By Rob Mahoney
From his earliest days in Denver, Carmelo Anthony has done the things that most believe a superstar should. He worked on an island and scored over even the most talented perimeter defenders. He put together an unbelievable clutch résumé and was arguably the best late-game finisher in the league for a stretch. He made the exceedingly difficult look effortless, as if all the world's problems could be solved with a jab step and jumper from the right wing.
And most important of all: He got buckets. Anthony arrived on the pro basketball scene as a fully formed 20-point scorer and has never slipped below that mark in any season. His career scoring average is just a shade under 25 points per game, and this season should mark the fifth time that Anthony finishes the season in the NBA's top four in scoring average. He's in a special class of prolific scorers, and few are as masterful in turning difficult situations into improbable points.
So came the playoff berths and All-Star appearances, and eventually Anthony's public appeal boiled over. NBA fans categorically tend to appreciate volume scorers, and with Melo there was certainly a lot to like. No matchup was ever too much for him, as his rare combination of size and speed allowed him to bear his team's entire offensive burden. Yet Anthony's growing repute seemed to gloss over the premise of whether Anthony should be saddled with such offensive weight in the first place; there was no question that Anthony could put up big numbers if allowed to cut into the Nuggets' (and later, the Knicks') offensive flow at his pleasure, but not enough questioning over whether that strategy was really prudent.
Anthony's star power was too obvious to ignore, but that in itself shouldn't have given him carte blanche to pile up field-goal attempts at the cost of greater offensive imperatives. Basketball is never as simple as "give the ball to X," even when X is a hugely talented scorer capable of converting possessions in isolation. It's about the management of a system, and for much of his career, Anthony's iso-driven contributions provided both the boost necessary to make his teams good and the ceiling that limited them from becoming great.
All of which makes it that much sweeter that in this, Anthony's 10th season, something clicked. Credit Mike Woodson, the influence of veteran players like Jason Kidd or some unrelated epiphany, but what really matters is this: Anthony has subtly shifted to address some of his biggest weaknesses and most counterproductive habits, thereby elevating his game and for the first time validating his place in the MVP discussion. His numbers are clearly better and the Knicks are demonstratively better, but what exactly changed?
Anthony's usage rate this season is higher than at any point in his career, and currently more than any other player in the NBA. Yet the way in which he actually uses those possessions is fundamentally different than before, and the product of an altogether more trusting approach. Even when Anthony had creators like Chauncey Billups and Andre Miller as teammates in Denver, he displayed a compulsive need to control the course of the offense. His approach wasn't selfish so much as untrusting; Melo had a hard time giving up the ball save for obvious assists, and thus an early catch would often result in some 15 seconds of pump fakes and dribble moves before Anthony would settle for a long pull-up jumper.
That Anthony was able to convert those shots at such a high clip was impressive, but hardly a tenet of a quality, high-functioning offense. In employing that approach, Anthony inevitably phased out his teammates -- sidelining them not only from the process of shot creation but also from the tangential screening, cutting and rebounding that boosts efficiency. Anthony also sacrificed most every contingency as he frittered away the shot clock, and a good defensive rebuff would eliminate the possibility of resetting the offense or finding an alternative option if things didn't go as planned. Worst of all: Anthony's game, though still potent, became unavoidably predictable. His skill set may have been versatile enough to execute all kinds of moves from his favorite spots on the floor, but opponents gradually grew wise to the limits and tendencies of an Anthony-driven offense. That never stopped Anthony from getting his, but it capped his efficiency and made both Denver and New York that much easier to defend.
Yet this season, the Knicks rank second in points scored per possession in part because of Anthony's willingness to give up control. He's allowed Raymond Felton and Kidd the opportunity to orchestrate from the top of the floor, content in the knowledge that the ball will almost inevitably come to him. He posts up smaller defenders and actually complies with the notion of a re-post -- passing the ball out to the perimeter so that he might establish deeper position and start his post-up anew. He's abandoned the obsessive focus on shot creation that led him to bleed the shot clock dry in years past, and he quickly redirects possessions once his initial efforts go sour. He's now a cog in the Knicks' army of swing-passers, never hesitating in turning down a good shot for a teammate's better one.
And, perhaps most uncharacteristically, he's passing out of double teams with an accuracy and enthusiasm never before seen in his game:
Those just aren't passes that Anthony would have made a year ago, much less five years ago. Much of his career has been informed by the Kobe Bryant methodology of shooting over double teams rather than working around them, but the infectious spirit of the Knicks' ball movement this year has refashioned a shot-forcing gunner into a more useful creator.
Beyond that, we've seen a very clear evolution in terms of where Anthony's shots come from and how effective he is from those ranges. Throughout his career, we've seen him get better and better. His footwork in the post has evolved. His shot has genuinely improved. His handle is tighter, and his vision is broader. In terms of offensive skills, his growth has been fairly linear. But this is genuinely the first time that we've seen him move away from the inherent inefficiency of the self-created mid-range jumpers in order to shoot open three-pointers on a far more frequent basis (15 percent of Anthony's shot attempts have come on spot-ups this season, according to Synergy Sports, which I'd wager is a career high), make harder cuts as part of designed sets and post up more consistently.
All of those tweaks enable Anthony to still break free at his favorite spots on the floor, but drastically changed the quality of his attempts -- as indicated by his career-high true shooting percentage and his 42-percent conversion rate on a career-high 6.4 three-point attempts a game. For an idea of what kind of difference this change in approach makes, take a look at how Anthony's shooting performance has evolved over the years, through NBA.com's shot charts:
The moral of the story: Creating for yourself from the wing on possession after possession is hard work. The Knicks still need Anthony to isolate in some situations, and they are better for having that option in their back pocket. But Anthony has prioritized his tendencies to reflect the needs and aims of a more balanced offense. That's a big reason why Anthony is posting a career-best turnover rate, despite the fact that he's passing more than ever before. All of those blunt drives into the teeth of the defense and attempts to lose his man with a concerted string of dribble moves have been wiped from his game, replaced with the more flexible approach that has returned career marks in both volume and efficiency. It's taken him awhile, but at long last Anthony isn't forcing anything. He simply let go, and let superstardom come to him. Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com.