The Heat's 33-point rout of the Knicks on Saturday can't be pinned on Carmelo Anthony. Sure, he was dominated in his positional matchup with LeBron James. It wasn't even close. James scored 32 points on 14 shots; Anthony had 11 points on 15. The plus-minus numbers were diabolically symmetrical: The Heat was +35 with James on the floor; New York was -35 with Anthony. There is always a lot more going into a blowout of that scope than one matchup but, still, the disparity certainly didn't help.
That was the first postseason head-to-head matchup between James and Anthony, but they've met 15 times during the regular season dating back to Anthony's rookie season in 2003-04. Anthony's teams have won nine of those games. James has averaged 25.1 points, 7.5 rebounds and 7.3 assists in the head-to-head matchups; Anthony's average line is 23 points, six boards and 2.4 assists. The usage rates and true shooting percentages are virtually identical.
I haven't seen any Gallup Poll results on the topic, but my impression is that few people think that Anthony is better than James, as well they should. However, it doesn't seem like people appreciate just how much of a gap there is between these players. Perhaps it's those head-to-head matchups that skew perception, but it probably has more to do with the fact that Anthony and James are basically marketed in much the same way -- as if they are peers. They are in that they are both professional basketball players. But James operates on a whole different plane than Anthony.
We'll put some numbers to this topic, but let's begin with a general description of the perceived differences between the players. Anthony is seen as a pure scorer, with a great midrange game who excels at drawing contact. He can take over games down the stretch and makes his teammates better because of amount of attention defenses must commit to keep him from going off. James is an explosive athlete, whose strength, speed and explosion allow him to flourish in the open floor. He's also a gifted and willing passer, with a point guard's ability to set up teammates. James is a much better defensive player and it's his all-around ability that marks him as a better player. But how much better?
If you're a believer in economic indicators, you wouldn't know that James is better at all. At least not in the salary-capped world of NBA contracts. Including this season, Anthony will earn about $11.5 million more in salary over the next five years than James. The difference is because James accepted less money to go to Miami but even if he hadn't, they'd be earning the same amount of dollars for their on-court contributions. This is an important point, because for the most part, NBA teams can only afford to pay three or four players eight-figure salaries per season. So it's crucial that teams properly assess the impact of the players who occupy these slots, or else your championship hopes are sunk.
This is why the topic of Anthony's "true" value keeps coming up. It might not be fair to compare him to LeBron James. It's like comparing Kevin Costner to Marlon Brando. Sure, Costner is going to look ridiculous in the comparison. Anthony is not James. The problem is that he's paid as if he was.
The debate over Anthony's value reached a crescendo last season when teams were going all-out to acquire him after it became clear that he was not going to remain in Denver. The esteemed Nate Silver took time out from his political analysis to announce that Anthony is the ultimate team player. The basis of that argument was that players who played alongside Anthony tended to shoot better percentages. However, it didn't address the fact that Anthony uses up more than his lion's share of opportunities, sparing his teammates those tough shots. The question isn't whether Anthony's teammates shoot a higher percentage with him on the floor. The question is whether the lineups in which he appears function better with him.
They do, of course. No one is suggesting that Anthony is a bad player. We're just suggesting that he's not the great player he's paid to be. Kevin Pelton did a robust analysis of this topic for Basketball Prospectus, concluding that Anthony indeed did add victories to the bottom line with his ability to draw the defense's attention, though he assigned a lesser effect to this phenomenon than Silver. In both cases, it was noted that Anthony tended to raise the efficiency of players who didn't have the innate ability to create offense for themselves, more so than when he was paired with other capable scorers.
This was all based on Anthony's body of work in Denver. Since he arrived in New York, he's played on a team with more offensive firepower than he generally had alongside him in Denver. However, the Knicks have struggled to win games consistently since he arrived and their offense, which was one of the five-most efficient units in the league before they acquired 'Melo, has sunk to the middle of the pack. The reasons for this, I think, can be found by comparing Anthony to James.
The bottom-line metrics we most commonly use certainly tell an accurate story, but because they are still somewhat esoteric for mainstream tastes, they are largely ignored in debates such as this. You're never going to hear Reggie Miller on the air spouting off about Anthony's PER or James' WARP. If he did, he might note that over the last four seasons alone, James has produced about 63 more wins for his teams than Anthony. But let's look at the issue in a simpler way.
There is a toy I developed last summer that I call the Isolator. Its aim is to detach a player's performance from the effect on his teammates. The methodology is simple. The Isolator looks at every lineup in which a player appears, and then looks at the performance of the other four players in any given lineup with someone else in the player's place. For example, Isolator would look at a lineup of Anthony, Jeremy Lin, Landry Fields, Amar'e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler to see how many points per possession it averaged and allowed. Then it would make the same measurement of every lineup that included Lin, Fields, Stoudemire, Chandler and a player besides Anthony.
Isolator adds up these little differences -- in every lineup combination that was used -- to create With and Without ratings. Consider it a more precise approach to the on-court, off-court metrics you see frequently cited in basketball analysis pieces.
According to the Isolator, on the offensive end James' lineups have performed anywhere from 1.7 to 14.2 percent more efficiently playing alongside him than with someone else in his place. This season it was 8.9 percent, which equates to about nine points per 100 possessions. The low-end figure was last season, his first in Miami. We all sensed that James wasn't having as big of an impact last season on offense as he pulled back in deference to his new teammates. They were still better playing beside him, but the effect wasn't as pronounced. That's changed this season.
Anthony has generally had a positive effect on his lineup combinations on the offensive end. As you'd expect, the degree to which this is true has been at a lower scale than James. It's ranged from -0.7 percent to five percent. Last season was the negative figure and can mostly be traced to his performance before the trade to New York. This season, it's 3.2 percent, or 3.3 points per 100 possessions. All told, over the last four years, Anthony teammates have been about 2.4 points better per 100 possessions alongside him. With James, the effect has been 9.3 points. The difference equates to about 16 wins per season -- and that's just on offense.
Of course the gap only grows when you factor in the defensive end. Anthony's lineups are always better defensively without his contributions. This year, the combinations in which he was paired were 5.7 points per 100 possessions better with some else at small forward. James may be the best defensive player in the league, though he may never be recognized as such. On top of all that, James' lineups always play at a tempo about five possessions per 48 minutes faster than otherwise, which offers that many more opportunities for the positive factors to manifest. The plodding Anthony has virtually no effect on tempo.
If Anthony's ability to attract attention really had such a profound impact for his teams, these numbers would not be so resounding. But the fact of the matter is that at the bottom line, Anthony is most adept at getting his own offense. He's good enough at doing so that it does boost the efficiency of his teammates. The impact of that trait, however, is not nearly as stark as it is with a player like James, who doesn't just give his teammates scraps, his gives them a four-course, gourmet meal.
Anthony is a good player. An All-Star player. A championship player? Well, he can play on a title team, but only if he eventually plays beside a championship player, like James.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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