A dejected, rather downtrodden Carmelo Anthony -- in the aftermath of a game where he logged another 39 minutes, only for the team to be pummelled by their division rivals to the tune of 23pts -- confessed to a conglomeration of reporters. "And it felt like they [the Brooklyn Nets] owned us," he suggested.
This season, there has been no absence of vexation surrounding the Knicks, their collective morale, public perception, and on-court performance. In the midst of the muddy, bubbling quagmire that has been your 2014 Knickerbockers, though, an underrated narrative has developed; the true heights of Carmelo Anthony's individual play. Fans of the team and basketball enthusiasts (in general) may have been "graced" with ample ammunition to lambast the misery of the coach and supporting cast, yet a sole, flickering source of light has been Anthony's stellar, vaulted displays.
While many may have considered Anthony's 2012-13 stretch to be the premier of his career thus far, there is data to indicate that his efforts in 2014, in isolation, have exceeded (or at least approached) that standard. Within the voluminous void that is a 15-26 first-half to the season -- plagued by coaching follies, inconsistency, ineptitude, "insubordination," and a trade request, among other things -- Carmelo's tireless efficiency serves as a welcome distraction.
On the surface, it may appear easy to hastily dismiss the notion that the Knicks' franchise linchpin has enhanced his game. For Anthony, not too many of the numbers catch the attention of a drifting eye as distinctly "superior" to 2013, however, it is best to review his plight in its entirety, and in the context of the functions of the faltering team that surrounds him. In a somewhat amazing turn of events, Mike Woodson's much-bandied about decision to abandon the sinking-ship-that-wasn't-actually-ever-sinking of pacier, point-guard-oriented lineups has had a scattered, bizarre influence on Carmelo Anthony's minutes, volumes, and overall proficiency of play.
Carmelo has recorded a career-high (and league-leading) 39.1 minutes per game and has acted as the centrepiece of oversized, "Woodsonian" units. Notwithstanding this, though, his usage of New York's possessions has sunk by a margin of over four percent (to 31.3%). Hence, where does the change in mindset and stylistic tendencies legitimately emerge, and how has Anthony's 2013 output been sustained (or even surpassed)? Melo's shot attempts (per 36 minutes) have been reduced, and perhaps most noticeably, his relationship with the three-point line has changed. Whereas in 2013 he heaved 6.0 long balls (per 36 minutes) toward the basket, this season, he is depending upon the treble for a tick over 20% of his offensive assaults. The Knicks' perennial All-Star has adjusted his on-court patterns in such a way that approximately seven percent fewer of his shots are coming from 23 feet, 9 inches, and beyond, although he has conjured up a success rate of 39.5% from that region of the floor.
Why did all of this change take place, and has it been a net positive? The former part of that question can be "answered" overly simply with coaching preferences (but is too complex and draining to be appropriately addressed at all within this piece), while the response (in short) to the latter is: no. And that's not to say that Anthony's adaptations within the framework of the Knicks' revised offensive system (whatever the system may be) is a negative of his own doing. To the contrary, his undying penchant for the perimeter and precipitous shooting from the arc only serve as a glowing reflection of his own play, and highlight the multitude of ways in which the directions from the bench have misguided his rare, idiosyncratic abilities. The fact that he can be delicately lingering around the 40% mark on 3PA with such little spacing, structure, and coherence around him, in addition to having accumulated roughly 1500 arduous minutes through 38 games, is a near-miracle in and of itself.
Melo is finding himself at the free-throw line with similar regularity to 2013, too, with a slight dip in FTA's per game balanced out by his near-identical FTr of 34.1%, per Basketball-Reference.com. Furthermore, it is in the realm of rebounding that possibly his most significant growth has transpired. Anthony's measures -- at 9.1 boards per matchup and a defensive rebounding rate (DRB%) of 21.2% -- are well on track to obliterate any previous standings that he has mustered. This is likely a consequence of a few, mostly conditional things; Tyson Chandler's lengthy sideline stint, the relative scarcity of capable rebounders on the roster, the inherent falsities of the coach's size prophecies, and Anthony's steadfast individual effort, and improvement. Responsibility and circumstances aside, in this instance, it is best to logically consider the glass-eating growth as a testament to the star's own willingness to work on his respective deficiencies.
If we are indeed working under the assumption that '12-13 was the summit of Carmelo's career to date, there are a couple of nifty numbers that speak volumes for his 2014. With a PER and a TS% that almost mirror the sums of the previous season (24.8 vs. 23.5, 56.0% vs. 54.1%), Melo has refined his care for the basketball (and possession of it), limiting his turnover percentage to 8.8% -- also on career-best pace. In terms of where he is predominantly sourcing his scoring from, the 82games.com breakdown insinuates that it is on par with 2013; 74% of attempts have been jumpshots, complimented by 21-22% in "close." A sharply increased eFG% in that "close" range (up to 56.1%) helps to explain his multifaceted offensive brilliance in this otherwise (for the team) forgettable campaign.*
There are a host of techniques for absorbing the meticulous, remarkably efficient offensive output that Carmelo Anthony has displayed, though it appears that diving deep into the crux of the numbers (with an enduring awareness of the broader state of the team) provides a painful, yet telling, picture. Anthony has overcome the mismanagement, ill-conceived coaching, self-serving "schemes," and poor play of misfit teammates to assemble an admirable, and quietly spectacular, individual season.
The Knicks' most recent defeat at the hands of Brooklyn symbolises just one vial of unappetising basketball in an Atlantic Division laboratory overflowing with contaminated samples. The (in-game) commentary below offers an innate level of insight that post-match reflection, naturally, cannot grasp.
At least Melo should get a nice rest in the 4th quarter. (Probably won't actually happen.)— Jared Dubin (@JADubin5) January 20, 2014
Speaking of stupid Woodson, why are Melo/Tyson still in the game?— Robert Silverman (@BobSaietta) January 18, 2014
Melo has already played 32 minutes. He leads the league in minutes per game. It's a 21 point game. He just re-entered the game.— Jared Dubin (@JADubin5) January 20, 2014
Can you smell that? Oh, you can? There's a most unpalatable air of desperation billowing over the team -- and apparently no measure of magnificence from one player or damning portrayals from others are enough to rid the club of the unwanted fragrance. The greatest shame of all of the above is without doubt that Anthony's endeavours are left fruitless, destined to decay on the dusty, fragile shelf that is the roster around him.
"It's easy to point fingers when the team loses. But it comes down to, we are a team, we lose together. No matter who makes a mistake or who doesn't, it's still a team loss," the now soul-searching Beno Udrih claimed in late December.
Unfortunately, in this scenario, it is Anthony who has the most to lose.
*Note: An appreciation for Carmelo's shot chart (courtesy of NBA.com/stats) is useful for understanding his lethal long-distance stroke.