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Nerd Alert: How Will Carmelo Anthony's Return Impact the Knicks Offense

Jack Moore

Jack Moore is a freelance sports writer based in Minneapolis who appears regularly at VICE Sports, The Guardian and Baseball Prospectus Milwaukee, among others. Follow him on Twitter @jh_moore.

Carmelo Anthony is slated to return to the Knicks this week. The Jeremy Lin machine has survived turnovers. It has survived the return of Amar’e Stoudemire. It has even survived a loss to New Orleans. Now it just has to survive the return of Carmelo Anthony.

As fantasy players, however, we don't particularly care if the Knicks keep winning, we care if our players keep up their big numbers. Will Carmelo be able to maintain his 22 points per game, particularly if he still needs 18 shots to get them? Will Amar'e be forced to take a back seat? Or will Jeremy Lin's magic fade (or simply turn into facilitation) with fewer possessions with the ball in his hands?

The true currency of basketball is the possession. And like every currency, there are only so many possessions to go around. Thanks to coach Mike D'Antoni's quick style, the Knicks are one of the league's most voluminous traders in this currency, ranking third in the league with 93.8 possessions per game. That means more shots to go around, but still, the way the Knicks offense has played under both Anthony and Lin suggests that something will have to give.

Even in a fast-pace offense, possessions are still limited. When we look at usage rates – the rate at which players end possessions, whether it's with a shot attempt, a trip to the free-throw line, or turning the ball over – the trio of Lin, Stoudemire and Anthony is dangerously close to its team's limit. Observe, each player's usage rate by game this season:

The dots represent a single game and the line represents a clearer three-game rolling average. The width of the line represents the player's efficiency that night.

Together, the Knicks would have three players taking nearly 90 percent of the shots if these usage rates were to hold stable. As awesome as that sounds, it's not really plausible – the game devolves into an easily-defended 3-on-5 without the fourth and fifth teammates taking some shots or handling the ball. Only six rotation players (400 minutes or more this season) have a usage rate below 10 percent this season – there's simply no way any group of three players can continue to take so many shots (or handle the ball so often), and that means raw counting stats are going to drop.

Another team with a much-discussed trio of players which takes a plurality of shots – the Miami Heat, of course – has had to deal with this same problem. The Heat's trio of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh combined to use more possessions in the time before their union – 97 percent against the Knicks' 90 . While they've still maintained a very high usage level, with a sum total of 86 percent between the big three.

The Knicks should be expected to see a similar drop. Like Mario Chalmers and Joel Anthony, both Landry Fields and Tyson Chandler are low-usage (although effective) players, with rates of 15 percent and 10 percent respectively. That leaves plenty of shots available for the Knicks' version of the big three, at least while the starting lineup is on the floor.

With the Heat, the primary loser in terms of possessions – and therefore shot attempts and points scored – was Chris Bosh, who dropped from a 29 percent usage rate in Toronto to under 24 percent in Miami. It's almost too simple to ascribe the same role to Stoudemire, who plays the same position with a somewhat similar style and had a similar usage rate prior to the introduction of the other two of their respective big threes added to the equation.

Still, it seems like this is the most likely outcome: Lin and Anthony will become the Knicks' primary ballhandlers and scorers and Amar'e will run pick-and-rolls and receive some dishes from Lin. Isolations likely won't be there for Amar'e as much as they have been in the past, particularly considering his ineffectiveness there this season – he is shooting just 35-for-103 in isos according to Synergy Sports Technology.

The Knicks appear fully committed to putting the ball in Lin's hands on a consistent basis. That didn't change when Stoudemire came back and it shouldn't when Anthony comes back – D'Antoni's system requires a point guard with the ball in his hands to function. Anthony's usage rate has rarely changed regardless of personnel – over the last five seasons, he has sat between 31.2 and 32.9 percent, on any of George Karl's Nuggets teams and on both of D'Antoni's Knicks teams.

Bosh's scoring average dropped from 24.0 points in 2009-10 with the Raptors down to 18.7 with the Heat in 2010-11 and is now holding steady at 18.5 this season. Stoudemire has already seen his points per game total drop from 25.3 to 18.4 this season, but that has been more about poor shooting (44.9 percent) than usage. The return of Anthony could damage his standing as a fantasy player even further.

The questions around Lin and Anthony should revolve less around how the shots will be distributed and more about the rates at which they go in. Lin's 49.1 percent mark seems destined to go down if only because guards don't shoot that well as a rule – only six of the 100 qualifying guards exceed that mark this year – Steve Nash, Mario Chalmers, Shaun Livingston, Dwyane Wade, Rajon Rondo and Kyrie Irving.

Similarly, Anthony seems due to see his 39.9 percent mark rise greatly in part because of Lin's presence. Without a legitimate point guard, Anthony has gone to the isolation heavily and, like Amar'e, is shooting just 34 percent in those situations. He has only been assisted on 28 percent of his made field goals this year, 14 points lower than his previous career low.

Chemistry is the most difficult aspect of basketball to quantify, and this entire analysis could be blown up by a poor match between Anthony and Lin. But in the somewhat likely case that the two can coexist, it seems the union will be mutually beneficial. Anthony needs a point guard, and Lin needs a reliable scoring option to dish to out of his drives to the basket. Unfortunately for Stoudmire owners, his fantasy productivity may be the sacrifice necessary to make the Knicks’ offense work in the end.

Jack Moore can be found on Twitter @jh_moore.