Would Signing Carmelo Anthony Be Worth Max Money to a Contender?

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 7, 2014

You may have heard already, but Carmelo Anthony could be a free agent when the 2013-14 season mercifully comes to a close for the New York Knicks.

The league's No. 2 leading scorer, 'Melo has a chance to exercise his early-termination option and hit the open market after the Knicks play the Toronto Raptors on April 16 to close the regular season, and it's tough to see him doing anything else. 

By becoming a free agent, Anthony will have the ability to test the waters, then either sign with a franchise that boasts a significantly more promising future or re-sign with New York and ensure his finances throughout the foreseeable future. 

It's a win-win. 

However, Anthony is presumably operating under the assumption that he's worth a max contract. He's been a superstar for a while now, and he's the reigning scoring champion. Everyone knows who 'Melo is, and he's generally considered one of the best players in the Association. 

But is he actually worth max money to a contending team? Is there a chance he'd be forced into signing for significantly less than he's made in the past?


Elite Scoring Is Hard to Find

It's not difficult to find players who are capable of putting up gaudy point totals, so long as they're given that type of opportunity. It's also not tough to find players who are capable of shooting efficient percentages. 

It's actually hard to find a player who can do both. 

Anthony qualifies as one. 

Although he hasn't reached Durantian levels of efficiency, he's still averaging 28.1 points per game while shooting 45.5 percent from the field, 42 percent from downtown and 83.5 percent at the charity stripe. That's good enough for him to boast a true shooting percentage of 56.1, which is actually a slight improvement upon last year's mark. 

While that number isn't on par with what Kevin Durant and LeBron James can do, no one should be trying to compare 'Melo to the two leading candidates for MVP.

With them out of the equation, though, it's tough to find a more potent scorer. You could make arguments for Kevin Love and Stephen Curry, for example, but it's all a matter of personal preference at that point. 

Anthony, despite what some might think, is not a conscienceless gunner who sabotages a team's efficiency statistics by firing away whenever he pleases. He's also not an inefficient volume scorer who does more harm than good. 

Only adding to the appeal is the manner in which he scores. 

A healthy Kobe Bryant is the one other player who seems to thrive on the ridiculous. 

Durant and LeBron may hit jaw-droppingly difficult shots, but they both have a knack for working themselves free of the defense and then capitalizing. The former always seems to have space for a jumper, though that's partially due to his frame and quick release, and the latter is incredibly adept at getting to the bucket. 

But when 'Melo is firing away and clicking on all cylinders, he hits some insane looks. The pull-up jumpers, turnaround fadeaways and shots that leave you wondering how in the world he went from dribbling to releasing the ball so quickly are all within his arsenal. 

'Melo is an established No. 1 scoring option, a player capable of single-handedly carrying an offense without losing his efficiency. 

Not many players can make that claim. 


He's Not Just a Scorer

When you hear people talk about the 30-year-old forward, few facets of his game ever get brought up other than his scoring ability. It's a shame, because he's a much more complete superstar than he ever gets credit for. 

Most obvious is his rebounding. 

'Melo has spent the 2013-14 campaign pulling down a career-best 8.4 boards per game, and he's making a significant contribution on both types of glass. He never wants an offensive possession to go to waste, but he also recognizes the defense's need to end the opponent's efforts as quickly as possible. 

It's the latter that has been especially key this season.

Basketball-Reference.com shows that his defensive rebounding percentage has risen to 19.6, and that leaves him as part of a pretty exclusive club. Only 25 qualified non-centers have defensive-rebounding percentages better than 19 this season, and 'Melo is one of three players on the list who usually plays small forward. 

Durant and Al-Farouq Aminu are the other two. 

But this goes beyond 'Melo's rebounding. 

His passing has been vastly underrated throughout the year, largely because his teammates are utterly incapable of connecting on their open looks. The slumps of Raymond Felton and J.R. Smith didn't exactly help out this particular forward. 

As revealed by NBA.com's SportVU data, Anthony is dishing out 6.2 assist opportunities per game. Unfortunately, only three of those are being turned into actual dimes each contest, and that's not a very high conversion rate at all. 

Rudy Gay, for example, has averaged 3.3 assists per game while with the Sacramento Kings, and he's produced fewer assist opportunities than his New York-based counterpart. 

A results-based analysis doesn't look very kindly on 'Melo's passing, but he's been unselfish with the ball and made a serious attempt to aid his struggling teammates throughout the season.

Before he realized he had to shoulder a larger scoring burden during the early part of the season, Anthony was actively trying to involve everyone but was forced into shooting when his teammates decided the basketball was a hot potato. 

Then there's defense:

His defensive rating, which measures how many points opponents score for every 100 possessions that he has on the court, is slightly worse than his career average.

But when you consider the context of the Knicks' poor 2013-14 season, it's apparent that Anthony is carrying his weight on defense. The 2013-14 Knicks are allowing 109.0 points per 100 possessions—the second highest of any team on which Carmelo has played. 

Since Walker Harrison wrote that for Bleacher Report near the end of February, Anthony's individual defensive rating has gone up to 109, and the Knicks' defensive rating has correspondingly gone up to 109.5. 

Is the high-scoring forward a defensive ace? Absolutely not. 

But he is a capable defender, especially when he decides it's worth trying on that end of the court. He's made that decision throughout the 2013-14 campaign, and the result has been a transition into becoming one of the better stoppers on the roster. 


On 82games.com, it shows that 'Melo is holding opposing small forwards and power forwards to player efficiency ratings below the league-average mark of 15, and Basketball-Reference.com makes it quite clear that New York is worse at preventing points when he's on the pine. 

This might make you shake your head in wonder—the Knicks give up 110.5 points per 100 possession when Anthony is on the court, and the number skyrockets to 115.2 when he sits. 

The former Syracuse standout's defensive improvement has been massively overlooked throughout the 2013-14 campaign, and that's largely due to the utter futility of his teammates.

Let's not sell him short any longer.


Worth a Max Contract?

Thus far, everything has been largely complimentary. So let's change gears slightly.

While Anthony is a standout scorer who can contribute in most facets of the game, he does have his weaknesses. He can get caught up shooting the ball incessantly, and he does tend to take plays off on defense. Even when he's giving 100 percent, he's more of a decent player on that end of the court rather than a great one.

Basically, there's a reason that Anthony isn't in the same tier that's occupied by James and Durant.

Yet he's a superstar nonetheless, and it's hard to argue with him being paid like one. As a result, statements like this one are pretty bogus:

No disrespect meant to George Karl, but that quote is just as nonsensical now as it was back in December. And yes, that's despite the Knicks' continued inability to string together victories. 

Throughout the annals of NBA history, it's awfully difficult to find examples of players who completely carried their squads to championships in one-man fashion. Not only is basketball a team sport, but also the league is deep enough now that having a quality supporting cast is absolutely essential. 

There's an easy test to figure out whether or not 'Melo is to blame for the Knicks' failures. 

Simply replace him with the best players at his position and then think about how New York would have fared throughout the season. Could Paul George, Durant or LeBron actually carry this Knicks squad to the promised land? 

Certainly not with the way it's playing. At best, LeBron could go into Cleveland mode and get this squad into the playoffs, where he'd suffer an early exit. 

There's a lot of blame to be doled out in Madison Square Garden, but it should be heaped on the shoulders of James Dolan, Mike Woodson, Iman Shumpert, Felton, Smith and just about everyone who doesn't have "Anthony" stitched across the back of the jersey. 

'Melo is a superstar.

The appeal of having him on the roster is one thing, but he deserves a max contract even if we're only looking at on-court contributions.

No, the success of his teammates should not be held against him. Neither should his age, as his game isn't predicated on elite athleticism, which should allow him to continue to play at an incredibly high level through his mid-30s. 

Of course, there's one more question in play, and that's whether or not Anthony will actually get his max deal. 

He could receive one from a team like the Phoenix Suns, Philadelphia 76ers, Utah Jazz or Atlanta Hawks, but they don't offer the type of market-based luxury that he's looking for. They're also not guaranteed contenders. 

The Los Angeles Lakers sure don't seem like they want to wreck their chances at making a splash in the 2015 free-agent pool, and the Chicago Bulls might require him to take a massive pay cut if he wants to call the United Center home. 

Turns out, Anthony's only option—assuming he wants that max deal—might be staying with the Knicks and dealing with the headaches of playing for Dolan while trying to rebuild. Both he and other teams are likely to close too many of the other doors.

Does he deserve the most money an NBA team can offer him? Absolutely, but that doesn't mean he's going to get it this offseason. 


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