Carmelo Anthony is a 10-time All-Star, practically guaranteeing himself a spot in the Hall of Fame. Yet the superstar remains perhaps the most polarizing player in today's NBA.
For all the acclaim Anthony has drawn for his potent scoring and ability to create mismatches as a physical, small-ball power forward, his critics have been quick to point out his inattentive defense and occasionally maddening shot selection from midrange.
Now, at age 33, as the nominal star for a dismal New York Knicks franchise, Anthony faces more skepticism than ever before in his 14 NBA seasons, as epitomized by his mediocre ranking announced Tuesday. When asked to forecast player performance for next season, ESPN's NBA panel ranked Anthony just 64th overall. That represents a steep fall for a player who was ranked in the top 10 as recently as 2013 (in the April edition) and in the top 30 two seasons ago.
Not a big winner anymore
It probably doesn't help Anthony's case that previous team president Phil Jackson said the Knicks would be better off moving on without him, and Anthony reportedly is ready to go.
Complicating the calculus even more: Anthony's mere presence used to mean instant playoff contention, something that hasn't been the case since 2013. In fact, last season he became the first player in NBA history to reach the postseason in 10 or more consecutive seasons to begin a career, only to follow that by missing the playoffs four straight seasons, according to Stats LLC. This from a star who came to fame by winning an NCAA title as a freshman at Syracuse, made the Western Conference finals in Denver and has played on five 50-win teams.
The consistent failure to reach the Eastern Conference playoffs might not explain Anthony's fading stature. More to the point, the alpha dog has failed to learn new tricks, even as his impressive if narrow skill set has faded in impact. In a rapidly changing league -- in which triple-doubles happen nightly and players are becoming more multidimensional -- Anthony hasn't shown the kind of all-around game and evolution that has allowed LeBron James, for instance, to stay at the forefront of the NBA's pecking order.
For years, analysts wondered whether it was possible for a player so reliant on his 1-on-1 skills to turn over a new leaf. The jury was out after a fantastic 2012-13 season, in which Anthony won his first and only scoring crown, and perhaps the 2013-14 campaign, in which he put up equally impressive numbers. But the ship has finally sailed, and it has become abundantly clear in recent years that Anthony's skills, particularly at this age, are too thin a foundation for a franchise.
Going forward in New York
Despite that reality and the fact that both he and the Knicks are ready to turn the page on this relationship, it's unclear whether Anthony is ready to take a back seat to Kristaps Porzingis, or anyone else for that matter, in a scenario in which New York isn't playing for anything meaningful.
Aside from Anthony's playing style not really fitting the younger, more uptempo roster the Knicks plan to roll out -- his scoring percentage in transition ranked 90th out of 91 players who took at least 100 shot attempts in fast-break scenarios last season, according to Synergy -- it's fair to wonder whether it's time to see what the 22-year-old Porzingis can do as the team's centerpiece.
Porzingis obviously has a ways to go but is more well-rounded -- particularly on the defensive end, where he's one of the league's more disruptive bigs at the rim -- and likely easier to build around. He actually shot the ball slightly better last season without Anthony (or Derrick Rose, for that matter) than he did while playing alongside his star teammate, according to advanced stat site NBAwowy.
Of course, Anthony still provides decent utility on offense, even after a season in which his athleticism waned (he got to the basket far less than ever before) and he posted the worst win-share rate of his career. Porzingis and the Knicks scored about 105 points per 100 plays with Anthony on the court -- basically the output of a league-average offense -- but fell to what would be a bottom-five offense, at 102 points per 100 plays, when Porzingis was playing without Anthony. A chunk of that difference stems from Anthony's shot-making ability in closely defended, low-percentage scenarios, with the shot clock running out.
That's one point in Anthony's favor. His not minding these sorts of possessions and taking the statistical hit that comes with them, makes Melo the Knicks' equivalent of a spider in our ecosystem. That is, while some have a phobia for how he plays offense, he gobbles up ugly, empty possessions and often makes something out of them. A tenth of Anthony's shot attempts last season came with four seconds or less remaining on the shot clock, per NBA.com -- the third-highest share among those who took 100 or more such shots.
Is there a place for Melo?
The question now, after all these years of being a ball-dominant scorer, is whether Anthony would be capable of altering his game enough so he can truly make a difference elsewhere, if not in New York. He'll never be a defensive stopper -- he's far too lackadaisical about getting around opposing screens and disrupting handoffs along the perimeter -- but can he be a scorer for hire?
We've seen how lethal his shot can be in the Olympics when he isn't the No. 1 or No. 2 option, and that -- plus strong point-guard play, which would set up easy catch-and-shoot looks for Anthony -- makes the idea of a potential trade to Houston intriguing.
But it's a stretch to think that fluid playing style would take root overnight, given that he often seeks out difficult, highly stagnant shots. The past two seasons, Anthony has taken a whopping 270 shots featuring one dribble or less while possessing the ball for more than three seconds, according to an analysis run by STATS SportVu. The next closest player, Zach Randolph, has taken 152 such shots in that same span of time.
Anthony's penchant for midrange jumpers -- in a Mike D'Antoni system, no less -- would make for an interesting experiment. But short of that change of scenery or an unlikely overhaul of his game with the Knicks, it's becoming harder and harder to see how Anthony's static game adapts at this late stage. When it comes to his diminished standing in the game, that, as much as anything, explains how perception might finally be catching up to reality.