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Carmelo Anthony Really Is Better On Team USA

Carmelo Anthony and Team USA clobbered Serbia 96-66 in Sunday’s gold medal game to close out the Olympic tournament. Anthony has never won an NBA title and has only been past the second round in the playoffs once, yet it’s his third-straight gold medal, and capped 12 years of his involvement with Team USA. After the game, he choked up during an interview in which he said that this would be his final run with Team USA:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cyQ0Fim88vU

Anthony is a different player on the international court than when playing in the NBA. Internationally, he’s a spot-up shooting, ball-moving zone-buster; in the NBA, he’s an isolation-heavy volume scorer. It’s not as though Anthony is a fundamentally different player abroad — he’s a perfectly good spot-up shooter in the NBA when he finds time and space to spot up — but the nature of the international game and that of the Team USA roster change the way he influences a game.

We know that the international 3-point line — 22 feet, 1.75 inches from the rim, more than a foot and a half closer than the NBA version — has been crucial to Anthony’s success in FIBA competitions, and that in the past he’s brought the improved stroke home with him after an Olympics. And we’ve seen how Team USA carves up zone defenses, not just because it has athletes who are threats to drive and shoot, but because it’s stocked with players who can see over the zone and pick out players in threatening positions.

But these are the symptoms of the most basic difference: Team USA has a lot good players, and the New York Knicks do not. More to the point, the U.S. team has access to good players, while the Knicks in recent years have not, either because they’ve been maxed out under the salary cap or because they’ve rebuffed by the free agents it could afford. You can see Anthony’s salary relative to that of his NBA and Team USA teammates below.1

wagner-melo-1

One popular theory around these parts on what’s held back the Knicks is that Melo is worth a max contract, but not worth much more. The true value of a “max” slot on a roster is that it allows teams to amass surplus value by putting a ceiling on what the very best players in the league can earn under the salary cap. This is how you get LeBron James producing $64 million worth of value, relative to free agent market prices, while being paid just $23 million in salary. Carmelo has always been paid fairly relative to his production (he was “worth” $24.8 million last season and made $22.9 million), and that makes him far less valuable than some of his max-contract peers.

Melo has also been on the losing end of teammate acquisition. His windows for free agency have never lined up with those in which super teams were assembling (like the Wade-Bosh-James troika in Miami), and the teammates he had on hand were never good enough to make re-signing them over the cap worthwhile (like in Oklahoma City or at Golden State).

Team talent can transform even the most ball-dominant players into (relatively) eager passers. No Team USA player since 1992 has had a usage percentage greater than 30 during the Olympics — not even ’92 Michael Jordan, who in his 1992-93 NBA campaign posted a 34.7 usage percentage, the second highest of his career. Melo’s 2012 Olympics run is the next highest after Jordan, at 28.6, and he followed that up with a 2012-13 season in which he posted a 35.6 usage mark that lapped the field in the league that season.

wagener-melo-2

The decline in usage rate affects the other extreme, too. Jason Kidd in 2008, who had so little to do on offense for the Redeem Team that he played 13.5 minutes per game, accrued just 0.9 field goal attempts per game. His line — 92.9 true shooting percentage on 7.3 usage percentage — was absurd enough that he didn’t fit on the chart above.

The point here is that Anthony’s share-happy offensive game in international ball isn’t at all limited to him — that happens to nearly everyone who plays on talent-rich Team USA. The difference for Anthony is that his teams stateside haven’t been good enough to allow him the luxury of seeing less of the ball.

wagener-melo-3

Without another Olympics on the horizon, whatever demands Melo returns to in New York this season are likely the ones the he’ll be stuck with.

Footnotes

  1. NBA salary numbers in the chart are taken from the season that begins in the year of the accompanying Olympic Games, so 2004 represents the ’04-05 season. The 2016 number is drawn from Anthony’s contract for the ’16-17 season.

Kyle Wagner is a senior editor at FiveThirtyEight.

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