The NBA’s Latest Revenue Sharing Plan Wouldn’t Have Prevented Carmelo Anthony from Playing in New York

Across the past few months I have written a number of different stories for the Freakonomics.blog.  And over the weekend, I officially became a contributor to the Freakonomics blog (along with such great people as Ian Ayers, Daniel Hamermesh, Justin Wolfers, etc…).

This morning, my first post as a an official contributor went up— Revenue-Sharing Isn’t Needed to Make NBA Small-Market Teams Competitive.  This post examines the NBA’s new revenue sharing plan and argues that this plan will NOT

  • promote competitive balance
  • prevent “star” players – like LeBron James or Chris Paul – from leaving small market teams.

In fact, as I argue, the NBA already had a mechanism in place to prevent LeBron and CP3 from departing small markets (and obviously that mechanism failed).

When fans think about the James and Paul stories, they often turn to the tale of Carmelo Anthony (at least, for the purpose of this post, that is the turn we are taking).

About a year ago, Carmelo Anthony was traded by the Denver Nuggets (a small market team) to the New York Knicks (a large market team).  At the time, most observers believed the Knicks had taken advantage of the Nuggets.  After all, Carmelo Anthony is an NBA star.  Or at least, that was the conventional wisdom.

Now that almost a year has passed, people (other than people in the Wages of Wins Network – who have always questioned Melo’s “star” status) have begun to question Melo’s star power.

For an example, let’s start with Ethan Sherwood Strauss from Hoopspeak.com:

Carmelo Anthony is a starting forward in the All Star game, despite playing for a team that leavens empty promises with broken dreams. Despite how his old team got dramatically better after trading him. Despite how he’s shooting near 40%. And despite those despites, Charles Barkley was shushed on Inside the NBA for naming Josh Smith as a possible alternative to Melo, the mainstay. Apostasy!

 

There has been a bit of revisionist history regarding the Anthony trade, by the way. It is now known as the Great Denver Talent Haul. Way back in 2011, this was not the case. The Knicks had killed the Nuggets by procuring this deal. Denver had sadly been forced to swap “50 cents on the dollar,” thus dooming Colorado’s Pepsi Center to be the NBA’s haunted, vacant, blood-sloshed Stanley Hotel. All role players, no playoffs, makes George Karl a…

 

Well we know it worked out in the exact opposite manner. Now the Knicks look haunted, the Nuggets look liberated, and Mike D’Antoni’s seat is hot enough to curdle a diamond. And yet, there is a hesitancy to radically reassess our valuation system. The new story is about how the sum of Denver’s parts exceeded a single star’s worth. And while there is certainly merit to this trope, why aren’t more people asking whether Carmelo Anthony is even a star? Is it possible that Denver’s as much cured of Melo as they are well-compensated for his absence?

Sherwood Strauss argues there are better forwards than Melo, noting both Josh Smithand Andre Iguodala specifically.  If we focus just on the small forwards (Smith is more of a power forward), we can see that Melo in 2011-12 isn’t nearly as productive as several other players at the small forward position in the Eastern Conference (numbers from NBA Geek as of Friday night’s games):

These are just the top 5 at this position in the Eastern Conference.  If you keep going down the list of small forwards eventually you see:

An average player posts a WP48 of 0.100.  So Melo has actually been below average this season.  Of course, NBA fans may find this very hard to believe. After all, Anthony ranks in the top 10 in scoring.  How can a top 10 scorer be below average?

As Sherwood Strauss notes, Anthony does take a large number of shots.  But he has trouble getting those shots to go in consistently this season.  Consequently, his shooting efficiency is quite low, and therefore, his overall production of wins isn’t very high.

The debate around Anthony actually gets at another debate in the statistical community.  A few days ago, Mike Kurylo made the following observations in the New York Times:

...statistical analysts vary in how they evaluate the game, and are not in agreement on a multitude of issues. Perhaps the most divisive issue is the value of shot creation.

 

…Some statisticians such as ESPN’s John Hollinger think highly of this skill, and the stat he created Player Efficiency Rating (P.E.R.) has the penalty for a missed shot lower than the reward for a made shot. Players that shoot a lot, even at a low efficiency, tend to have a high P.E.R. On the other end of the spectrum is economist turned N.B.A. analyst David Berri, who heavily penalizes a missed shot in his statistical method Wins Produced (W.P.). Players who make shots at a high percentage, even at a low volume, tend to have a high W.P.
Because of a large number of variables in an N.B.A. game, it is difficult proving where across the spectrum the value of shot creation lies. But the Carmelo Anthony trade, or perhaps the result of it, might shed some light on the subject.

 

If you’re reading this, you probably already know that the Knicks traded a handful of assets (most relevant, Danilo Gallinari and Timofey Mozgov) last season for Anthony and some other players. You’re also likely aware of the intense media pressure in favor of the Knicks trading for Anthony at the time. Last February, ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith wrote “the Knicks must go get Carmelo Anthony as soon as possible,” and “Danilo Gallinari is good, with promise, but hardly worth holding on to if it means not getting Anthony’s services.”

 

Smith’s remarks represent those who put a high demand on shot creation. By this standard, Anthony’s value was perceived to be much greater than that of Gallinari due to the former’s ability to take more shots. Comparing the players’ stats at the same stage in their careers, Anthony is able to take nearly 38 percent more shots than Gallinari. On the other hand, Gallinari’s true shooting percentage, a measure of a player’s overall scoring efficiency, is 45 points higher (59.0 percent to 54.5 percent) than Anthony’s. Hence those who put a low premium on scoring volume and higher value on efficiency saw Anthony as overrated.

Nearly a year later, the result of this trade seems to be that higher efficiency is more valuable than higher volume when it comes to scoring. The Denver Nuggets have a robust 14-6 record, while the New York Knicks have a mediocre record of 7-13. Not that the fortunes of these teams are based on the efforts of a single player, but they embody the opposite sides of the volume/efficiency argument.

 

The Denver Nuggets are a team that lacks a high-volume scorer. If we limit our scope to players with 100 or more minutes on the season, no Nugget player averages more 16.5 field goal attempts per 36 minutes. New York has two players who fit this criteria, Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire. Of the Denver starters, the highest field goal attempts per 36 minutes is Ty Lawson’s 13.1. Meanwhile, the Knicks have four starters averaging more than that number.

While New York has more players who are able to create shots, Denver has more players who are efficient with their shooting. The Knicks have eight players with a true shooting percentage lower than 55.0 percent, while the Nuggets only have three.

 

Despite lacking a player who can create shots for himself at a high level, the Nuggets have the N.B.A.’s best offense, ranked by offensive efficiency. Meanwhile, the Knicks, with multiple high-volume shooters, find themselves with the league’s 24th-best offense. It appears that the ability to score efficiently is more important than the ability to create shots.

 

So does this all mean? For basketball analysts it means the high-volume scorer who lacks the ability to sink shots at a mediocre rate is likely overrated by all but a percentage of statisticians. For the Knicks’ current roster, it means that the team has to work on improving the quality and lowering the frequency of shots among their low-efficiency scorers. For the Knicks’ front office it means that perhaps they should abandon their current method of evaluating players and consult with a statistician before their next franchise-altering trade.

Kurylo’s column highlights the essential argument Wins Produced makes:  Players create value when they get their shots to go in the basket.  Just taking shots – shots that are often just “taken” from their teammates – is not a skill teams should reward.

With respect to Carmelo Anthony, the large-market New York Knicks clearly made this mistake.  And the small-market Denver Nuggets have benefitted from this decision.

What does all this have to do with revenue-sharing (the topic that started this discussion)?  Well, the revenue sharing plan – as noted at Freakonomics – would not have prevented Carmelo Anthony from forcing a trade from Denver to New York.  Of course – as I have noted in the past (and as Andres Alvarez did earlier today) – the Knicks could now only wish there was some mechanism to prevent these kind of decisions.  As it is, it looks like the Knicks are married to Melo.  And that probably means, the Knicks are not going to be part of a championship parade in the near future (unless they go watch the Giants parade).

- DJ

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