Why is LeBron James a More Productive Player than Carmelo Anthony?

The Nets and Knicks May Be Better Off Without ‘Melo.   Such is the argument made by Jared Diamond in today’s Wall Street Journal.  According to the article…

Mr. Anthony is on pace to finish this season worth the equivalent of 6.8 wins, using the metric “Wins Produced” that predicts how statistics correlate to winning. Developed by Southern Utah University economics professor David Berri, Wins Produced devalues scoring totals in favor of other stats, particularly shooting efficiency.

Essentially, Mr. Anthony scores like an elite player, but he requires more shots to put up his numbers than a true superstar. This season, Mr. Anthony holds an effective field goal percentage—a weighted statistic that takes 3-pointers into account—of 45.1%. By comparison, LeBron James’s effective field goal percentage is 52%. A franchise player, Mr. Berri says, will produce between 25-30 wins a season. Chris Paul is on pace to have 25.8 Wins Produced this season. Last year, Mr. James had 27.2, and Dwight Howard had 22.3.

Across the past few days, Jared and I had numerous conversations on the relative merits of Carmelo Anthony.  Given the length of his article (less than 300 words), much of this conversation had to be left out of the published story.  But all is not lost.  As I told Jared, whatever he couldn’t use in his article I would offer at the Wages of Wins Journal and/or at Huffington Post.

It is my plan to offer something at Huffington this weekend.  For tonight, let me focus on one comparison that I thought was especially interesting. 

The article in the Wall Street Journal makes two observations:

  • Carmelo Anthony is not an elite player
  • Carmelo Anthony will not dramatically impact the fortunes of the Nets or Knicks.

In constructing this argument, a comparison between Carmelo and other elite players was offered.  For here, I wish to expand upon one of these comparisons.  Specifically, I would like to discuss the difference between LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony.

Both LeBron and Melo entered the NBA in 2003.  And since that time, LeBron has scored 16,266 points while Carmelo has only scored 13,429.  So clearly, King James is better.

But wait… LeBron has also appeared in 44 more games and played nearly 4,000 additional minutes.  If we look at performance per 48 minutes, we see that LeBron has scored 32.5 points while Melo has scored 33.1.  So Carmelo is just as potent as a scorer as LeBron.  Given the primacy of scoring in the evaluation of players, it is not surprising that when people see Carmelo they see an elite player.

Of course, there is much more to the evaluation of players than scoring totals.  And when we consider everything these players do – via Wins Produced and WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes] – we see the following:

  • LeBron James’ Wins Produced in 2010-11: 10.4 [0.328 WP48
  • Carmelo Anthony’s Wins Produced in 201o-11: 3.1 [0.140 WP48]
  • LeBron James’ Wins Produced in 2009-10: 27.2 [0.441 WP48]
  • Carmelo Anthony’s Wins Produced in 2009-10: 6.8 [0.108 WP48]
  • LeBron James’ Career Wins Produced: 150.5 [0.310 WP48]
  • Carmelo Anthony’s Career Wins Produced: 33.5 [0.083 WP48]

These numbers suggest that Carmelo is capable of being above average (average WP48 is 0.100) but for his career he is slightly below average (partially because – like LeBron – he has apparently spent time at power forward).  In contrast, LeBron is at least three times better than average.  And last year, LeBron posted a WP48 that was four times mark of an average player.

Okay, James is much more productive than Anthony.  Now let’s explore why.  What follows are the per 48 minute box score numbers for each player.  

When we look at free throw attempts, points scored, rebounds, turnovers, net possessions, and blocked shots, neither player is consistently better when we consider performance this year, last year, and across each player’s respective careers.  Given that LeBron is consistently more productive, we must look beyond these factors for an explanation.

And what do we have left? Shooting efficiency from the field, steals, and assists. The difference with respect to steals is actually quite small.  So the real difference between LeBron and Carmelo is that

  • LeBron is much more likely to hit the shots from the field he takes.
  • As a consequence, LeBron requires fewer shots to score essentially the same number of points Carmelo scores per 48 minutes.
  • And perhaps because LeBron is taking fewer shots, he can spend more time looking for his teammates. 

So it is essentially differences in shooting efficiency (and assists) that have resulted in LeBron producing about five times the wins produced by Melo.

The difference between LeBron and Melo led me to note the following in my conversation with Jared (not in the article, since again, he was limited to 300 words):

Basketball is a simple game where the objective is to take the ball away from the opponent (before they score), keep the ball away from the opponent, and put the ball in the basket.  If you can do this, you will win.

Player evaluation in the NBA, though, focuses primarily on scoring totals.  Scoring totals, though, are a function of shooting efficiency and shot attempts.  When we compare LeBron and Carmelo, we see two players with very similar scoring totals.  But LeBron is a more efficient scorer.  In other words, Carmelo can only match LeBron’s scoring totals because he is more willing to take shots away from his teammates.  LeBron can score as much as Carmelo with fewer shots, and since LeBron is a more willing passer, he is able to set up efficient shots for his teammates as well.  As a consequence – although LeBron and Carmelo are not much different with respect to possession factors (i.e. rebounds, steals, and turnovers) – LeBron produces far more wins than Carmelo.

Let me close with three observations.

  • NBA fans probably accept the idea that Carmelo Anthony is not as productive as LeBron James.
  • However, I think many NBA fans don’t think the difference is quite as great as it appears to be when we consider Wins Produced.
  • And those who consider Wins Produced may not have known that these players were quite similar with respect to possession factors but very different with respect to shooting efficiency from the field.

Then again, maybe you already knew all of this.  And if that is the case, you just read more than 1,000 words that did nothing to further your knowledge of Carmelo, LeBron, or the NBA (and hopefully I will do better with my next post).

- DJ

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