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Sunday, November 18, 2018

Houston Rockets Abort Ill-Conceived Carmelo Anthony Experiment

Who could have imagined that Carmelo Anthony would not be a good fit for the Houston Rockets? Only anyone who understands basketball via skill set analysis and informed observation, as opposed to relying on "advanced basketball statistics" or reputation or hype or the endorsements of some of Anthony's NBA buddies (including Chris Paul, who has recently said that Anthony is not just a teammate but rather he is "family").

Carmelo Anthony has demonstrated throughout his NBA career that he is a poor leader--he has enjoyed his best individual and team success when paired with one or more stronger personalities who ran the locker room--and that he has a limited skill set: at his best, he was a very potent one on one scorer from certain areas of the court, but he has always been a poor defender, a reluctant passer and an inconsistent rebounder who is more interested in offensive rebounding than defensive rebounding. None of the above factors suggests that Anthony in his prime could be the best player on  an NBA championship team, and those issues have been compounded in recent seasons by the undeniable fact that Anthony retains unrealistic beliefs about his current capabilities even as his one dimensional skill set displays continuous, significant decline.

The above paragraph is what an "old school" scouting report summary of Anthony's game would look like. In my 2018-19 Western Conference Preview, I wrote, "Anthony has a career-long pattern of rarely advancing very far in the playoffs; he is a shoot-first (and second and third) player whose efficiency is declining and whose willingness/ability to contribute in other areas decreases each year. Even if they had stood pat, the Rockets would probably not have won 65 games again; that was an aberration and they are due to regress to the mean. Adding Anthony, though, will probably subtract about 10 wins, while also making this team a less potent playoff force."

The Rockets started the season 4-6 as Anthony averaged career-lows in scoring (13.4 ppg), free throw percentage (.682), assists (.5 apg) and steals (.4 spg) while shooting just a bit above his career low field goal percentage of .404 from last season (.405 this season). The supposed immense challenge of playing alongside Russell Westbrook was the excuse widely provided for the failure of the Carmelo Anthony experiment in Oklahoma City last season, even though last season just continued the steady downward statistical progression that Anthony has suffered for several seasons. This season in Houston would be different, we were sagely informed, because James Harden and Chris Paul would be willing and able to get the ball to Anthony where he can be most effective. Left out of that "analysis," however, was an answer to the obvious question: Where, exactly, is an over the hill, step slow, one dimensional gunner "most effective"?

This is just one illustration of the difference between Real Basketball Analytics and what often is portrayed as basketball analytics. If you have watched Anthony play throughout his career and if you understand basketball then you can see that even Anthony in his prime probably would not have been a great fit for Mike D'Antoni's offense that is predicated on the point guard monopolizing the ball and everyone else being ready to shoot when/if the point guard passes the ball; prime Anthony was at his best when he could go one on one but that is not an option for forwards in D'Antoni's offense.

What the Rockets need alongside Harden and Paul are rugged individual defenders who can make spot up three pointers and who are satisfied with Harden and Paul getting most of the shots, money and glory (Harden and Paul also need a big man who will set screens, rebound and be content to score 10-15 ppg on lob passes, a role more than ably filled by Clint Capela).

The Rockets have parted ways with Anthony but have not cut or traded him. Anthony is in some kind of humiliating basketball limbo as he and the Rockets try to find a way out of this mess that salvages his dignity and marketability. This reminds me of the story that Kenny Smith tells about his rookie year with the Sacramento Kings. Smith recalls that Coach Bill Russell said to sit next to him on the bus and not alongside some of the team's veterans because the veterans are losers. Smith asked Russell why he did not trade those players and Russell stated--loudly enough for the players to hear--that he had tried to trade them but no one wanted them. The Rockets would surely trade Anthony for a bag of potato chips and a copy of an "advanced basketball statistics" book by some "stat guru" but no one wants to give up anything for Anthony. It is not clear what, if any, market exists for Anthony as a free agent if the Rockets just waive him, which they probably will have to do at some point when they need that roster spot.

Anthony's minutes are now going to Gary Clark, a rookie free agent who is on a two-way contract. Yes, Anthony has been replaced by a minor league player--and the Rockets have gone 3-1 with Clark/sans Anthony, with double-digit wins against Indiana, Denver and Golden State. Anthony was not the only problem for Houston during the first 10 games--Chris Paul got suspended, James Harden missed three games due to injury and the Rockets' defense suffered as a result of the loss of free agents Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute--but he was, predictably, a major problem and it was equally predictable that subtracting him from the lineup would add wins to the team's record.

In the NBA, skill set analysis matters, chemistry matters and coaching matters. Championship teams understand those factors and make decisions accordingly. Teams that do not take those factors into account may have some regular season success but will not advance to the NBA Finals, let alone win a championship.

Getting rid of Anthony was a necessary move for the Rockets but their organizational mindset and decision making process is not conducive to building a championship team. What was the point of the Rockets signing Anthony despite his flaws and limitations, then denying that they were going to cut him after just 10 games only to then issue a press release stating that they were going to "part ways" with Anthony and that the two sides are "working toward a resolution"? The Rockets do not look or act like a franchise poised to contend for a title.

It is also telling that the Rockets act as if the only reason that they did not win it all last year was Chris Paul's injury. The problems with that way of thinking are (1) it is predictable that Paul will get injured during the playoffs, (2) injuries are part of the game for all teams and (3) even without Paul the Rockets had halftime leads against Golden State in games six and seven only to fall apart and lose both times--which was also predictable given Houston's high variance style of play. On the rare occasions that the New England Patriots lose, Coach Bill Belichick does not offer excuses. He says that the team must do better in every area, starting with coaching. That kind of realistic self-assessment is never heard from the Rockets.

To cite just one more example of Houston's organizational miscues, Chris Paul is overpaid now relative to his size, frequent injuries and skill set but his contract is going to be an absolute disaster for the Rockets as he ages, gets injured more frequently and loses skills (particularly speed and quickness) for which he is not going to be able to compensate in other areas.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:11 AM

12 comments

12 Comments:

At Monday, November 19, 2018 8:30:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

"Only anyone who understands basketball via skill set analysis and informed observation, as opposed to relying on "advanced basketball statistics"..."

I'm not aware of any advanced stat or so-called "stat guru" that advocated for Carmelo Anthony; sort of the whole point of most of those metrics is to expose overrated "stars" like Anthony. His +/-, On/Offs, Opp Fg%, Net RTG, Reb%, etc. have all consistently been terrible for most of his career. If anything, signing Melo should poke holes in Morey's reputation as an advanced stats guy, not be seen as a symptom of it.

You of course are well known for your enemies and crusades, but while your arguments against Anthony and advanced stats both have merit on their own, suggesting that "advanced stats" had anything to do with Anthony joining the Rockets-- as opposed to his relationship with Paul and bargain-basement price point-- suggests an almost total lack of understanding of what those stats actually say; an understanding that I know you generally possess.

Respectively, I think your passion may have leap-frogged your common sense in this case.

 
At Monday, November 19, 2018 10:15:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

It is well known that Houston under Daryl Morey is a stat-centric organization that bases its personnel decisions and coaching/playing style decisions on “advanced basketball statistics,” so you can rest assured that Morey signed Melo based on (flawed) statistical considerations. Morey and his media supporters have insisted for years that is the edge he has over other teams, so if people are going to credit “advanced basketball statistics” for Houston’s success then we also have to be honest when Houston fails.

I don't believe that Morey signed Melo based on Chris Paul's input and if Chris Paul were that influential in the decision-making process then Houston would not have placed Melo in humiliating limbo just 10 games into the season.

 
At Monday, November 19, 2018 10:37:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Then why mention Paul's endorsement of Anthony if you don't think it was a factor signing Melo?

Morey is an advanced stat guy as are many other teams, and I bet every team uses advanced stats in one way or another. SA even does. But, do you really think even Morey makes every single decision based on advanced stats solely? Morey's actually done a phenomenal job overall getting pretty much the best possible players he could and assembling very good/great teams lately. Though, I'm not sure what he was thinking during the last offseason. HOU had some nice depth the last couple of years, but now they don't.

 
At Monday, November 19, 2018 11:55:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

David-

If that is the case, I struggle to conceive of what "advanced stats" motivated the decision; none of the advanced stats I know of are particularly fond of Melo, and most of them paint him as one of the worst players in the league.

 
At Monday, November 19, 2018 1:44:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

In the opening paragraph of the article, I mentioned several possible factors in the Melo signing. I believe that Morey's interpretation of analytics is the primary factor. Paul's endorsement of the signing may have played a role, though. However, I do not believe that Paul signed off on placing Melo in basketball limbo after just 10 games.

You are correct that many NBA teams use analytics to some extent. It would be foolish not to do so. I use analytics in my basketball writing and did so years before it became fashionable. What I object to is the elevation of numbers over what can be observed and over what experienced basketball talent evaluators/scouts/coaches know from experience. Analytics is a tool, not an all-powerful solution to every question. Morey rode into Houston acting as if he knew all of the answers. The result has been four first round losses, three seasons of missing the playoffs and two WCF appearances. The latter may sound impressive, until one realizes that in the past decade nine of the 15 Western Conference teams have reached the WCF. The NBA is designed to promote parity, so unless a team is horribly mismanaged and/or suffers a lot of injuries/misfortune it is not unusual to reach the WCF.

 
At Monday, November 19, 2018 2:55:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

I think you actually buried the lead here David. Your last paragraph is, in my opinion, the biggest reason the Rockets have taken a major step back this year...and will continue to fade over the next 4 seasons if not completely fall off a cliff like all players in NBA history under 6 feet upon hitting the age of 34. (On that note, we're going to have State Farm Cliff memes as soon as next year...I'd bet $$$ on this)

Paul's monster contract will be paying him $40 million on average over the next 4 seasons. His contract kinda sorta forced the Rockets to nickel and dime Clint Capela (who has looked a lot less active this season than last). Capela's negotiation should have been done at 12 midnight on day one of free agency. But it dragged on for the entire month of July as the Rockets prioritized Paul. Capela is 24 and is basically the ideal big man for Harden. Nuts they believed the noose of a $160 million contract for a 5'10 (at best) point guard, was more important.

With Harden's extension, Capela's new deal, and Paul's albatross, the Rockets made the financial decision to let Ariza and Mbah a Moute walk. Two guys who are exactly the kind of "rugged individual defenders who can make spot up three pointers and who are satisfied with Harden and Paul getting most of the shots, money and glory." Except Ariza wasn't all too satisfied (rightfully so) with Paul and Harden getting all the money which is why he got his money...in Phoenix. Mbah a Moute signed for $4.3 million with the Clips. (These were the only 2 guys on the Rockets I liked...and now they are gone...and I can go back to hating the Rockets lol).

It's crazy that KD is getting so much hate (from his own teammates...which is telling, but still), while Paul has gotten zero negative publicity. KD GAVE UP money so Iggy and Livingston could get theirs. Paul took the max. KD and Paul were in rather similar situations regarding team makeup as they were the new kids on the block that were brought in to put the current team over the top. One gave up money so 2 bench guys could get theirs. The other forced 2 vital STARTERS off the team.

As President of the Player's Association, Paul can claim he signed that massive contract as to defend NBA players everywhere, but that's mostly a load of BS. Only a handful of NBA players can ever get the super max...the vast majority got effed by the super max. And Paul negotiated hard for the super max during the last collective bargaining agreement.

For the life of me, I don't know why Paul is looked upon so favorably. The media treats him like a darling. He's a dirty player, that puts up beautiful analytics, but never has been to the finals and is always, always getting hurt during the playoffs (long-suffering Clips fan, who was devastated when we got him, and super happy when we traded him).

Like Nick and Anonymous, I have read multiple accounts and believe that the Rockets signed Melo because of Paul. And because I believe this, Paul is even more of an asshole for letting Melo get done so dirty. Melo who is supposedly his good banana boat buddy.

All in all -- and this isn't advanced analytics or even really good scouting or objective analysis -- it's just my own personal hot take. Paul is a POS.

Despite the fact I disagree with some of this post, I'm glad you're back writing. 20secondtimeout is like an NBA oasis. :)

 
At Monday, November 19, 2018 4:22:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Given that HOU lost in the 1st round 5x and missed the playoffs 5x in their previous 10 years before Morey, his resume is impressive, especially after losing 2 HOFers shortly after he took over, and with no losing records at any point. And definitely a huge uphill battle in the WC given all the stacked teams he's had to face during his tenure. To his credit, he's built talented and sometimes deep teams lately. Only LAL, GS, SA, and OKC other than HOU have made more than 1 WCF over the past 10 years. And each of those teams had multiple future HOFers on them. The main question is can you acquire guys like this along with a solid cast around them, which everyone is trying to do.

 
At Monday, November 19, 2018 4:58:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jordan:

This article is primarily about Melo specifically and "advanced basketball statistics" generally, so Paul's contract is not the lead item here. Paul's contract is ridiculous for many reasons and I agree with your assessments of Paul as both a person and a player. I have questioned the value of Paul's contract before and, as he declines, I will write about this issue more frequently. The news of the moment is the Melo Experiment, while Paul's contract is an ongoing story. You are right, though, to note that overpaying Paul has perhaps contributed to other bad Houston moves, but I don't understand why Houston is willing to overpay Paul to win but then goes cheap with regard to the supporting cast members who are essential. It's not like Paul has been or ever will be a Kobe Bryant-type player who can drag subpar players very far.

I can speculate that Paul is treated favorably by the media because he is undersized and because the "stat gurus" pumped him up as an MVP candidate circa 2007 at a time when the media members were looking for every excuse in the world not to vote for Kobe Bryant.

 
At Monday, November 19, 2018 5:02:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jordan:

This article is primarily about Melo specifically and "advanced basketball statistics" generally, so Paul's contract is not the lead item here. Paul's contract is ridiculous for many reasons and I agree with your assessments of Paul as both a person and a player. I have questioned the value of Paul's contract before--in an August 15, 2018 post I wrote that Paul's contract "could end up being the worst contract given to a point guard since Gilbert Arenas was collecting NBA checks long after his career had ended"--and, as he declines, I will write about this issue more frequently. The news of the moment is the Melo Experiment, while Paul's contract is an ongoing story. You are right, though, to note that overpaying Paul has perhaps contributed to other bad Houston moves, but I don't understand why Houston is willing to overpay Paul to win but then goes cheap with regard to the supporting cast members who are essential. It's not like Paul has been or ever will be a Kobe Bryant-type player who can drag subpar players very far.

I can speculate that Paul is treated favorably by the media because he is undersized and because the "stat gurus" pumped him up as an MVP candidate circa 2007 at a time when the media members were looking for every excuse in the world not to vote for Kobe Bryant.

 
At Monday, November 19, 2018 5:08:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

Houston's record before hiring Morey is of limited significance, particularly since Morey has been in this role for over a decade. The hype around him is that he utilizes methods that give him a unique advantage. There is no question that he is working for a big market franchise that is willing to spend a lot of money. Therefore, the Rockets should be an elite team, particularly if Morey has a significant competitive advantage over other GMs. The reality is that the Rockets have been a good but not exceptional team under Morey (other than last regular season, which was exceptional). It is true that the Rockets have not had a losing record under Morey but in three seasons they won 41, 42 or 43 games and they have been more likely to lose in the first round than have any other postseason result. A guy who supposedly has a great competitive advantage and who unquestionably has a huge budget should have delivered more results after a decade on the job.

I am not saying that he is a bad GM overall or that he has done poorly, merely that he has not lived up to the hype--and much of that hype was provided by him directly and by his buddies in the media.

 
At Thursday, November 22, 2018 6:11:00 PM, Anonymous Space Ghost said...

Carmelo Anthony is one of the few subjects where I seem to disagree with you on David.

I understand your criticism and respect it, but I feel like the truth leans slightly more in the other direction.

Houston getting rid of Melo seems to be a move to black ball the man from the NBA, as the league and media have been trying to do for a long time.

Carmelo Anthony is one of the most skilled offensive players in the history of the league IMO. His playground style off-the dribble jumper ability puts him alongside the ranks of MJ, Kobe, Tmac, Iverson, Marbury, Steve Francis, Vince Carter, etc (FROM AN EYE TO EYE SCOUTING PERSPECTIVE).

 
At Thursday, November 22, 2018 9:08:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Spaceghost:

Why would the league want to blackball Melo?

 

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