in New York.
This didn’t necessarily translate into team success, however.
The Nuggets made the playoffs in every season with Anthony at the helm while the Knicks only made three trips to the postseason in his time with the franchise.
Was Anthony in the wrong place at the wrong time? Or could the Knicks have assembled a stronger supporting cast around Melo?
Much can (and has been) made about Anthony’s trade demand decimating the Knicks’ depth and how it could have been avoided if he had just waited a few months and hit free agency. But this narrative that Melo was already eroding by the time he got to New York isn’t quite accurate.
His Denver days were good, but peak Melo happened in the Big Apple, not the Mile High City.
Sid is a TBW staff writer who was born and raised in India. His fandom is a testament to the ever-widening reach of the NBA. Always rooting for the underdog player and/or team, Sid has lived through many exhilarating ups and frustrating downs as a New York Knicks fan for nearly two decades.