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In defense of Carmelo Anthony's "defense"...

As seen in last night's blowout win over the colluding-with-the-Lakers Memphis Grizzlies, when Nuggets small forward Carmelo Anthony puts up a decent all-around game, the Nuggets are hard to beat (of course, North Carolina could beat the Grizzlies right now, but that's another story). In last night's game, Melo had 23 points on 8-15 shooting, got to the line eight times, pulled down nine rebounds, dished out five assists and threw in three steals for good measure. He also had five personal fouls, which represented his overall aggressive play, especially in the third quarter when the Nuggets turned the tide of the game.

Other than Coach Karl's "coaching," the brunt of the blame for the Nuggets inconsistencies this season - coming both from the comments here and the comments seen on the local newspapers websites - are levied at Anthony, particularly in regard to his "defense." At least from the emails I'm getting, most of the criticism of Melo comes from Karl supporters; as if we didn't have Melo but kept the coach, the Nuggets would be better off.

First off, let's not forget what Melo essentially is - he's an incredibly gifted scorer. He's a throwback to the classic small forwards of the 1980s like Dominique Wilkins (my all-time favorite non-Nugget), Adrian Dantley, Nuggets legend Alex English, Bernard King, Terry Cummings, former Nugget Kiki Vandeweghe, Mark Aguirre and even Julius Erving, who did his best work in the early part of the 1970s, but gave us some great seasons when he came to the NBA with the 76ers in the late 70s and early 80s.

With the exception of Cummings (and Erving in his ABA days only), none of those guys ever averaged more than 10 rebounds in a season, and even Cummings only did it once. So as far as career rebounding average goes, Melo is line with this group with his six boards per game. Only Wilkins (6.7), Erving (6.7) and Cummings (7.3) averaged more rebounds per game for their NBA careers than Melo has averaged in his thus far.

Regarding defensive ability, none of those players - many of whom are Hall of Famers or should be - were good defenders (again, except for Cummings who morphed into one later to prolong his career). They basically played defense by putting up more points per game than their opposing small forward, who eventually tired out trying to guard these guys. This doesn't excuse a lack of commitment on the defensive end, but with the exception of all-time great players like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, most guys who give you 25+ points per game are porous defenders, simply because their energy is exhausted on the offensive end. And where would you rather have their energy allocated? I know I'd take an offensively proficient player like English over a defensively proficient but offensively deficient player like Bruce Bowen any day of the week.

Obviously, English and Bowen are on the opposite ends of the small forward scorer vs. defender spectrum. Hybrid scorer/defender small forwards like Scottie Pippen and Ron Artest (when he's not cutting rap albums that immediately flop) can arguably be more valuable than any of the score-first small forward legends mentioned above, but they're a rare find and can't carry a team by themselves because they don't put up enough points. How do you think Pippen would've done in Wilkins' place against the Celtics in the 1988 Eastern Conference Semifinals? Or how Artest would've done in King's place against the Pistons in the 1984 Eastern Conference Playoffs First Round? Pippen carried a team on his own to the playoffs just once, in 1993-94, but I'd argue that was when the NBA was at its most recent low-point talent-wise, particularly in the Eastern Conference.

My biggest concern regarding Anthony isn't his defense. After all, he's consistently gotten the Nuggets into the playoffs since arriving in Denver, so he must be doing something right. My primary concern is that historically speaking, high-scoring small forwards like Anthony - Wilkins, Dantley, Erving, English, etc - have been unable to carry teams beyond just a few playoff series wins to an NBA Championship, unless they get major help at either center or point guard. For example, Erving needed Moses Malone, Aguirre needed Isiah Thomas and James Worthy (while not on par scoring-wise with the names mentioned above, but certainly a phenomenal small forward) needed Magic Johnson to get a championship. You'd think the Nuggets would have this solved by surrounding Anthony with Allen Iverson and Marcus Camby and a deep bench know who I'll blame for that.

The one glaring and obvious exception to the high-scoring small-forward-can't-carry-a-team-to-a-championship is of course Larry Bird, who put up similar numbers to the names above in addition to power forward-like rebound numbers, and point guard-like assist figures. But I think we can all agree that comparing Anthony to Bird is completely unfair. We've seen several Carmelo Anthony-type players in the NBA and we'll see more, but we'll never see another Larry Bird.

So while it is inarguable that Melo is not a premier defender, I contend he doesn't need to be. He just needs to be an average defender, and I think he is. Moreover, let's give Anthony credit for producing terrific offensive numbers with remarkable consistency as we've seen this entire season: 25+ points, 7-9 free throw attempts, shoot over 47ish% from the field, grab between 6-8 rebounds and dish out at least three assists per game. And even though I don't have the data handy (readers? anyone?) I'd like to know how many times Melo's opposition at the small forward spot has put up those numbers against him this season!

Therefore, like the "Nuggets don't have a true point guard" excuse (that I debunked a few weeks ago), you can't blame Carmelo Anthony's "defense" if the Nuggets don't win a playoff series this year. I'll take the Anthony I know - a marginal defender and outstanding offensive threat who exhausts his opponents by getting to the free throw line - and argue that the Nuggets need to shore up other areas when...errrrr...if this team falls short of the championship.