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How Carmelo Anthony Can Move Up on the NBA Superstar Ladder

Evolution isn’t a concept often associated with established NBA superstars who, more than a decade in, are usually done developing, their career arcs having peaked, their ceilings realized and reached.

Entering his 12th season, New York Knicks superstar Carmelo Anthony, fresh off a fate-forming summer, doesn’t cart that sense of security. His growth as a player and person is ongoing, its continuation the offshoot of New York’s culture conversion and, per’s Chris Broussard, Anthony’s self-cheapening perception of his superstar standing:

Superstars aren’t usually considered underrated, hence them being referred to as superstars. The mere notion of Anthony being undervalued is difficult to understand—simultaneously ironic, cryptic and paradoxical—considering how high he already sits.

Bleacher Report’s Adam Fromal identified him as the league’s sixth-best player heading into 2014-15. His issue with how he’s viewed, then, is actually a conflict of unfulfilled self-worth. Anthony believes he’s better than advertised and, therefore, capable of making the necessary adjustments and improvements that allow him to be seen in the same light through which he apparently sees himself.


Keep On Keepin‘ On

Any climb this substantial, this late into a player’s career begins with maintenance.

Anthony is already a top-10 player—top seven, even—for a reason. Rising through the superstar ranks won’t take a full-scale reinvention. Much of it is predicated on him remaining the best version of himself. 

That implies a repeat of last season in this case.

Despite the Knicks winning only 37 games, Anthony played at a high level. He ranked second in scoring (27.4 points per game), seventh in player efficiency rating (24.4) and 13th in win shares (10.7). The latter is especially impressive, since it basically means he represented 28.9 percent of New York’s victories on his own.

There was also movement in the way he scored.

Isolations were still a big part of his offensive bag. Too big. But he emerged as a more dangerous off-ball shooter.

Of the 246 NBA players who appeared in at least 25 games and averaged at least one catch-and-shoot three-point attempt a night, Anthony finished 25th in conversion rate, drilling 44 percent of his deep balls. For added context, consider Golden State Warriors long-range assassin Klay Thompson nailed 44.2 percent of his treys in the same situations.

Shooting such a high percentage on spot-up opportunities lends hope to the theory that Anthony can thrive within a ball-movement-heavy system, like the triangle offense New York is implementing. If he consistently puts in shots without dominating the rock, it becomes that much harder—so, almost impossible—to defend him.

The impact he had as a passer is not to be overlooked, either. 

While Anthony averaged just 3.1 assists per game, he also averaged 6.2 assists opportunities. Teammates shot 50 percent from the floor off his passes. The Knicks hit 48.2 percent of their field-goal attempts off passes overall, so it’s a noticeable difference.

This, too, offers optimism when it comes to Anthony’s performance within the triangle. The system doesn’t mandate certain plays; it dictates positioning and spacing, and opportunities emerge from there. 

Aspects of Anthony’s game are already triangle-friendly. As for the rest of it, well, that’s where the climb begins.


Ascension Through Adaptation

“I want (Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher) to know I’m in,” Anthony confessed at the Knicks’ media day, per the New York Daily NewsFrank Isola. “I’m embracing this challenge.”

Challenge is the perfect word for what he faces. For all he’s done, and for how much potential he has within the triangle, Anthony is not above adaptation.

Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant are quickly mentioned when it comes to Anthony’s role in this famed system. They both flourished under Jackson’s watchful eye, frequently attempting more than 20 shots—something Anthony has done just four times in 11 years—and posting gaudy scoring totals.

But they were both more distinguished distributors. Averaging five-plus assists per game wasn’t uncommon. It was the standard. And like The Wall Street Journal‘s Chris Herring explains, Anthony, who has never handed out more than 3.8 dimes, isn’t a preeminent passer:

The real thing to watch is whether Anthony can move the ball quickly enough to help the Knicks’ offense flow. (Last season, according to Synergy Sports, Anthony went one-on-one and slowed down games more frequently than any player in the NBA.) If he can, particularly with sweet-shooting guard in Jose Calderon added to the roster, it figures to pay dividends. …

Anthony, a less-talented passer than Jordan and Bryant, will need to make adjustments in this area, specifically with his decisiveness and willingness to pass the ball.

Morphing into this regularly willing passer will be out of character. Anthony has only ever been a situational facilitator. His teammates connect on shots he sets them up for, but he seldom sets them up.

Mike D’Antoni briefly tried turning Anthony into a point forward during their time together. That process backfired spectacularly. Though the triangle is different—it doesn’t require a primary ball-handler, so to speak—the ball-movement principles are similar.

And that means Anthony must take action for the first time. Herring adds that he’s talked triangle shop with Jordan, Bryant and even Scottie Pippen, but advice doesn’t define success. This is all about Anthony, playing within the ebb and flow of a system, breaking away from 11-year-old proclivities that have come to define him.

Not even his defensive displays can stand pat. The Knicks were a defensive disaster last season. They ranked 24th in points allowed per 100 possessions and finished with the Association’s worst pick-and-roll prevention, per Synergy Sports (subscription required).

Seth Rosenthal at Posting & Toasting says Anthony called the team’s defensive deficiencies “unacceptable” at media day, while (apparently) citing advanced metrics to support his claim. Kudos to him for finding the “Advanced Statistics” tab on one of the many existing stat-stuffed websites, but the Knicks’ overall performance wasn’t any worse than his own.

Defense has long been his greatest flaw, even more than his passing volume. He ranked 65th in defensive win shares (2.7) last year, behind noted sieves such as Kevin Love (3.7), Stephen Curry (4.0) and Carlos Boozer (4.3).

Collective defensive success helps boost those individual measurements, but you get the point: Anthony has never been a staunch defender. Even when the Knicks ranked fifth in defensive efficiency for 2011-12, he barely cracked the top 40 in defensive win shares.

All of which brings his effort under question. 

Watch Anthony from time to time and there are glimpses of a tenacious, effective defender. They’re infrequent and fleeting, but they exist…when he wills them into existence.

During an extensive breakdown of Anthony’s defensive woes, Bleacher Report’s Kelly Scaletta reached an identical conclusion with regards to his effort: 

First, in each case Anthony’s eyes are so locked onto the ball, he becomes oblivious to the fact that his man has leaked out for an open three. In the last instance, Shane Battier of the Miami Heat was camped out for nine full seconds without Anthony even once glancing in his direction!

Second, when Anthony does finally pay attention to his man, it’s too late. And just in case it’s not, he basically lopes towards the shooter with a halfhearted hand raised in the air.

Close-outs killed Anthony last season. Nearly 47 percent of the baskets he allowed came from spot-up shooters. Zeroing in on the ball left him adrift. Far too often he was out of position and unable to contest what became wide-open shots.

Having depleted their defensive corps even further by trading Tyson Chandler—not to mention housing a healthy Andrea Bargnani—the Knicks need a more engaged Anthony. And so does Anthony himself.

Two-way recognition is typically part and parcel of superstardom. That Anthony has climbed so high already, despite one-sided focus, reinforces his transcendent value on offense. But if he wants to climb higher, if he wishes to join the company of LeBron James, Anthony Davis and even Kevin Durant, individual defensive reform is paramount.


Finishing Touches

Everything Anthony is after falls on him.

Free agency gave him the chance to leave. He could have spurned the Knicks; he could have signed with a team on the fast track to title contention. 

Instead, he stayed. And not only did he stay and agree to shoulder the fate of this rebuilding operation by default, but he added another dynamic to his return by declaring—inadvertently or not—that his ceiling hasn’t leveled off.

If he believes he can headline the triangle, if he believes he’s underrated, he’ll have to change. And then he’ll have to win—not a championship necessarily, but more than he’s ever won with the Knicks.

Then, and only then, will his aging star rise further, catapulting him past some of those he trails, pinning him to points and prominence he hasn’t yet known.


*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference, and Synergy Sports (subscription required) unless otherwise cited.

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