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Pelton mail: Why is Carmelo Anthony ranked so low?

From ESPN - September 17, 2017

This week's mailbag features your questions on the ranking of Carmelo Anthony, bad position groups on playoff teams, and more.

You can tweet your questions using the hashtag #peltonmailbag or email them to peltonmailbag@gmail.com.

#peltonmailbag Do u feel the #64 ranking of #CarmeloAnthony is justified?I ca not see it. U ca not even trade 3 players ahead of him for him.

Steven Curie (@GooniTunes) September 14, 2017

I do. First off, let's be clear that we are not talking the prime Carmelo Anthony that was a deserving All-Star and finished with a better ranking in previous editions of #NBArank.

Let's take a look at the two primary components of scoring -- efficiency and volume -- graphically over Anthony's career with the Knicks (starting in 2011-12, his first full season in New York).

Oddly, Anthony's share of the Knicks' offense has moved downward almost in lockstep with his efficiency (measured here by true shooting percentage plus, or TS+, Anthony's true shooting relative to league average). In 2012-13, when New York won 54 games, Anthony led the league in usage rate while still scoring at above-average efficiency. By last season, despite playing a smaller role in the Knicks' offense, Anthony still scored with the worst relative efficiency of his NBA career.

Here are the players with the most similar seasons to Anthony's 2016-17 in terms of usage and TS+:

It's telling that besides Anthony, Terry Cummings is the only other player on this list to be chosen as an All-Star that season -- and Cummings was chosen as an injury replacement. It's also interesting to note that Cummings was the only player on the list whose team was .500 or better, showing the difficulty of building an effective offense around an inefficient, volume scorer.

Given Anthony has always been an indifferent defender, it's difficult to make a statistical case that he's still a top-50 player at this stage of his career. If you want to make the case that he belongs somewhere in the 51-to-60 range, that's perhaps reasonable, particularly if you believe he can make the transition to better efficiency in a smaller role on another team. But I do not think Anthony's ranking should be cause for outrage if you are evaluating his current ability rather than his legacy.

@kevinpelton Are there more superstars in the NBA today, or do I just feel that way because of recency bias? #peltonmailbag

Todd Wight (@toddwight) September 11, 2017

The trick here is defining what constitutes a "superstar." Unlike Penny Hardaway, I am not going to incorporate off-court popularity as part of the definition. And because they are constant from year to year, we ca not utilize subjective factors like All-Star appearances and All-NBA selections. So I am going to look at players who met various thresholds of production as measured by my wins above replacement player (WARP) metric over time.

Here's a look at three thresholds: the number of players with at least 10 WARP, at least 15 WARP and at least 20 WARP per season dating to 1977-78.

I feel a little like Goldilocks looking at that chart. The first cutoff, 10 WARP, is too low. A couple of dozen players qualify on average; these players are stars (and typically All-Stars) but not necessarily superstars. The last cutoff, 20 WARP, is too high to be useful here; only a couple of players qualify most seasons.

(The outlier was 1989-90, when an incredible seven players surpassed 20 WARP, more than the past three seasons combined. It's not a coincidence this came shortly before the 1992 USA Olympic men's basketball team was nicknamed "The Dream Team.")

That leaves 15 WARP as just right to capture superstars, as I see it. And indeed, the number of such players was up last season: 12, tied for third most behind 2001-02 (13) and 2005-06 (an improbable 16). That reversed a recent trend of decline among players with 15-plus WARP, which can be attributed largely to stars playing fewer minutes and tending to get injured more frequently.

"When the NBA addresses tanking, do not you think they need to expand the discussion beyond draft lottery reform to also include trade reform? Allowing trades involving conditional draft picks and protected draft picks can provide the same incentive to tank as the draft lottery provides. For example, this past year, if the Los Angeles Lakers' first-round pick had landed outside the top 3, they would have lost both their 2017 and 2019 first-round picks because of past trades. That gave them a very strong incentive to tank."

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