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Friday, February 27, 2009

Is Carmelo Anthony Underrated?

The word "underrated" can mean different things to different people. Some players have been called "underrated" so much that they may actually be "overrated." One player who is often referred to as "underrated"--as attested to by the fact that a Google search links his name and that word to more than 17,000 different items--is Carmelo Anthony. Is that really true, though? Is Anthony in some fashion not rated as highly as he should be, based on his actual NBA accomplishments?

Here is my answer to that question:

A Google search for "Carmelo Anthony underrated" turns up more than 17,000 items. TV commentators, writers and many fans often say that the Denver Nuggets forward is "underrated." Is this really true? To answer that question, we first have to determine who has been "rating" Anthony, how highly they "rate" him and if objective measures indicate that he should be "rated" more highly than he is.

I had high hopes for Anthony when he left Syracuse after his freshman season. He had just led the Orangemen to a national championship and he seemed to have a good, all-around, unselfish game.

Anthony did not appear to be a guy who was just putting up numbers; he put up numbers in the context of his team being highly successful. It may be hard to believe now, but a fair number of people thought that Anthony could be as good or even better than LeBron James, who went first in the 2003 NBA Draft (Anthony went third, right after Detroit chose Darko Milicic). Looking back at the respective career arcs of James and Anthony provides some interesting context regarding the question of how exactly Anthony has been "rated" so far.

Anthony averaged 21.0 ppg, 6.1 rpg and 2.8 apg as a rookie while leading the 43-39 Nuggets to the playoffs but he finished a distant second to James in the Rookie of the Year voting; James averaged 20.9 ppg, 5.5 rpg and 5.9 apg for a 35-47 Cleveland Cavaliers team that missed the playoffs by four games. Neither player made the All-Star team as a rookie and even though James won the Rookie of the Year there were still a fair number of people who considered James and Anthony to be roughly equal or even gave Anthony the edge because his team made the playoffs.

However, in year two it quickly became evident that James would turn out to be clearly better than Anthony.

James raised his numbers across the board (27.2 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 7.2 apg), led the NBA in minutes played (42.4 mpg), made the All-Star Team (selected as a starter by the fans), made the All-NBA Second Team (selected by the media) and finished sixth in MVP voting (also selected by the media). The Cavs tied for the eighth best record in the East but missed the playoffs due to a tiebreaker.

Anthony's numbers declined slightly in his second season (20.8 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 2.6 apg) and he did not make the All-Star team or the All-NBA team, nor did he receive any MVP votes. Anthony's Nuggets qualified for the playoffs but lost in the first round.

In 2005-06, Anthony increased his scoring to 26.5 ppg but his rebounding dipped to 4.9 rpg, a poor number for such a big and athletically gifted small forward. The Nuggets made the playoffs for the third straight year and even though the fans and coaches both left Anthony off of their All-Star ballots he did make the All-NBA Third Team. James started in the All-Star Game, won the All-Star MVP, made the All-NBA First Team and finished second in MVP voting. By this time, the idea of a rivalry between the two players only made sense from the standpoint that they are members of the same draft class; James had clearly established himself as an elite player by any definition, while Anthony was at best a fringe star.

Anthony averaged a career-high 28.9 ppg in 2006-07 but missed 15 games after being suspended by the NBA for his role in a brawl during a Knicks-Nuggets game at Madison Square Garden; he neither added to his "street cred" nor his overall reputation by throwing a punch at Mardy Collins just when hostilities had begun to simmer down and then back pedaling away from Collins so fast that it seemed like Anthony was wearing roller skates.

The fans and coaches once again both left Anthony off of their All-Star ballots but Commissioner David Stern selected Anthony as an injury replacement for Carlos Boozer. Anthony also made the All-NBA Third Team for the second year in a row. The Nuggets lost in the first round of the playoffs for the fourth straight year. James finished fifth in MVP voting, made the All-NBA Second Team and was again voted an All-Star starter; he led the Cavs to the franchise's first ever trip to the NBA Finals.

Last season, Anthony's scoring dipped a bit to 25.7 ppg but he shot a career-high .492 from the field and averaged a career-high 7.4 rpg. The fans voted Anthony to be an All-Star starter for the first time in his career but the media left him off of all three All-NBA teams. His Nuggets made their annual first round exit from the playoffs. James finished fourth in MVP voting, regained All-NBA First Team status and won his second All-Star MVP. His Cavs battled through holdouts and injuries and adjusted to a big midseason trade but still managed to push the eventual champion Boston Celtics to seven games in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

The record shows that Anthony had a head start over James from the standpoint of playing one very successful year of college basketball but despite this advantage James was at least as good an NBA player as Anthony virtually from day one and by their second season James had clearly surpassed Anthony.

Although Anthony has been to the playoffs more often than James, James' teams have enjoyed much more playoff success. James has also performed much better in the playoffs individually than Anthony. Although some battles against elite defensive squads pushed James' career playoff field goal percentage down to .433 from .470 in the regular season, James has averaged 27.5 ppg, 8.0 rpg and 7.3 apg in his postseason career and he has had some truly epochal performances.

For the most part, Anthony has been subpar in postseason play, shooting .389 from the field (compared to .460 in the regular season) and averaging 21.1 ppg, more than 3 ppg fewer than his regular season average. Although Anthony has posted good rebounding averages in the playoffs, a lot of his work in that department has been on the offensive glass chasing down his own misses.

Disregarding statistics and awards for a moment, let's consider Anthony's skill set strengths and weaknesses. His biggest strength without question is that he is a deadly scorer from 20 feet and closer to the hoop: his midrange jumper is excellent, he is a good free throw shooter, he can post up or face up defenders, he drives to the basket quickly and he finishes strongly. He was a mediocre three-point shooter for his first four seasons but has noticeably improved his long-range shot the past two years.

Anthony was at best an average rebounder early in his career but the past couple seasons he has improved in that regard. He has good passing skills but is definitely a shoot first player, as indicated by his career average of 3.1 apg.

Anthony's biggest weakness is at the defensive end of the court. Although he possesses sufficient size, strength and quickness to be a very good defensive player, his effort defensively is generally poor and his awareness of proper rotations/positioning is at times embarrassingly bad. FIBA play is completely different from NBA play but anyone who followed my coverage of Team USA last summer knows that I detailed just how poorly Anthony played defensively -- and the same thing was true of his previous performances in FIBA play, too.

Anthony often has what I would call the "Bruce Coslet" look on defense (in "honor" of the former Cincinnati Bengals coach); not only is he generally in the wrong place at the wrong time doing the wrong thing but he looks completely befuddled/oblivious regarding fundamental defensive principles, much like Coslet looked totally confused on the sidelines as his Bengals set unofficial records for false starts and assorted other mental mistakes, reaching a nadir of incompetence that frustrated Corey Dillon to the point that he refused to go back into a game and participate in the fiasco (Dillon's allegedly bad attitude improved noticeably when he went to New England and played for a coach who actually knew how to design and implement a game plan).

I never really paid that much attention to Anthony's defense at Syracuse, but he must have either gotten by because of his superior athletic ability relative to the competition or else Jim Boeheim hid him very effectively in his famous two-three zone.

Every year, we are told that Anthony has committed himself to being a better defender but I have yet to see any evidence that this is true on a consistent basis; his steals and blocked shots numbers have actually declined slightly and, although he plays decent defense during some games, he is still out of position way too often. Anthony's Nuggets have generally been a team that runs downcourt to play offense and jogs back downcourt to play defense and he is the one who has set that tone, a marked contrast to the way that James has accepted the challenge defensively and spearheaded the tough defense that the Cavs play.

Clearly, there are very good reasons that Anthony's reputation has slipped vis a vis James -- but James is at worst the second best player in the NBA right now, so there is no shame in not quite measuring up to his standard.

That brings us back to the original question: Is Carmelo Anthony underrated?

The interesting thing about this is that even though Anthony is often referred to as underrated, no one who has the power to do anything about this seems to be particularly interested in rating him any higher: Anthony has been in the NBA for six seasons but the fans have only voted him as an All-Star starter once; even more tellingly, the coaches have never selected him as an All-Star reserve. The media has twice voted Anthony on to the All-NBA Third Team but by the most generous interpretation that places Anthony outside of any list of the top 10 players in the league.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:35 PM



At Friday, February 27, 2009 5:54:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think some people say he's underrated because nobody talks about him anymore, is like he doesn't even exists in the league anymore.

The right word is probably UNRATED.


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