Carmelo Anthony’s Astounding Ball Security

Atlanta Hawks v New York Knicks

Following a stretch of three games where Carmelo Anthony has lit up the Knicks’ opponents for a combined 131 points and a Knicks record (tied) three straight 40+ point performances, all anybody can talk about, in regards to him, is his scoring. While I’ve been loving the sky-high scoring numbers, (43.6 PPG, 64.1% FG) what I’ve been more excited about is the wins – 11 sweet ones in a row. Anthony did face very few double teams and often found himself facing off against the likes of Mike Miller, Rashard Lewis and Ersan Ilyasova, so the high totals are nice, but they aren’t enough to blow me away.

One thing that was brought to my attention was that combined in the first two games, Melo had only one single turnover. He did have five last night, a very bad number, but the aforementioned figure enlightened me. Carmelo doesn’t turn the ball over nearly as much as a player with his offensive duties would. He’s averaging 2.7 turnovers a game, nothing extraordinarily low. However, when compared to other qualified small forwards in the league (ESPN lists him as a small forward, no idea why), under an advanced turnover statistic, Turnover Ratio (TO), Anthony ranks just outside of the top-20, pedestrian at first glance. What you have to realize is that no player ahead of him is coming within 10% of his league-leading Usage Percentage (estimate of the percentage of team plays used by a player while he was on the floor), and only one player (Thaddeus Young) is coming within 5 minutes of Anthony’s 37.2 of game time a night.

Melo’s ball security as a primary ball handler and offensive juggernaut for the Knicks this season is actually historic, believe it or not. As of yesterday (before the evening games), Anthony’s USG%, per Basketball-Reference, is at a 35% mark and his TO% is at a 9.6% mark. Using this threshold, I searched for players with a matching criteria. USG% of 35% and over and TO% of 10% and under, with the inclusion of a 1,000 minutes played boundary, in order to knock away any small sample sizes. What came about all but solidified my understanding of Anthony’s ball security.

Only five players, since the dawn of the NBA, managed these numbers, with Anthony primed to be the sixth, should he continue his level of offensive output and ball security. Here are the names on that list:

  • George Gervin – 1982 season
  • Michael Jordan – 1987 & 2002 seasons
  • Dominique Wilkins – 1988 season
  • Tracy McGrady – 2003 season
  • Kobe Bryant – 2006 season

Correct me if I’m wrong, but that seems like some decent company. Now, one rebuttal can be, “but David, Melo doesn’t pass!” Well, when checking up on each player’s AST% (percentage of a player’s possessions ending in an assist) during those seasons, Carmelo ranks fifth among the seven seasons, behind Jordan’s two, McGrady, and Bryant. Sure he’s not the most pass-heavy, but he certainly isn’t the biggest ball-hog, either. (A side note, Melo’s eFG% ranks him third among this same group.)

Speaking of passing, Carmelo Anthony is really good at it. Definitely way above average for a player of his athletic build and scoring ability. I say this right at the people criticizing this portion of Melo’s game, because it’s a flawed and inaccurate criticism. Passing is not where the majority of Anthony’s turnovers come from, he may do it more sporadically than many of us would like, but he’s a gifted distributor. Nbawowy.com has in-depth turnover breakdowns, and when looking at Anthony’s, you’ll see that 12.2% of his giveaways are under the “bad pass” category. About a tenth of every turnover he commits is the fault of an off pass.

The majority of his turnovers? Offensive fouls make up 20.7% of them, and the whopping number one cause is a “steal,” at 45.1%. Not much info lies here, so I took to Synergy Sports to further break down where Anthony has turned the ball over this season.  According to Synergy’s play sorting data, Anthony turns the ball over the most on unclassified plays and on post-up tries.

Looking through (each and every one of em’) the unclassified plays, the majority were off-ball offensive fouls. The few turnovers when Anthony had the ball in his hands often came when he attempted to pass the ball within a second of him catching it: rushed passes.

The latter makes a ton of sense, with Anthony often being doubled when working in the low-post, and if it comes down hard enough a double can be ridiculously tough to get the ball out of. Post-up plays account for 20% of Anthony’s offense, only behind isolation attempts. Here is where we’ll find the meat and potatoes of Melo’s turnovers. I dug through each instance of Carmelo turning it over from the low post, and here are the only important points needed to be focused on:

  • The leading cause was offensive fouls (30% of the turnovers), Melo hooking his arm to swing by an opponent or just bulldozing his way through them. This is where Anthony needs to get smarter.
  • 25% of his turnovers came when Anthony was doubled and was either stripped of the ball or lost it himself. A key indicator of a turnover coming is when you see Melo keeping his head down trying to maintain control of the ball. That’s a no-no.
  • Bad passes made up merely 10% of Carmelo’s turnovers out of the post, all of which occurred when he was doubled.

The next step in Anthony’s progression as an efficient controller of the basketball is to overcome his over-aggressiveness and learn how to manage being double teamed. Everyone will travel, step out of bounds or lose the ball accidentally once in a blue moon, it’s basketball, it happens. But there lies two serious trends in Anthony’s forays into the paint in which he lowers his shoulder, or pulls away defenders with his off-ball arm. Both are illegal tactics, both rarely ever go unnoticed by referees, in Melo’s case. Anthony’s court vision seems to limit itself when he backs down, as he’s often unable to see a second defender coming who applies immediate pressure, enough so to cause a turnover. Where fellow superstars LeBron and James and Kobe Bryant excel is seeing the double coming and passing out to an open shooter quickly, before the second man can get there. Anthony must develop this skill to cut down on his turnovers.

This article is about Melo’s undeniably strong ball security, but it can always improve. Look at Kevin Durant and LeBron James. Both were superstars two years ago, yet they continually worked on their games, (see: LeBron’s post game and Durant’s distributing/rebounding) elevating them to new levels. Levels where they can compete for the MVP award, at the same time being right in the hunt for an NBA championship. Anthony’s far from a perfect player, and honing one of his most impressive skills can be just as important as developing a new one.

Anthony was not always a savvy player when it comes to protecting the ball, honing a TO% of above 10% in each of his first 8 seasons in the league, before dipping under that threshold in two of his previous three years. Credit is due to his maturation as a player, and his taking upon a much steadier approach to the offensive side of the basketball. Even now though he sometimes finds himself out of control, either rushing or panicking his way into a giveaway.

Nevertheless, he’s still wholesomely remarkable at keeping the ball away from the opposition, and it’s carried over to his teammates. The Knicks are first in the league in lowest TO%, which has been a terrific team effort, but can also be in part due to Anthony’s leadership in this aspect. Leadership, the one quality Knicks fans have been praying for out of Anthony since he’s arrived. Here we see the quality in action, the one that will lead Carmelo and the Knicks to new heights.

  • Pdut23

    Absolutely wonderful article. Will bring this up when someone says all he can do is score lol.

    • http://twitter.com/_Verts David Vertsberger

      Thanks man I appreciate it!