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NBA still values the wrong numbers

Oklahoma City Thunder forward Carmelo Anthony, foreground, reacts to a call in front of Dallas Mavericks forward Dwight Powell, left, during game in Dallas, Saturday, Nov. 25, 2017.
Oklahoma City Thunder forward Carmelo Anthony, foreground, reacts to a call in front of Dallas Mavericks forward Dwight Powell, left, during game in Dallas, Saturday, Nov. 25, 2017.
LM Otero, AP

SALT LAKE CITY — In this the age of super teams in the National Basketball Association, there is one hope for the rest of the league: There is still a lot of wrongheaded thinking going on out there.

Take the Oklahoma Thunder, for instance. They believe the old math: All-Star + All-Star + All-Star = championship. It’s not that simple, especially if one of those All-Stars is Carmelo Anthony.

If the goal is to win games and not score points — it’s not the same thing — Anthony is one of the most overrated players ever and has been for years. His play does not translate into wins, which might account for the Thunder’s disappointing 11-12 start (not counting Thursday night’s game). This wasn’t what was expected when All-Stars Anthony and Paul George were traded to the Thunder to join league MVP Russell Westbrook, putting three of the NBA’s biggest stars on the same roster.

This isn't to pick on Anthony, but to underscore how the NBA continues to evaluate players with the wrong statistics. Even in the era of “Money Ball” and advanced statistical metrics, teams value and reward scoring average at face value. Anthony has averaged 24.6 points per game during his 15-year career. And yet …

… his previous teams — the Denver Nuggets and New York Knicks — averaged a modest record of 42-40 (not counting the strike-shortened 2011-12 season) with an average finish of seventh place in the conference standings; yes, his teams have made the playoffs 10 times (a modest accomplishment when more than half the league advances), but they also lost in the first round eight times, the second round once and the conference finals once.

The Nuggets traded Anthony to the Knicks 50 games into the 2010-11 season and were immediately better because of it. They had a 29-21 record with him and a 21-11 record without him. The Knicks had a 29-26 record without him, and a 13-14 record with him. It’s been mostly downhill since. The Knicks missed the playoffs the last four seasons and were one of the worst teams in the league.

When the Knicks traded Anthony to the Thunder this year, The New York Times reported, “After scoring more than 10,000 points for five coaches over seven seasons without all that much to show for it, Carmelo Anthony is finally leaving New York.”

To understand the reason for this requires a deeper look into the statistics, which is what David Berri does for a living. He’s an economics professor at Southern Utah University who has written two books on the subject — “Wages of Wins” and “Stumbling on Wins” — and writes a regular column for Forbes. Berri does in real life what the Jonah Hill character did in the “Money Ball” movie.

According to Berri, to evaluate a player properly you first have to understand what he considers to be the three things that determine wins: 1) taking the ball from your opponents so they can’t score (via turnovers and defensive rebounds);2) keeping the ball away from your opponents (offensive rebounds, don’t commit turnovers); and 3) scoring efficiency (not total points, but shooting percentage).

For the latter, there’s a metric called effective field goal percentage, which adjusts for the fact that 3-point field goals are worth 50 percent more than 2-point field goals (a straight field goal percentage isn’t fair to players who shoot a lot of 3-point shots).

So how does Anthony stack up?

“He has an effective field goal percentage of 48 percent; the average player shoots 49 percent,” says Berri. “The reason he scores a lot of points is because he takes a lot of shots. He doesn’t do it efficiently. He is able to rebound effectively relative to a small forward, but they’re playing George and Anthony together and one of them has to be a power forward and neither rebounds well for a power forward. As for turnovers and steals, there’s nothing special there, either. What does he do well then? Really nothing.”

He continues, “We know what it takes to win, but this player doesn’t do those things. That’s why his teams do not win much.”

The problem is that the NBA rewards scoring average, not efficiency, with All-Star votes and bigger salaries, which is why Anthony is a 10-time All-Star and the third highest paid player in the NBA this season (at $24.6 million). The players know all this, so they take lots of shots. Anthony has averaged nearly 20 shots per game during his long career. Tellingly, when the Thunder recently won three consecutive games (not counting Thursday night’s result), he took “only” 36 shots and scored only 32 points and then said he was willing to “sacrifice” points to win.

“How is that a sacrifice?” says Berri. “The goal is to win. It’s a sacrifice because he won’t score as many points.”

Not everyone is misled by Anthony’s hefty scoring average. In September, ESPN ranked Anthony as only the 64th best player in the league.

Who knows, the Thunder might regroup and become the team everyone expected, especially if Anthony continues to take fewer shots. The Thunder have bet big on it.