Last year, the New York Knicks shocked the NBA by starting Carmelo Anthony at power forward for the entire season. He had previously spent the bulk of his playing time at small forward and had even professed a distaste for playing power forward, but a lack of frontcourt depth left the Knicks with limited options on opening day. Mike Woodson started Melo at the four spot and it was shockingly effective, so much so that it became the basis for the Knicks’ third-ranked offense all season. It was also a (small) factor in the Knicks experiencing a defensive drop-off from the previous season.
This season, the Knicks find themselves faced with an interesting choice. With Amar’e Stoudemire in better health, plus the arrival of Metta World Peace and Andrea Bargnani, the Knicks have considerably more frontcourt depth than they did last season, particularly at the power forward position. Woodson has yet to announce this year’s starting lineup, but it’s clear that New York is at its best with Carmelo at the four.
According to Basketball-Reference.com, the 2012-13 Knicks’ six most effective lineups all featured Anthony as the power forward (the seventh, interestingly enough, had him playing center in a super small-ball lineup). Playing primarily as a nominal “big man,” he shattered his previous career-best PER while putting up the second-best effective field goal percentage of his career.
Playing at power forward also best takes advantage of his offensive versatility while hiding some of his defensive weaknesses. At the four, surrounded by shooters, Carmelo has more room to operate and more opportunities to drive to the basket because opposing big men simply can’t guard him when he’s attacking off the bounce. He’s also a very capable pick-and-roll ballhandler (he was the 3rd-best pick-and-roll scorer in the entire league, per Synergy Sports) and his pick-and-rolls put opponents in an awkward situation where a big man has to play a role typically reserved for a perimeter player.
His effectiveness in attacking opposing power forwards often forces teams to go small, forcing them out of their most effective lineups. This also leaves him free to punish smaller frontcourt players on the block, where he has an arsenal of quick, effective moves.
The main issue with Melo playing power forward is that he’s not an effective help defender on the back line of the defense. He gets caught ball-watching sometimes and can show up late (or not at all) on rotations. That being said, he’s a reasonably strong defensive rebounder (the Knicks managed to be the NBA’s 4th-best defensive rebounding team with Carmelo playing heavy minutes) and guarding big men highlights one of his least-publicized strengths – his low post defense.
Anthony is much stronger than people realize and his surprising effectiveness defending post-ups (16h-best in the entire league) is partly because of his talents and partly because of overeager opponents. He has a strong base that can keep opponents from getting deep position, and he also has very quick hands and a knack for stripping the ball during shot attempts. Seeing Carmelo lined up against them also serves as a sort of temptation for opposing post players. Often, they see the size advantage and feel obligated to take advantage of it by posting him up. Many times these aren’t players that are particularly good on the block, and these attempts take them out of their comfort zone resulting in them taking difficult, contested shots.
Regardless of how the rest of the starting lineup shakes out, the Knicks are best served with Carmelo Anthony playing power forward, the position at which he is most effective.