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Why Carmelo Anthony Is the Ultimate Team Player (and What ‘Advanced’ Stats Miss About Him)

Carmelo Anthony, whom the Knicks are considering acquiring in a trade, is sometimes thought of as a selfish player. Indeed, he is the center of the Denver Nuggets’ offense: when he is on the court for them, about 30 percent of their possessions end in Anthony shooting, going to the foul line, or committing a turnover. Nor is Anthony much of a passer: over his career, he’s accumulated 3.1 assists per 36 minutes played, considerably less than that of other high-volume scorers like Kobe Bryant (4.6 assists per 36 minutes) or LeBron James (6.2).

In taking all of those shots, however, Anthony has also done something else: he’s made his teammates much more efficient offensive players.

Anthony is a controversial player among those who devote their time to analyzing basketball statistics. The reason is as follows: although he scores a lot of points, he does not do so especially efficiently. His True Shooting Percentage (TS%) – which accounts not just for two-point buckets but also for three-point shots and drawing fouls, neither of which are a particular strength of Anthony’s – is .527 this year and .543 for his career. Those figures are roughly at the league average, which is about .540 in most years.

Anthony’s TS% is also worse than all five of the Knicks’ regular starters, including Wilson Chandler (.579), Danilo Gallinari (.600), and Landry Fields (.611), the men whom he might replace in the lineup. This has led some to argue that Anthony could actually represent a step backward for the Knicks. David Berri, an economist at Southern Utah University who has developed a statistic called Wins Produced that places an extremely high premium on efficiency, told the Wall Street Journal that a Knicks roster with Anthony, Amare Stoudemire and Raymond Felton — but without Fields or Chandler — would win only 29 games per season.

This strikes me as highly implausible: the Nuggets, with a supporting cast that isn’t obviously any better than the one that Anthony would be joining in New York, have won an average of 48 games per season since Anthony’s rookie year, despite playing in the deep Western Conference. They have also been a relatively efficient offensive team. The year before Anthony joined the Nuggets, they ranked dead last in the N.B.A. in offensive efficiency (points scored per possession) on their way to winning just 17 games. But their offensive efficiently ranking shot up to 8th in the league in Anthony’s rookie season and has remained roughly at that level since.

What is missing from formulas like Berri’s is an account of what Anthony does to the rest of the Nuggets. Because he is able to score from anywhere in the court, Anthony draws attention and defenders away from his teammates, sometimes leaving them with wide-open shots. He also allows them to be more selective about the shots that they choose to take, since they know that Anthony can usually get a respectable shot off before the 24-second clock expires if needed.

These effects produce a profound increase in the efficiency of Anthony’s supporting cast when he is on the floor. In the 135 games that he played with the Nuggets, for instance, Allen Iverson’s True Shooting Percentage was 55.9 percent – much better than the 51.2 TS% that Iverson, a notoriously inefficient shooter, posted outside of Denver over the course of his career.

In fact, this is true of almost every Nugget who has played a sufficient number of minutes with Anthony. I identified 16 players who have accumulated least 2,000 minutes with the Nuggets in years when Anthony was on the team, and have also played at least 2,000 minutes in the N.B.A. without Anthony (either because they were playing for a different team or because they were on the Nuggets before Anthony’s rookie season). All but 2 of the players – Marcus Camby and Voshon Lenard – posted a higher TS% playing with Anthony than without him, and on average, he improved his teammates’ TS% by 3.8 points (to 55.0 percent from 51.2 percent).

The effect of a player who improves the rest of his team’s TS% by 3.8 points is extremely substantial: it is works out to their scoring about 5 or 5.5 additional points per game solely on the basis of this efficiency gain. That, in turn, translates into about 15 additional wins per season for an average team, according to a commonly-used formula. This is how Anthony creates most of his value — not in the shots he takes himself, but in the ones he creates for his teammates – and some of the “advanced” formulas completely miss it.

With that said, there is reason to question whether Anthony would have quite the same effect in New York that he did in Denver. With a few exceptions like Iverson, the Nuggets have generally surrounded Anthony with defensively-minded players like Camby who are not especially eager to shoot or who do not do so especially well. The Knicks, by contrast, are a run-and-gun team with lots of good shooters and they already rank fifth in the league in offensive efficiency.

There are some precedents for pairing several high-volume scorers together and seeing them thrive: when Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen joined Paul Pierce on the Celtics, for instance, all three players took fewer shots, but all three were rewarded with a significant increase in their TS%. On the other hand, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh have not seen an increase in their efficiency since joining together on the Miami Heat, even though they are shooting a bit less often.

So there are no guarantees – one would need to consider more carefully exactly how Anthony would integrate into Mike D’Antoni’s offense and exactly which type of shots he’d take. One would also need to think about Anthony’s defense and rebounding, where he is no standout. But upon a more careful examination, the argument that Anthony is a merely average offensive player turns out to be superficial.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.