If you ask Carmelo Anthony where he places himself in the NBA constellation, he’ll tell you he’s the most underrated superstar. Maybe. He’s definitely the weirdest superstar. As a scorer, he’s phenomenal, but as a helpful player within an offensive system, his virtues are less apparent. Last season, Anthony was the central weapon on a comically suffering basketball team that was plagued by a glaring lack of ball movement. The numbers back that up: On offense, last season’s Knicks moved less than any other team, and they also ranked 28th in total assists.
Some of that had to do with Mike Woodson’s coaching, but Anthony has to shoulder the blame too. If it’s true that the cultures of basketball teams mimic the traits of their leaders, last year’s ball-hoggish Knicks played much like their superstar forward. Anthony may be one of the most creative and dominant scorers in the league, but unlike the league’s other great scorers, he hardly ever creates buckets for his teammates. This was on full display that January night at Madison Square Garden when he scored an incredible 62 points against the Bobcats. He had 0 assists.
Enter Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher. The duo who worked so well together in Los Angeles (as coach and player, respectively) are trying to turn the Knicks around. It’s a chore that begins with Anthony and that pervasive stickiness. Last month, in a conversation with the New York Post, Jackson addressed this exact thing:
“That’s where Carmelo’s gonna move forward this year in that situation — the ball can’t stop. The ball has to continually move.”
That’s where the triangle offense comes in. Jackson and Fisher’s preferred system relies on the exact kind of cooperation that’s been absent in Manhattan for so long. Jackson is arguably the most luminous mind in NBA history, and has an impressive résumé of engineering great offenses around superstar centerpieces. He better. It’s gonna take all the Zen in SoHo to design a pass-happy offense around Anthony, the NBA’s crown prince of the unassisted midrange jumper.
Last season, 58 percent of NBA field goals were assisted. But assist rates vary widely from scorer to scorer. For example, 95 percent of Kyle Korver’s field goals were assisted, compared to only 22 percent of Chris Paul’s. In other words, Paul tends to create his own field goals in ways that Kyle “catch-and-shoot” Korver does not. That should be obvious to anyone who watches these guys. Anthony falls much closer to Paul on this spectrum, creating a majority of his baskets by himself. But he hasn’t always been this way. In Denver, most of his field goals were assisted by teammates.
The graph below shows assist percentages for every NBA scorer that converted at least 200 field goals last year. I’ve included labels for some of the league’s most prominent players. Immediately, you see that the league’s best scoring point guards all appear on the left side, and the catch-and-shoot specialists appear on the right.
There’s Anthony, just next to many of the league’s point guards. That’s not that weird, except he doesn’t do that other thing that point guards do: make plays for his teammates.
Unassisted field goals are revealing, in part because they expose which of the league’s scorers are capable of beating NBA defenses by themselves — a skill that separates the bourgeois superstars from its role-playing proletariat. Players who can single-handedly generate offense tend to be really important in the league’s biggest moments.
Here are the top-five unassisted producers from last season:
- Stephen Curry
- Carmelo Anthony
- Kevin Durant
- LeBron James
- John Wall
Unassisted field goals are a really useful indicator of scoring dominance. But in terms of overall basket generation, they only tell half of the story. Assists tell us something else. By combining the number of unassisted field goals with the number of traditionally assisted buckets, we can build one simple metric that shows which players engineer the most overall buckets for their teams. Consider “baskets created,” the sum of assists and unassisted field goals, as a rough proxy for overall playmaking.
Here are the players with the most “baskets created” from last season:
1. John Wall
2. Stephen Curry
3. Chris Paul
4. LeBron James
5. Kevin Durant
19. Carmelo Anthony
Anthony slips in this second list. More than any other player in the league last season, Anthony possessed a do-it-yourself scoring mentality. You can see it manifested here:
Last season, Anthony was the only high-volume basket creator in the NBA much more likely to log an unassisted field goal than a conventional assist. Was that down to Anthony’s basketball temperament or his coach’s tactics? Either way, it should be irrelevant to Jackson and Fisher. Those tendencies need to change.