How Can Carmelo Anthony Possibly be Inefficient?

We are all well aware of the colloquialism “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”  Beauty is subjective.   We can certainly develop a general consensus of what is beautiful, but we cannot remove the human element of subjectivity.  I attended college in Indiana for two years and being from Colorado I was quite unimpressed with the features of the Indiana landscape, there was a friend of mine who was determined to convince me that a flat horizon was prettier than a jagged one.  Truthfully, there is beauty in both the mountains as well in the distant horizon.  Was one of us right, or more right than the other?  That is a question that has no answer.

Some of the world’s great thinkers have tried to determine a scientific or mathematic formula to define physical beauty.  Even if one day a formula is developed that can prove who is beautiful and who does not make the cut people will continue to debate the physical qualities of those around us.  For every Stanley Hudson, there is a Sir Mix-A-Lot.

When you apply statistics and formulas to something a subjective characteristic, there is always room for dissent.  That is the crux of the stats versus scouting discussion.  While some believe numbers never lie others will never accept a string of data to contradict what their hearts and eyes tell them, even if it is corrupted by alcohol.

Beauty may be fun to talk about and more fun to ogle, but this is a blog about basketball.  Unlike with beauty, statistics and formulas can paint a very comprehensive picture of what a player can or cannot do.  The statistics tell us that Carmelo Anthony is not an efficient scorer.  While his 28.2 points per game seem to suggest he is an elite scorer, numerous other stats decry that assertion as preposterous.  Whether it is his pedestrian 45.8% shooting, his mediocre 54.6% true shooting percentage, or his league average 1.07 points per possession we have ample evidence that Carmelo is inefficient and when we subjectively look at what he does we are misled in thinking he is an immensely talented and versatile scoring machine.

This has troubled me greatly.  I believe in the statistics.  I know that efficiency is not a subjective matter, but a clear cut numeric certainty.  I was one of the first people to decry Melo’s lack of efficiency.

On the other hand, I have seen every professional game Carmelo Anthony has played.  The man was put on earth to make buckets.  He is big, strong, quick, he can shoot off a jab step, he can shoot off the dribble, he can drive with either hand, even though he rarely finishes with his left, he does not reflect the meager abilities of the volume scorer some are making him out to be.  My eyes see all he can do and I cannot believe that Carmelo Anthony is significantly worse offensively than the other more statically efficient superstars in the league.

There has to be a reason for this discrepancy between what we can clearly see Melo do year after year and what the science of basketball proclaims as the truth. There must be some reason why Carmelo’s obvious talent is not translated into the numbers that are being used to define him.  I have said it before and will say it again, Carmelo is a flawed player, but for him to be relegated to second class status at what he does best, score, vexed me.

I did have an educated guess as to how we could reconcile the empirical and the quantitative so I started watching Carmelo shoot over and over in games from last season.  The answer soon became clear and I needed to watch film of some of the other elite players in the league to prove my hypothesis.

Thanks to the power of Synergy Sports Technology I charted the shots taken by Carmelo, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant and everyone’s favorite efficient wing Kevin Martin.  I selected ten games, two playoff games, three post all-star break games and five pre all-star break games.  These games were somewhat selected at random although I did my best to get an even split between home and away games and I also did my best to make sure the player’s field goal percentage over those ten games was approximately equal to his field goal percentage for the season to avoid swaying the data towards too many hot or cold shooting nights so there was a little bit of cherry picking a game that met those requirements.

Every shot was listed as an open shot, a contested shot, a transition layup or dunk or a end of quarter desperation heave, which were basically discounted from the data.  In order for a shot to be contested the defender had to be within an arm’s length of the shooter when he entered his shooting motion.  If there was separation, even if the shooter was off balance the shot was charted as an open attempt so not every open shot was as easy as some contested shots.  The results are very interesting.

Our first graphical representation of the hours I spent watching film displays the percentage of open shots each of the six players attempted.

The number that jumps off the grid there is Kevin Martin’s 69.2%.  Martin struggled with injuries last season and dealt with a change of scenery, however, he continues to do the same thing regardless of where he is playing he moves without the ball like a ghost, he has a great pump fake and after using it always dribbles towards the basket into an open area and rarely over penetrates changing an open shot to a challenged one.  However, as we see later on, he needs open shots in order to be effective.

Wade and LeBron are in a tier of their own in the mid 50’s.  They have the added pressure of being a primary ball handler and shot creator for other players so they carry additional burdens that do not weigh on Martin.

It is not surprising to me that the two most explosive players, LeBron and Wade, attempted more open shots than everyone but Martin.  LeBron has the strength of a freight train and the quickness of a bullet train and he uses those talents to get to the rim, plus the threat of him driving forces defenders to play an extra half a step off of him allowing James to take open jumpers.  Wade is not as big and strong as LeBron, but is quick and unpredictable.  He surprises defenders by doing the unexpected.  Like LeBron he can take an open jumper almost at will as defenders dare him to shoot from 20 feet where he is less effective rather than closer to the rim.

Kobe and Durant are in the third tier with nearly identical percentages.  These two work the perimeter and do not have the same ability to penetrate as LeBron and Wade do and they are just as comfortable attempting a wide open jumper as they are with a hand in their face so it is not surprising to me that a smaller portion of their shots are open.

The player bringing up the rear on this graph is Carmelo with a mere 39.0% of his shots being open looks.  We will get into this a little deeper when we look at the flipside of this chart.

Next we look at the shooting percentage on the open shots these men attempted and I think the results may surprise you.

Carmelo actually converts on the highest percentage of open shots nipping LeBron in a photo finish of a statistical dead heat.  Players are supposed to make their open shots and Carmelo and LeBron both do so.  I expected Carmelo to convert on a high percentage of his open shots, but I did not expect him to rate the highest of our subjects.  I was likewise very surprised to see Durant so low as he is such a great shot maker.  I did not chart locations, but I believe LeBron benefits from the most dunks which help drive his conversion rate no open shots up.  Kevin Martin brings up the tail end of the group with a surprisingly low 50.5%.  While it might seem that was a reflection of Martin’s injury riddled season, I did select a combination of games that put his shooting percentage closer to his career mark of 44.8% than his 2009-10 rate of 41.7% which should have mitigated some of the negative impact of his injuries.

Next we move onto the percentage of shots which were contested and if you are a math wiz you will probably realize that the results on this graph will be the opposite of the results of the percentage of open shots above.

My assumption heading into this exercise was that Carmelo attempted more contested shots than any of the other players and as you can see that was in fact the case.  61.0% of Melo’s shots are contested, the highest percentage of our six hoopsters, however, Kobe and Durant are not far behind both coming in at over 57% of their shots being taken under duress from a defender.

Finally, we look at the conversion rate of each player on their contested efforts.


As expected, these percentages are considerably lower.  I would have guessed Kobe would be at the top with Durant second and those two were both at the top of the group, but Durant actually converted a slightly higher percentage of his contested attempts.  LeBron was not far behind while Melo is in the low 30’s at 31.5%.

It is not a surprise that Wade is so far behind the others posting a 27.7% success rate as he is not the shooter the others are, however seeing Martin’s microscopic 18.2% shows how reliant he is on taking his open shots.  His efficiency is truly driven by his exceptional shot selection as he made the lowest percentage of both his open and contested shots of the six players in the study.

The final piece of the data was transition shots at the rim.  These attempts were not included in the charts above, because I wanted to focus on how each player did in a half court five on five situation.

Transition opportunities are usually the easiest to convert so the more of these attempts help boost efficiency.  The two outliers were Kobe and LeBron.  Kobe only had 0.3 such attempts per game, while LeBron averaged 2.0 attempts per game.  The other four all averaged between 1.1 and 1.4 transition attempts per game.  Those numbers are interesting, but outside Kobe’s lack of opportunities and LeBron’s abundance of chances there is not much to glean from them.

What conclusions can we draw from these numbers?  First of all, I do not see anywhere near the number of articles decrying Wade’s lack of efficiency as have been written about Carmelo despite the fact their numbers are eerily similar.  Wade’s points per possession is only 1.08, very comparable to Carmelo’s 1.06.  Wade is even more reliant on open shots than Carmelo although he is more adept at earning them than Carmelo is.

I believe the data shows Carmelo has the ability to be as efficient a player as anyone in the league.  According to the data, he is an exceptional shooter when open, he simply does not take nearly enough open shots.

The question then is why does Melo take so many contested attempts?  I think there are two reasons.

First of all, players are glorified or vilified based on the mystical ability to create their own shot.  Those that can are regarded as franchise players and clutch scorers, those who cannot are simply role players.  In the eyes of fans and talent evaluators alike the pinnacle of individual prowess in basketball is the ability to take the ball in your own hands and shred the opposition repeatedly for 48 minutes.  Those players are the alpha dogs, the franchise players who can score on anyone in any situation and the desire to achieve that status is engrained into players like Carmelo Anthony from a relatively young age.

The downside of that message is the difficulty of reconciling being the man, with displaying restraint in your shot selection.

When George Karl first arrived in Denver there were several games where Carmelo found himself on the bench in the fourth quarter because Karl was trying to teach him that not every shot is a good shot.  There was a great deal of consternation that Carmelo might get fed up with sitting out during crunch time, however, Karl’s teaching began to slowly immerse itself in Carmelo and the next season Carmelo Anthony shot what was then a career high 48.1%, five points higher than the previous season, and he also bumped his true shooting percentage up from 52.6 to 56.3.

Over the next three seasons Melo would post his best percentages of his career.  However, even then he was not submitting efficiency statistics that you would expect of him.  Now he seems to have taken a step back in his shot selection which is further suppressing his efficiency.

Not only does the coaching staff need to get back to stressing taking good shots, I believe they need to design sets that put him in better situations on the court.  Most of Carmelo’s possessions begin on the right wing, which is obviously where he is most comfortable.  He does not receive the ball in a position to score, he merely gets in position in his favorite spot on the floor so that he can catch the ball and begin the process of looking for his shot.

If you watch Durant he frequently catches the ball as he is sprinting around a screen providing him with an open shooting opportunity as soon as he catches the ball.  The defense is already in a scrambling mode trying to adjust to his aggressive curl off the screen.  With LeBron, when he was in Cleveland, he was frequently bringing the ball up the court, which gave him the entire floor to work with.  He also would make fast aggressive cuts across the court to receive the ball in a position where the defense is struggling to keep up and frequently out of position.  LeBron also received a number of high screens to work off of.

Conversely Carmelo moves at three quarter speed at best to find his way to the right wing where he is faced with attacking a defense that is dug in and tilted towards his side of the floor.  I would love to see more imagination in Denver’s offense that puts Carmelo in a position to get shots that do not rely on him either making a difficult move to get open or attacking the teeth of the defense.   Of course, Melo has to be open to making those changes and I am afraid the right wing is his comfort zone and he does not want to be pushed out of it very often.

In conclusion, the opportunity for Carmelo to become a more efficient scorer is there for the taking.  I think the fact that he settles for so many contested shots does provide the bridge between the beautiful offensive game we see night in and night out and the harsh reality of statistical analysis.

Whether Melo ever becomes more efficient or not, I think there is room for both the subjective admiration of the beauty of Carmelo’s offensive game, while acknowledging his objective shortcomings.  Carmelo may never prove to be able to overcome his score at will alpha dog mindset I believe clouds his decision making and shot selection, however, his skill level is truly that of an elite player and I think it is appropriate to marvel at his abilities at the same time we are frustrated by his willingness to go about his business in an inefficient way.