“I’m pretty sure if any of you guys were GMs or owners, you would want me and Amar’e on the same team, as well. I really don’t know who would turn that down. I look at other teams who have two guys, three guys, star players, guys who’s averaging 20 or more-–and they get along.” – Carmelo Anthony in his introductory press conference with the Knicks
It’s no secret the New York Knicks, with their most recent trade, want to emulate the Miami Heat. And why not? Miami has thee star players, one of the league’s best records and more media coverage than any team in NBA history.
But Melo and Amar’e on the same team?
I’d turn that down.
Sure, it’s entirely possible the Knicks of Melo and Stoudemire become a championship contender. But if history serves as an indicator, the odds are stacked against them.
Of course, there’s value in star players who score at least 20 point per game, like Melo and Stoudemire. Heck, that value is probably even underrated by segment of basketball followers.
As Nate Silver explains, a high-end scorer increases his teammates’ shooting efficiency. He primarily does this two ways: attracting the defense’s attention and taking late-in-the-shot-clock attempts (allowing his teammates to avoid those low-percentage shots). Carmelo, the basis of Silver’s article, does that. Amar’e, in New York, does that.* LeBron and Wade do that.
But when two such scorers share the court for the same team, that impact is diminished. They still attract the defense’s attention, but only one player can attempt the the lower-percentage shots teams must take at times. The non-shooting scorer’s value is wasted.
*Relative to his time in Phoenix, his shot attempts are up, the percentage of baskets that are assisted is down, his True Shooting Percentage is down. He’s evolved into a go-to scorer from a guy who needed Steve Nash to set him up. His three most-common fellow starters with a reference point-–Raymond Felton, Wilson Chandler and Danilo Galinari (Landry Fields is a rookie)-–posted a True Shooting Percentage with the Knicks this season higher than their career average.
So, for a team to succeed, that second scorer must do other things well. Otherwise, his minutes are useless.
LeBron Wade do everything else very well. Melo and Stoudemire don’t do anything else very well.
So, how do Melo and Stoudemire stack up to their 20-point-per-game peers in elements of the game other than scoring? And how will that affect their odds of success?
Since the playoffs expanded to 16 teams for the 1983-84 season, 18 teams have featured two players who both averaged at least 20 points per game for their career and averaged at least 20 points per game in that season (for simplicity, we'll call those players “Super Scorers”):
2006-07 Nuggets (Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson)
2007-08 Nuggets (Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson)
Those teams have an average record of 52-30. Sixteen made the playoffs. Eleven reached the second round. Nine reached the conference finals. Five reached the Finals. Four won a championship.
Teams with two Super Scorers, overall, perform much better than typical teams. But among this group, they vary greatly. What’s the difference between Kobe/Shaq and Ray/Glenn (besides the fact that Allen and Robinson aren’t recognizable by a single name)? Mainly, rebounding and defense.
For the 36 players listed above, I subtracted from their rebounding percentage in a given season the median rebounding percentage among players of the same position who qualified for Basketball-Reference.com’s minutes-per-game leaderboard. I added the total together for players on the same team. I call that total “relative rebounding percentage.”
I repeated the same process with defensive win shares per 48 minutes.* Both yielded positive, statistically significant correlations with a team’s success.
*I also tried assist percentage and turnover percentage, but neither resulted in a statistically significant correlation.
To measure success, I created a statistic called Win Rating--a team’s regular-season wins plus plus five wins for each playoff series reached and an additional five wins for winning an NBA title.
Simply, when a team has two Super Scorers, the better those two players rebound and defend, the better the team performs.
Here’s a chart showing how each pair of Super Scorers’ combined rebounding corresponded with their team’s success. Because we don’t yet know the Knicks’ or Heat's Win Rating, I added vertical lines to show the combined relative rebounding percentage of their Super Scorers so far this season.
Basically, when it comes to their Super Scorers’ rebounding, the Heat is about five games better than the Knicks.
Here’s a chart showing how each pair of Super Scorers’ combined defense corresponded with their team’s success. Again, because we don’t yet know the Knicks’ or Heat's Win Rating, I added vertical lines to show the combined relative defensive win shares per 48 minutes of their Super Scorers so far this season.
Basically, when it comes to their Super Scorers’ defense, the Heat is about 10 regular-season games and two playoff series better than the Knicks.
Even if you substitute Stoudemire’s and Melo’s best defensive seasons,* the Heat are about nine regular-season games and a playoff series better than the Knicks.
*Not counting Stoudemire’s 2005-06 season, when he played just three games.
What the Knicks Can Do
Obviously, correlation doesn’t equal causation. Other factors could explain why a team with better rebounding and defense from its Super Scorers performs better.
But, logically, it makes sense. For a player to score 20 points per game, he must play a lot.* A team will struggle to win if two players who get a lot of minutes don’t rebound or defend well for their position.
*The Super Scorers who played with another Super Scorer each played at least 30 minutes per game and averaged 37.5 minutes per game.
That’s a guideline, not a rule, though. The 2000-01 Milwaukee Bucks--who won 52 games and reached the Eastern Conference Finals--received average relative rebounding and negative relative defense from its Super Scorers (Ray Allen and Glenn Robinson). So how can the Knicks emulate that?
1. Find excellent role players.
The Bucks also had Sam Cassell, whose 18.2 points per game, helped them lead the league in Offensive Rating. Ervin Johnson and Scott Williams rebounded and defended well. Even Tim Thomas pitched in with one of his best defensive seasons.
2. Hope the East gets worse.
The Bucks’ 52 wins placed them second in the East that season, which came right in the middle of five-year run of Western Conference teams winning the NBA title. If teams hold their current pace this season, a 52-win team would finish fifth in the East.
Maybe New York's fortunes will change in the long-term, though. Maybe the Knicks, with a willingness to pay the luxury tax and buy draft picks, will acquire ideal role players. Maybe LeBron, Wade and Bosh will grow tired of sharing the spotlight. Maybe the Celtics will get old. Maybe Derrick Rose is playing over his head right now. Maybe Carlos Boozer will become complacent. Maybe Dwight Howard will sign with a Western Conference team in 2012.
That’s a whole lot of maybes for a Knicks team that thinks it just turned itself into, at best, a contender, and at worst, a soon-to-be contender. But Melo and Amar’e can put their fate in their own hands. They just must become better rebounders and defenders. No big deal.
For his part, in that introductory press conference, Melo talked a lot about rebounding and defense. He explained how he and Stoudemire must do more than score, even outlining what a conversation with Stoudemire might sound like:
“Listen, you get 15 rebounds a night, I get 15,” Melo said. “and we lock this thing down.”
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Dan Feldman is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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