After a week of off-court drama and bizarre losses, the New York Knicks (22nd in FiveThirtyEight’s Elo power ratings) are in an all-too-typical state of disarray. Going back to Dec. 13, they’ve lost 15 of their last 20 games; they’ve also had to endure a growing rift between star forward Carmelo Anthony and club president Phil Jackson. Although Anthony (whose contract contains a no-trade clause) reportedly wants to remain with the Knicks, insiders are already speculating about when — not if — the Anthony-Jackson relationship will end in divorce.
So, if Melo were to leave New York, where could he thrive? Although some analysts have expressed long-standing doubts about Anthony’s abilities as a winner, there are teams — including some that have been rumored as potential trade destinations, should he accept a trade — who have the right personnel to complement his game and pile up big wins.
Building on research I first described in Hot Takedown, FiveThirtyEight’s sports podcast, I used a simplified version of our (aptly named) CARMELO projection system1 — which identifies historical players whose statistical profiles were similar to those of current players — to search for the environments in which Melo-like players enjoyed the most team success. That can give us a sense of what types of teammates fit best alongside Anthony, but it’s a two-way street: I also measured the changes Anthony himself might need to make in order to see greater success. Although Anthony is a difficult player to build around, a combination of the right teammates and the right tweaks to his own game could help him finally win some meaningful ballgames.
Anthony’s playing profile is pretty easy to conceptualize: He’s a high-volume scorer who rarely turns the ball over despite having it in his hands often as both a shooter and a facilitator; he also scores with below-average efficiency, is an OK rebounder, and plays next to no defense. Players who fit that description at age 32, the age Anthony is now, included Vince Carter, Kobe Bryant, Bernard King, Dominique Wilkins and Tom Chambers. So Melo is the latest in a long line of good ballplayers who don’t really contribute a whole lot outside the “points” column.
Those kinds of players can be tough to build a contender around. On average, the 20 historical players most similar to Anthony tended to see their seasons end in either the first or second round of the playoffs. Although Knicks fans would kill for a guarantee of that level of success, it pales in comparison to that of, say, the players to which LeBron James is most similar (guys who mostly lost somewhere between the conference finals and NBA Finals). The best postseason showings by players whose performances were similar to the way Anthony is playing this year were conference finals losses by Alex English’s Denver Nuggets in 1985, Mark Aguirre’s Detroit Pistons in 1991 and Carter’s Orlando Magic in 2010.
But a few factors differentiated the good teams with players like Anthony from the bad ones (like this year’s Knicks). Knowing how those good teams were constructed can help us find the characteristics that a team looking to build around Melo would need to maximize his talents.
First and foremost, Anthony needs efficient shooters around him. This makes perfect sense: Melo is a powerful center of “gravity” on the court who commands defensive attention inside and out, so the more shooting you can put around him, the more deadly an offense can be. That construction is a higher priority for a player like Anthony than it is for one like James because 1. James is better and 2. James is more multidimensional player, so he can make his teammates better in more ways than Anthony can. For Anthony, this dynamic between his own scoring and his teammates’ floor spacing is one of the only ways he can use his skill set to power a great offense.
Anthony also needs plenty of defense-and-rebounding types around him. For perhaps the platonic ideal of that kind of team, see the roster that Philadelphia 76ers GM Billy King assembled around Allen Iverson in 2001: Under defense-minded coach Larry Brown, the Sixers rolled out a starting lineup that surrounded A.I. with two great wing defenders (George Lynch and Eric Snow), a great rebounder (Tyrone Hill) and a center (Dikembe Mutombo) who was great at both. When this formula works, a gifted scorer like Iverson or Anthony can carry the offense — with the help of those aforementioned shooters — while delegating the dirty work on the boards and on defense.2
So which teams might be able to check off those boxes for Anthony? By the numbers, the best-fit supporting casts have been assembled in already-stacked rosters such as those of San Antonio and Golden State. But the odds of Anthony landing on those teams are lower than the chances of Russell Westbrook and Zaza Pachulia getting together for a friendly drink after the next Warriors-Thunder game.
However, some more realistic destinations (or at least those reportedly preferred by Anthony), like the Cavaliers, also feature supporting casts that could complement his game in the same ways. And the Celtics, a team bandied about this week as perhaps the most plausible landing spot for Melo (were he to waive his no-trade clause) might provide the best fit of all.
But Anthony would have to make some changes as well. To quantify what kinds of changes, I again took his 20 most comparable players and looked at how their styles of play changed when they enjoyed the greatest team success of their careers (as opposed to the season that graded most similar to Anthony’s 2016-17). Some of the differences simply boiled down to playing better basketball — shooting more efficiently or contributing more on defense — but even those improvements were made possible by other stylistic changes, such as sacrificing shots and ballhandling opportunities and showing greater willingness to go to the rim on offense and protect it on D.
When players like Anthony had better chemistry with teammates — and adjusted their own games to help foster it — their teams’ fortunes soared. During their most successful seasons, teams with players similar to Melo finished with either a conference finals loss or an NBA Finals appearance. So the answer to the age-old question of whether a team can contend when it’s built around a player like Anthony is, clearly, “yes”: It’s happened before, and Aguirre’s titles as a Piston may be this kind of team’s best-case example. (Heck, Anthony himself made a Western Conference finals run in 2009.)
Although Anthony isn’t the easiest player to build a winner around, the template that past teams have used shows that it can be done. But at age 32, Melo’s time to contend is running out. Now it’s up to him to decide whether to keep waiting for the right mix of players to find him in New York, or whether to strike out on his own and try to create that winning chemistry elsewhere.