He’s known as an elite offensive player (and a defensive liability), but he hasn’t actually been efficient on offense. That’s the enigma that is Carmelo Anthony. It’s a big reason why Oklahoma City, which is both a championship contender and a big spender, was looking to unload his contract this offseason.
Of the 114 players that took at least 700 FGA last season, Carmelo was 105th in Points Per Shot (PPS). His 0.95 points per shot would be the equivalent of feeding a 31.7% 3-point shooter, like Evan Turner or Emmanuel Mudiay, behind the arc. Even Brandon Ingram and Ish Smith were more efficient than Carmelo.
It’s not that Carmelo is a bad shooter; he’s an excellent shooter. The problem is his shot selection. Like almost every NBA player, Carmelo is inefficient from mid-range. His 0.786 is the equivalent of shooting 26% from 3.
Again, almost every NBA player is inefficient from mid-range. For example, James Harden averaged 0.782 points per shot from this region last season. A big difference between Harden and Carmelo is that Anthony took 460 mid-range jumpers (to Harden’s 128). Would you want a 26% 3-point shooter taking 460 3-pointers for your team? Carmelo takes the most shots from the area where he is the least efficient.
But now Carmelo joins Houston, the NBA’s leader in shot selection. While Oklahoma City still relied on the mid-range for 22% of their FGA, Houston led the NBA with just 8% of their FGA coming from these inefficient jumpers.
Houston shot selection worked. They averaged 1.15 points per possession, the best in the NBA. In fact, 1.15 points per possession was the 10th most efficient NBA season ever and the 3rd most efficient season of the last 20 years (only behind the 2009-10 Suns and 2016-17 Warriors).
Consider how Carmelo’s shot selection compared to Houston’s top two scorers, Harden and Chris Paul, and to Trevor Ariza, who Houston lost to free agency and whose minutes Carmelo is likely to replace.
39% of Carmelo’s FGA came from mid-range, while only 9% of Harden’s FGA came from that zone. Ariza, who played largely off the ball, saw only 1% of his FGA from mid-range. Even Chris Paul, who is one of the league’s most efficient mid-range shooters, took a significantly lower percentage of his FGA from mid-range than Carmelo.
If we want to get a sense of how Houston’s offensive system might impact Carmelo’s shot selection, Chris Paul is a valuable case study. Paul jumped from the Clippers to the Rockets a year ago, and saw his percentage of FGA from mid-range drop from 41% to 23%.
And remember, Chris Paul is one of the NBA’s best from mid-range. Carmelo is not. Do not expect Houston to stomach inefficient deep twos from Anthony.
But let’s go back to Trevor Ariza’s shot selection. It’s likely Carmelo will fill Ariza’s role in many of Houston’s offensive sets. Ariza took almost no mid-range jumpers. Instead, he relied heavily on corner and above-the-break 3s. When Ariza did attack inside the arc, he typically went all the way to the hoop. Expect Carmelo’s shot selection next season to venture in this direction, and that’s a good thing for Carmelo and Houston.
Houston relies heavily on the individual skills of both Harden and Paul in the offense. Often, one of the two has the ball at the top of the key. Either off a big man’s screen or in isolation, Harden or Paul will look to penetrate. (According to NBA. com, Houston averaged 15.6 isolation possessions per game, four more than any other team.) To give these attacking players the most space possible, Houston makes sure to space to the 3-point line with their other perimeter players.
Expect Carmelo to play the role of spacer most often. If his man collapses to help on Harden or Paul’s drive, those teammates will kick to Carmelo for 3. On catch-and-shoot threes last season, Carmelo averaged 1.12 PPS. On wide-open threes, he averaged an excellent 1.27 PPS.
Carmelo has the ability to be an excellent offensive player, and the key to unlocking that ability is shot selection. No team optimizes shot selection like the Rockets. If Houston can reduce Anthony’s mid-range attempts while getting him more open catch-and-shoot threes, expect his 2018-19 scoring to more closely resemble what’s in the following table.
Recall that Carmelo’s 0.95 PPS in 2017-18 ranked 105th among 114 players with at least 700 FGA. He was one of the least efficient high-usage players. At 1.12 PPS, he’d rank 19th, better than Kyle Lowry, Anthony Davis, Chris Paul, and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
As the table shows, if Houston can alter Carmelo’s shot selection, they’ll also be able to get an additional 2.5 points from him on the same quantity of shots he saw in Oklahoma City. 2.5 points may not seem like a lot, but if everything else remains the same, an additional 2.5 points per game projects to an additional six wins.
In a basketball game, each team gets approximately the same number of possessions. The team that is the most efficient with those possessions wins. When it comes to shots, teams and players can increase their efficiency in two ways. They can shoot a higher percentage on the shots they take. Or, they can take better shots.
Carmelo has always been a shot-maker. He has elite offensive ability. But as the league has trended to better shot selection, Carmelo hasn’t adjusted. If any team can right this ship, it’s Houston, and if they do, Carmelo will return to being one of the NBA’s elite offensive players and Houston might have enough to overtake the Warriors and reach the NBA Finals.