The question in the headline grows out of a Twitter conversation. Virtually everyone would concede that Lebron James is a better overall player than Carmelo Anthony. But, how do they compare strictly as scorers?
On Anthony's side the primary arguments seem to be his explosiveness, clutchness and degree of difficulty. On Lebron's side, the arguments tend to be high volume at high efficiency.
First, let's look at some basics. Points per game and points per 36 minutes. (Per game stats are mostly a waste of time, but they're still commonly used so...)
PTS 36 career
PTS 36 2012-13
Immediately, we see remarkable similarities. The two players are the same age, they entered the league the same season, and their scoring rates are close.
Their career similarities when it comes to scoring show up elsewhere in the numbers too. Their true shooting attempts (FGA + .44 x FTA) are about the same -- 22.7 per 36 minutes for Carmelo vs. 21.7 per 36 for Lebron.
This season there's some separation when it comes to usage. Carmelo is shooting more often (24.4 TSA36) and Lebron is shooting less (19.9 TSA36).
The numbers show that Lebron has been able to generate about the same number of points while shooting the ball slightly less frequently. This season, for example, Carmelo is producing an additional 1.9 point per 36 minutes, but he's taking an additional 4.5 TSA36 to do it. But I'll get to efficiency in a moment.
Next, I want to look at the "explosiveness" issue. The way I interpret this claim is that Carmelo is more likely to "go off" and have a huge scoring game whereas Lebron is more likely to consistently produce games closer to his average.
This "explosiveness" contention is not confirmed by the statistical record. Carmelo has three 50-point games; Lebron has 9 in which he's scored 50 or more. In total, Carmelo has 28 games scoring 40+ points; Lebron has 49.
Although I think the concept of clutch is flawed, let's check the claim that Carmelo is a better "clutch" scorer than Lebron. And, unfortunately for Carmelo backers, it's another assertion that doesn't hold up to analysis. Here's a look at what the two have done at the end of close games throughout their careers (last 5 minutes and overtime of games with margin of +/- 5):
I used per game numbers in the table because minutes played within those parameters were not available. I think it's reasonably safe to assume that both guys would play virtually every second in the last five minutes or overtime of a close game.
I haven't talked much about efficiency yet, but we see the effect in the table above. Lebron and Carmelo attempt about the same number of shots in "clutch" situations, but Lebron produces a half point more per game because he takes more threes and because his shots go in more frequently.
There is one "clutch" area where Carmelo performs better than Lebron -- the last 6 seconds of the 4th quarter or overtime while attempting a shot to tie or take the lead. In those situations, Carmelo is 18-39 for his career while Lebron is just 10-55. (As an aside: Lebron may be overly reliant on 3pt attempts in those situations. He's 2-27 from 3pt range on "take the lead or tie" buzzer beaters. Carmelo is 3-9 from 3pt range in those situations.) Dunno about you, but I wouldn't want to stake a claim of Carmelo being the better scorer on something that happens about twice per season.
Finally, let's turn to the issue of efficiency. Efficiency is something Carmelo backers often seek to dismiss -- and for an obvious reason: Carmelo is reasonably efficient, but Lebron is on a different level.
For their careers, Lebron shoots significantly better from 2pt range (.527 to .476) and slightly better from 3pt range (.337 to .333). Lebron also shoots the three more frequently (3.6 per 36 minutes to Carmelo's 2.8). This season, Carmelo's shot selection has changed and he's putting up 6.0 3pt attempts per 36 minutes at a good percentage. He still lags behind Lebron in both 2pt and 3pt shooting percentages this season as Lebron has pushed his efficiency into the stratosphere.
I am somewhat receptive to the claim that the degree of difficulty on Carmelo's shots is higher than Lebron's. That's not an argument in favor of Carmelo being a better scorer, but an indictment of his shot selection. Basketball isn't about the manly art of taking tough shots, it's about making shots. Difficult shots are lower percentage shots, which means the smart play is to work for an easier (meaning higher percentage) shot. The best scorers will often take difficult shots, but as a last resort, not as a first option. What makes Lebron the better scorer is that he uses his athleticism to get shots he's likely to make.
One last point -- the issue of supporting cast. I could go back season by season to gauge the relative scoring abilities of each guys' teammates, but there's a simpler test: the team's offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) with and without the players.
When they're on the floor, the teams for both players have been well-above average in efficiency throughout their careers. This season, the Heat have been insanely efficient with Lebron; the Knicks have been highly efficient with Carmelo. But, Lebron's teams have collapsed offensively when he hasn't been in the game while Carmelo's teams have dipped in efficiency, but largely held their own. This season, for example, the Knicks have been an above average offense even when Carmelo hasn't been in the game. The Heat have gone from historically efficient with Lebron to below average without him.
So, back to the original question: Who's the better scorer, Lebron or Carmelo? The choice is obvious -- Lebron. That's no knock on Carmelo, who's an outstanding scorer and whose efficiency is pretty good for his usage rate. But Lebron's the better scorer.
And, psst: I didn't adjust the stats for pace -- an adjustment that would have been in Lebron's favor because his teams have typically played at a slower pace than Carmelo's have.