New York Knicks guard J.R. Smith (8), who scored 18 points, congratulates forward Carmelo Anthony (7) after Anthony hit a three-point shot in the second half of an NBA basketball game at Madison Square Garden in New York, Sunday, Jan. 27, 2013.  Anthony scored 42 points, including nine three-point shots as the Knicks defeated the Hawks 106-104. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Kathy Willens/Associated Press

The NBA summer is just about wrapped up, and two all-time gunners, Carmelo Anthony and JR Smith, remain unsigned.

If a decision between the two was based on career accomplishments and effectiveness, Melo would run away with it. But that’s obviously not how free-agency decisions are made.

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Instead, if some team was looking at taking a flier on either Anthony or Smith, recent performance and roles would likely dictate the determination.

The following numbers are influenced fairly heavily by 2016-17, but if we just limit the sample to the last two years, it’s pretty small. Here’s both over the last three seasons:

  • Smith: 11.0 points, 3.7 rebounds, 2.5 threes, 2.3 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.3 blocks per 75 possessions, 51.0 true shooting percentage, minus-1.8 box plus/minus, minus-0.4 net rating (minus-4.1 swing)
  • Anthony: 21.4 points, 6.6 rebounds, 2.4 threes, 2.2 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.6 blocks per 75 possessions, 52.1 true shooting percentage, minus-2.4 box plus/minus, minus-0.5 net rating (plus-0.3 swing)

Use of per-75-possession stats levels the playing field in a way. Think of it as per-36-minute numbers (which accounts for differences in playing time) with an added component that accounts for differences in pace.

Even with the adjustment, Melo’s basic numbers win in a landslide.

He’s barely outdone in net rating (net points per 100 possessions when a given player is on the floor) and has a huge lead in net-rating swing (the difference in a team’s net rating when a given player is on or off the floor).

From the comparison above, Smith’s only real advantage is box plus/minus, defined by Basketball Reference as, “…a box-score estimate of the points per 100 possessions that a player contributed above a league-average player, translated to an average team.”

Of course, these numbers alone probably aren’t enough to decide between one free agent or the other. Different teams may be interested in different things from Anthony or Smith. At this point in their careers, both are likely role players off the bench, so anticipating who might better handle that is also important.

Instead of just resting on the comparison above, we’ll break down both players in various categories: scoring, shooting, playmaking, defense and impact.

In the spirit of this particular comparison, let’s fire away…

       

Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

Listen, I know we said we wouldn’t be looking at careers, but if the numbers above didn’t make it clear enough, Melo spent well over a decade dominating as a scorer. While he may have lost a step or two athletically over the last few years, his skill set hasn’t abandoned him (presumably).

Melo’s footwork in the post and mid-range helped him accumulate 25,551 points over his career (22nd all time). You’d hope he can still leverage that into effectiveness against second-unit defenders.

However, there’s a potential double-edged sword with Anthony’s scoring.

As his efficiency has tailed off, his usage percentage has remained relatively high. Over the last three seasons, Anthony has averaged 18.7 shot attempts per 75 possessions, nearly double Smith’s 10.4.

If you subtract the league-average 1.24 points per attempt over the same time frame from Melo’s 1.14 and multiply by Melo’s attempts, you get minus-265.5 points (shout out to Bleacher Report’s Adam Fromal for the formula).

In other words, Anthony has scored 265.5 fewer points on his shots than a player with league-average efficiency would have over the last three seasons. Run the same numbers for the more restrained Smith and you get minus-189.7. Still bad, but perhaps more manageable.

If all a team needs is for someone to just catch and shoot a few threes per game, Smith is probably the answer. He still hit 36.2 percent of his threes over the last three seasons, and he wouldn’t take as many possessions from more efficient options as Melo might.

But if a team is in the market for someone who might actually be able to lead a second unit, Melo is likely more able, even if that’s a risky proposition.

Melo 1, JR 0

       

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

This one won’t be quite as complicated, mostly because the shooting numbers here are pretty tight.

In the sample we’re looking at, Smith takes 7.0 threes per 75 possessions, compared to Melo’s 6.7. Smith’s three-point percentage was 36.2 (0.4 above average), while Melo’s was 35.6 (0.2 below average).

There are significantly bigger gaps in two-point percentage and free-throw percentage, where Melo leads by 4.2 points and 10.1 points, respectively.

While those differences may may lean us toward Anthony, again we get to shot selection. Over the last three seasons, 67.1 percent of Smith’s attempts have come from downtown. For Melo, that number is 35.8 percent.

Even though the basic three-point numbers are close, Smith’s volume suggests he’s more accustomed to the kind of role either of these players is likely to have next season.

If they’re signed, their respective teams are likely to want them as purely catch-and-shoot options. Smith did that effectively for three-and-a-half seasons with LeBron James, but there’s still no verdict on whether Melo can do that at all.

Just in case there’s still a need to differentiate these two as shooters, Smith’s career percentage of 37.3 is comfortably higher than Anthony’s 34.7.

Melo 1, JR 1

        

Michael Wyke/Associated Press

As another category that’s terribly close, playmaking likely isn’t something either of these guys will be asked to do in 2019-20. But any added passing is a plus in today’s game.

Over the last three seasons, Smith has averaged 2.3 assists per 75 possessions, compared to Anthony’s 2.2. If you expand the sample to include each player’s entire career, things don’t get much easier.

Instead, we’ll look at playmaking peaks here.

In 2015-16, Anthony’s career-high 4.6 assists per 75 possessions ranked 62nd in the NBA. In 2008-09, Smith’s career-high 3.9 assists per 75 possessions ranked 75th.

Even the peaks aren’t too far apart, but Melo’s edge there (which was also more recent) gives him this category.

Melo 2, JR 1

         

Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

In an explanation of box plus/minus, Basketball Reference’s Daniel Myers concedes that a box score-based metric has some inherent difficulties in capturing a player’s defensive ability (due to the lack of numbers related to positioning, communication, etc.).

Box plus/minus is good at measuring offense and [is] solid overall, but the defensive numbers in particular should not be considered definitive,” Myers wrote. “Look at the defensive values as a guide, but don’t hesitate to discount them when a player is well-known as a good or bad defender.”

But what if both players don’t have a great reputation on that end? That’s the case here, so there may still be some value if one is willing to acknowledge defensive box plus/minus’ potential pitfalls.

With that in mind, Smith’s defensive box plus/minus over the last three seasons is minus-1.0. Anthony’s is minus-2.1. If that’s not enough, you needn’t look much further than Anthony’s most recent postseason series for evidence of his defensive shortcomings.

In 2018, the Utah Jazz upset the Oklahoma City Thunder in large part because of Anthony’s defense.

The Jazz literally scrapped their offense whenever Melo was on the floor in favor of targeting him with picks and letting [Donovan] Mitchell or whoever cook him,” Forbes’ Ben Dowsett tweeted. “OKC’s Drtg was a 109.3 with him on-court, 96.9 when he sat.”

In a very limited sample, Anthony adversely affected the Houston Rockets defense in 2018-19 as well. According to PBPStats.com, Houston gave up 115.2 points per 100 possessions when Anthony was on the floor, opposed to 111.1 when he was off.

Smith, meanwhile, has had an almost indistinguishable defensive rating over the last three seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers. With him on the floor, Cleveland has surrendered 113.8 points per 100 possessions, opposed to 113.7 with him off.

Melo 2, JR 2

        

Butch Dill/Associated Press

While box plus/minus over the last three years favors Smith, most of the other available numbers point to Anthony:

  • Smith: minus-1.8 box plus/minus, .027 win shares per 48 minutes, minus-0.4 net rating (minus-4.1 swing), 7.0 game score per 36 minutes
  • Anthony: minus-2.1 box plus/minus, .078 win shares per 48 minutes, minus-0.5 net rating (plus-0.3 swing), 12.8 game score per 36 minutes

Numbers like game score and win shares tend to favor volume a bit more than box plus/minus, so this again could come down to what a team is looking for.

Without many hints on which teams might be after either of these players, we’ll just have to make this a context-less either/or. In that scenario, the numbers go with Melo.

Melo 3, JR 2

      

There has been a near-chorus of NBA players and former NBA players calling for teams to sign Melo this summer. Kyle Kuzma and Chris Bosh have chimed in. Dwyane Wade has too, most recently in an interview with Arash Markazi of the Los Angeles Times:

“He’s a brother of mine and a great friend, and I’m just very disappointed that he’s not in the NBA, because he doesn’t deserve that as a person. Melo is one of the best individual people I know, and a lot of people don’t know that because [of] things that have been said about him in the past.

“Hopefully he gets an opportunity to be with a team this season, because he has a lot to still offer the right team in the right role and the right situation. I want him to be able to end his career the way he wants to end it. He deserves that as someone who has carried the torch for this game and done so much for the league and Team USA in the Olympics. He deserves better than this.”

The most important part of that quote is “right team in the right role and the right situation.” Melo is not what he once was, and even the peak version may not have been quite as helpful to a winning team as his reputation suggests.

But if Anthony is willing to be a seventh or eighth man who buys in on defense and doesn’t take too many possessions away from more efficient players, he can still be helpful.

There are certainly situations where Smith makes more sense, but a head-to-head comparison favors Melo.


The Sports Illustrated Top 100 Players of the NBA is out, and list curator Rob Mahoney joins The Full 48 with Howard Beck to discuss the brand new #1, Giannis Antetokounmpo, why it’s not LeBron, how Kevin Durant factored into this season’s list, the Kyrie Irving effect, James Harden vs Steph Curry, and why the Charlotte Hornets have no players in the Top 100.

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