Melo, King James, and the Human Highlight Film

Tony Mejia of CBSSports.com offered an interesting assessment of Carmelo Anthony in his preview of the Denver Nuggets

(Anthony is) not the all-around threat James is, but he does exude greatness, able to put the ball in the basket as well as anyone in the game. All that has been missing are key ingredients like maturity and help. He feels he has both now. Excuses are out the window.

….If for some reason, injuries or inconsistency derail Denver, then there’s no other conclusion left, even at this early stage of their careers, that critics are right about the difference between James and Anthony. One makes the players around him better and the other doesn’t. Anthony has Iverson as his primary running mate, not to mention reigning Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Camby. James has Boobie Gibson and Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Get the gist?

Although many already do, it would be unwise to bet against Anthony. He’s not destined to be the new Dominique Wilkins, a volume shooter who isn’t going to succeed in a team game. He’s someone who has improved every season he has been in the league, a force who has become one of the most feared scorers in the world and who is a proven winner, the driving force behind Syracuse’s national championship in his only season of college.

Let me see if I can summarize what’s being said.  The primary difference between Anthony and James is that LeBron makes his teammates better while Melo so far hasn’t.  And Anthony is not the next Dominique Wilkins, Melo is going to be better.  This might surprise, but I am going to quibble with both statements.   

LeBron vs. Melo

My sense is that most NBA fans know King James is better than Anthony.  You can see this quite clearly if you look at the numbers.

Table One: Carmelo Anthony vs. LeBron James

Table One compares Anthony and James to the average small forward in the NBA.  James bests the average player at his position in everything except free throw percentage and turnovers. Consequently, it’s not surprising that King James posts a Win Score that is much higher than the average small forward. And it’s also not surprising that LeBron’s Career Wins Produced currently stands at 65.9 and his career WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes] is currently 0.242, well above the average mark of 0.100.

In contrast, for his career Anthony is below average with respect to shooting efficiency, rebounds, steals, blocked shots, and turnovers.  He does well with respect to free throws and assists.  Plus he tends to stay out of foul trouble.  But the net effect is a career Win Score that’s below average.  And you can also see this when you look at Wins Produced and WP48.  For his career, Melo has only produced 12.1 wins and posted a 0.053 WP48. 

Yes, it’s the case that Melo played better last year (although he declined after Iverson arrived).  But even this improvement leaves him well short of LeBron.

In sum, LeBron is better than Melo because he does more on the basketball court.  Consequently LeBron produces more wins.

Okay, LeBron is a better all around player. What about making teammates better?  When you look at the career of Ilgauskas and Camby (the two player Mejia named), we see that Ilgauskas had his best season in 1997-98, which occurred before James arrived. And although Camby posted his highest WP48 in 2000-01 (when he was with the Knicks), Camby produced his most wins last season.  It’s important to remember that the story with respect to both big men is mostly about injuries. I doubt whether James or Anthony has much to do with either player’s overall productivity.  Still, it doesn’t look like we have significant evidence that James makes his teammates better or Anthony does not.  In fact, the law of diminishing returns tells us that it’s likely that teammates play a bit worse with King James.

The Human Highlight Film

Meija also compared Melo to The Human Highlight Film, Dominique Wilkins. Wilkins entered the league in 1982 and after a 15 year career was voted into the Hall of Fame in 2006. His best years were with the Atlanta Hawks, a team that consistently made the playoffs with Wilkins (the Hawks only missed three times with Dominque) but never advanced very far.  Consequently, although Wilkins was a prolific scorer, he’s not often associated with winning basketball.

Of course there’s a big problem evaluating an individual player via team outcomes.  A team might succeed even though an individual player isn’t very good.  Or an individual player might be great, but his teammates are holding him back.  Consequently, sports teams – starting in the 19th century in baseball – started tracking statistics for individuals.  It’s these statistics that are supposed to tell us how much a player is helping or hurting.

When we turn to the statistics on Dominique Wilkins we see that he was indeed a good player.   

Table Two: The Career of Dominique Wilkins

When we compare the career performance of Wilkins to the average small forward we see that Wilkins was above average with respect to rebounds, steals, blocked shots, and free throw percentage.  And he was about average with respect to shooting efficiency and assists.

When we turn to Win Score we see that Wilkins was not quite King James, but he was clearly a more productive player than Anthony.  And his advantage over Melo persists when we look at Dominique’s performance his first four seasons as well as his last four.

Now defenders of Melo will note that Dominique began his career at 23, and Anthony only turned 23 last May.  So it’s possible that Anthony is going to suddenly improve.  Although this is certainly possible, I am somewhat skeptical.  For Anthony to improve, he is going to have to focus on more than scoring.  And after four seasons, we simply haven’t seen any signs that he is willing (or has any incentive) to do this. 

– DJ

Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

The equation connecting wins to offensive/defensive efficiency is given HERE

Wins Produced and Win Score are discussed in the following posts

Simple Models of Player Performance

Wins Produced vs. Win Score

What Wins Produced Says and What It Does Not Say

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