The Curious Case of Carmelo Anthony’s Legacy

With trade talks looming, we are witnessing a crossroad in Carmelo Anthony’s career. Where has he come, and where is he going? Melo has been everything from a college basketball revelation, to a trade-demanding villain. He has been regarded as one of the purest scorers to play the game, and also one of most ball-stopping players ever. While reminiscing about Carmelo, I came to a conclusion.

I had no freaking clue what his legacy is.

None. Zero. Zilch.

So like any hustling blogger, I did a really deep dive into the numbers to answer this question. But, I also did more than that. Legacy isn’t only about PER and true shooting percentage. I talked to people. I asked my friends, some who are NBA diehards and some who are casual fans, about Carmelo’s  legacy. The responses will surprise you. I even compared him to another all-timer who had an eerily similar playing style.

After watching some Melo highlights, I found myself becoming nostalgic about his playing days. When I think about Melo, I think about his ISO jab steps that always resulted in a beautiful jumper. But my background (MA in History, dorky, I know) ensures that I question everything. So, is Melo the scorer we think he is?

I. What do the statistics say about Carmelo’s scoring?

I decided to keep this simple. I looked up the league averages for field goal percentage and three point percentage for every individual year Melo was in the Association. Then, I compared them to Melo’s averages for each respective season. I did this to see where Melo stood in terms of shooting the basketball. Just how lethal of a shooter was he?

Let us begin with the field goal percentage.

For 12 out of the 15 seasons he played, Carmelo shot either at or below league average for field goal percentage. Surprising, I know. He is always within a couple of percentage points of the average, but tends to be slightly below. For instance, if the league average is 45% then Carmelo would be around 44% or 43%.

Now let’s discuss three point percentage. Again, Melo saw himself finish at or below league average for 11 out of 15 seasons. 10 of these seasons were actually below league average. To be fair, Melo did not start hoisting a high volume of threes until his 2010 season. So, what do the stats look like from that point on?

For 5 out of those  seasons, Melo shot at or below league average. Carmelo did not take more triples because he was an efficient three point shooter, he did so in spite of it.

If a player put up these types of stats for their career, on a high volume of shots, we may look at them way we view someone such as Stephon Marbury, per se. Modern analytics has done no favors to historical high volume shooters. Don’t believe me? Go on NBA Twitter and see how Allen Iverson’s career memory has been altered. In a basketball world where efficiency is coveted, these stats alone do not bode well for Melo. There is a particular facet of Carmelo’s game we have not discussed, however – Getting to the line.

What keeps Anthony an efficient scorer is his ability to draw fouls. True shooting percentage is the stat to look at in order to determine how productive he was on the court. The league average for TS% is usually between 53 -54%, and Anthony spent the majority of his career above or at league average.

This one particular special skill is why we perceive Carmelo as more Kevin Durant than Monta Ellis.  It is his statistical saving grace. The question remains, though: how do we reconcile this information?

An even more controversial question: Is Melo a good shooter?

The percentages dictate he is an average shooter but, there is more to the story.

II. The eye test

Numbers are numbers. What does the eye test say? We all remember watching Melo take anyone and everyone during ISOs. If you need help remembering, watch this.

As a Celtics fan, I grew anxious whenever he got the ball in the mid-post/free throw line extended. If a defender bit on his pump fake, he’d take that strong frame and sneaky athleticism right to the rim. His jab step may be the best we’ve seen in this millenium, using it to create just enough space to get his jumper off.

After watching the film again, and going with my gut, the answer became obvious. Duh! Melo is a great shooter! So, why the low percentages? And what will these “meh” percentages means towards his legacy?

The highest field goal percentages of Melo’s career came under the guidance of head coach George Karl. Known for his ball-moving offense, Carmelo saw easy looks at the rim and got to the line more than any other point in his career. Check out what an old ESPN article had to say about this type of offense:

“Karl’s philosophy, dubbed “Random Basketball,” is really an ad hoc system. There aren’t intricate rules, per se, but there are fixed guidelines and easily understood goals. Karl wants 30 free throws, 30 layups and 30 assists every game, which reflects his core beliefs in ball movement, pushing the ball quickly up court and driving to the rim. The only real restrictions on offense: Don’t hold the ball and don’t take 2-point jump shots. That system works for the young, fast team he has in Denver. Last season, the Nuggets led the league in layups, took the fewest long 2s, and were second in free throw rate. As a result, they had the league’s best offense.”

Woah. Did you see the bolded line there? During his early Denver years, Melo didn’t hold onto the ball for too long. He played in a team-oriented system that relied on easy buckets at the rim. Keep this in mind.

Those Denver teams routinely finished in the top 10, if not top 5, for team assists. Melo’s high shooting percentages reflected this. Look at the stats below. It appears as though it took Anthony his first two seasons to adjust to this style of offense, and the league in general. After that, however, he posted his best ever field goal percentages of his career.

Per Game Table
Season Age Tm Lg Pos FG FGA FG% 3P 3PA 3P%
2003-04 19 DEN NBA SF 7.6 17.9 .426 0.8 2.6 .322
2004-05 20 DEN NBA SF 7.1 16.4 .431 0.6 2.1 .266
2005-06 21 DEN NBA SF 9.5 19.7 .481 0.5 1.9 .243
2006-07 22 DEN NBA SF 10.6 22.4 .476 0.6 2.3 .268
2007-08 23 DEN NBA SF 9.5 19.2 .492 0.8 2.1 .354
2008-09 24 DEN NBA SF 8.1 18.3 .443 1.0 2.6 .371
2009-10 25 DEN NBA SF 10.0 21.8 .458 0.9 2.7 .316
2010-11 26 TOT NBA SF 8.9 19.5 .455 1.2 3.3 .378
2010-11 26 DEN NBA SF 8.7 19.3 .452 0.8 2.5 .333
Career NBA 8.6 19.2 .449 1.3 3.7 .347
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/13/2018.

After leaving Denver, Melo’s numbers from the floor go down. Yet, his three point percentage went up as that part of his game developed. The move to New York saw Carmelo play for a handful of coaches, from Mike D’Antoni to Mike Woodson. Despite changing offensive schemes, Melo consistently jacked up mid-range, ISO jumpers. An article from 2016 depicted it clearly:

“Melo is primarily an isolation scorer and his scoring in the midrange is no different. Anthony has been assisted on only 30.3 percent of his midrange looks. That number is around the level that would be expected of a high-usage point guard, not a 6’8″ forward who often looks best as a rangy power forward.”

When remembering Carmelo in NY, we do not recall him getting easy looks at the hoop too often. He bullied his way into the paint or used his fancy footwork to get around defenders. Melo was the offensive catalyst, as the Knicks often had trouble finding young, competent point guards to play with Melo. In fact, he had an uncanny knack for  catching most of his point guards past their prime: Baron Davis, Jason Kidd, Mike Bibby, Pablo Prigioni, Brandon Jennings.

So, what’s my point? While playing in Denver, Carmelo bought into an offensive scheme that allowed his numbers to reach their peak efficiency. In New York, Melo switched between schemes and seemed to make his ISO game the one thing that would remain constant.

Historically, ISO scoring results with the media and fans alike questioning a player’s shot selection. Additionally, it will cause even the purest of scorers to have a dip in their shooting percentages.

Who’s fault is this? When watching Knicks game, it always seemed as though we were rooting for Melo to heave a mid-range, ISO jumper. It is entertainment, especially at Madison Square Garden. But, it is simply bad basketball. The Warriors and Celtics play  beautiful game now, one that relies on ball-movement. Guess what? It results in Ws. And lots of them. Due to his affinity for playing an isolation game, Carmelo saw his percentages and win totals drop. Perhaps this is why playoff success has always eluded him.

III. What do NBA fans say about Carmelo’s legacy?

By now, you have seen the numbers and the various playing styles. Let’s do a quick recap:

Statistically, Melo is an average shooter, from both 2s and 3s. Yet, the eye test tells us he has a great stroke.

Melo played the best team ball of his career in Denver, and his numbers benefited from it.

He saw limited playoff success, having gotten past the second round of the playoffs only once in his career.

I decided to ask some NBA fans, both casual and diehard, a question: What is Carmelo’s legacy?

Here are my responses.

“I think he’s kind of a sellout now honestly. One of my favorite college players to watch in college even as a UConn fan.”

“A clown. Pure scorer. Team cancer. Melo is the worst.”

“Homeboy can get buckets. I think he’s made some horrible career choices. Off the court he kind of set himself up for failure and was too selfish…But he’s an elite scorer…and if he made some better decisions…could have won more games on a better team.”

“A great player who never won.”

“Hall of famer for sure. I think he could still be effective in the right system.”

That’s a wide range of responses. Yet, none of them are too positive. Nobody is casting Melo in a glorious light. Which doesn’t bode well for Mr. Anthony. Fan opinions matter, because they are what compose legacy. We write this narrative, Melo simply supplies the facts and then watches us interpret them.

To carry on this discussion, I decided to compare Melo to Paul Pierce. I did so because the two are pincredibly similar in both game and numbers.

Per Game Table
Rk Player From To G GS MP FG FGA FG% 3P 3PA 3P% 2P% eFG% FTA FT% TRB AST PTS
1 Carmelo Anthony 2004 2018 1054 1054 35.9 8.6 19.2 .449 1.3 3.7 .347 .473 .482 6.9 .812 6.5 3.0 24.1
2 Paul Pierce 1999 2017 1343 1285 34.2 6.5 14.5 .445 1.6 4.3 .368 .478 .500 6.4 .806 5.6 3.5 19.7
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/13/2018.
They have a comparable number of All Star appearances and All-NBA appearances. Yet, Pierce owns a ring, and Melo does not. I asked these same fans to discuss Pierce’s legacy, and the differences are noticeable:
“Dude was Mr. Clutch, same game but played way harder than Melo.”

“First ballot hall of famer, no doubt. Gamer, clutch, sacrificed and I think a little underrated…Shoulda had 1 ship on his resume

“Deceptively athletic. Warrior approach to the game. Mentally unmatched. Or more mental fortitude with the likes of Kobe…(what separates Melo and Pierce is) the stat championship.”

“Pierce>Melo”

Sheesh. Mr. Melo takes a beating when compared to Pierce.

Personally, I believe Carmelo to be more talented than Pierce on the offensive end. Of course, Melo was much worse defensively. Yet, what truly separates the two is that championship title, and a reputation for being a “gamer.”

I assume that millions of NBA fans believe that Melo may not have cared about winning as much as other stars. Perhaps he prioritized scoring titles and personal branding over titles. If you want to argue otherwise, then you will have to answer to why he left a 53 win Denver team for a 29 win Knicks team. Melo didn’t push to get traded to New York because it would increase his title chances. Now we have to ask, did this reflect in his game? Maybe. Probably. Yes.

I cannot think of one team in the NBA during Melo’s career that had an offensive scheme predicated on ISO ball. Teams may have bad playing styles, but they still play within them. The Sacrament Kings were brutal to watch last year, but they didn’t abandon their offensive mantra and resort to one-on-one, isolation basketball. It is fair to question how Carmelo’s career goals impacted his playing style, and then relate it back to his legacy.

IV. My take

Carmelo Anthony is undoubtedly a first ballot hall of famer.

He is one of the best scorers to have ever played the game. His shooting stroke is brilliant, as he owns a quick trigger and a relaxed release. Carmelo shoots one of the easiest balls you will ever see.

Yet, his shot selection in New York was subpar. Melo relied on throwing up contested, low percentage shots and it often resulted in a stagnated offense. While physically gifted, Melo’s style of play resulted in bad basketball, and disappointing seasons for the Mecca of basketball.

Carmelo Anthony is not a transcendent player. Fans may want to gripe about a lack of a supporting cast. Fine. But remember, he played with 2 different DPOYs, and his teammates garnered a total of 6 All-Defensive Team awards, 4 All-Star appearances, 2 All-NBA Teams, an All-Rookie selection and even once broke the NBA team record for most 3s taken and made during a single season.

Some players he played with: Chauncey Billups, Marcus Camby, Tyson Chandler, JR Smith, Kenyon Martin, Kristaps Porzingis, Nene, and Amare Stoudemire among others. Are these superstars, no. But a truly transcendent star could have cultivated better performances with these players. Oh, and I didn’t even mention those Westbrook or George guys. Melo also played with two spectacular head coaches in George Karl and Mike D’Antoni.

Was Carmelo ever on a real contender. No. But better playoff results are to be expected if a player wants a more revered legacy. After all, what kind of legacy should we appropriate to generational scorers who’s game does not result in a meaningful career?

Not everyone who plays basketball has the same dedication. And that’s okay. We are all human beings. We do not have to like our job, even if we are great at it. But, this reflects in how you want to be remembered.

Carmelo had a chance to make a deep playoff run last year. Instead, he decided to not play a lick of defense. What’s more, he did not adjust to Westbrook’s game. This is unsurprisingly. Melo needs the ball to be effective, and he simply did not get it enough in Oklahoma city. Wherever he lands next, Melo will experience the same problems.

So what do we do going forward? Originally, I wanted to write that Melo is a talented scorer with a questionable love for the game. But, I had to rephrase: Melo is a talented scorer with a questionable love for winning. The man clearly loves to hoop. There is a stark difference between coveting scoring titles and actual titles, and it has been evident which one Carmelo is more comfortable chasing. If his mentality matched his scoring ability, he’d be an all time great. But he’s not. Plain and simple.

Yet, if Melo lands on a contending team and sacrifices his game in order to prioritize winning a title, things could change. Sometimes players simply land in bad situations that aren’t conducive to winning. Barkley had to play that Jordan dude in the Finals, but people do not truy knock him for being ringless. Yet, winning does play a factor in legacy. Sometimes we give winning more weight, sometimes we give it less weight. Players develop their talent to either win the respect of their peers, or win championships. Carmelo may have chosen the former.

I’ll always remember him as one of the purest scorers to do it, but someone who wasn’t willing to leave it all on the court for a title. After all, he left a recent Western Conference finalist to go to a horrible New York Knicks team. Carmelo knew the Knicks stunk, but went to the Big Apple anyways. Choosing lifestyle over basketball is his right, but it is leaves a permanent stain on basketball resumes. As of now, Melo is a guy who was okay with winning scoring titles, even if that meant forsaking his NBA title chances.

Whether I’m right or wrong, it is the opinions of fans that dictate his legacy, and this is the one Carmelo has earned.