Post 30 years old so can be a brutal period for NBA stars that entered the league as teenagers. Carmelo Anthony’s banana boat brother LeBron James exempted himself from any sign of decline with an MVP-caliber season in 2018. You couldn’t say the same for Anthony, the Syracuse Orange hero some 15 years ago.
While he held steadfast to the notion he’s still operating at his peak form of 2012-13 while scoring 28.7 points per game with the Knicks, his body and shot results screamed in refutation of the notion as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder last year. He logged his worst season as a pro, scoring 16.2 points per game on 40-percent shooting. Entrenched in an isolation mindset while the league veers toward pace and space, the lack of defense and emphasis on isolation that once worked are now relics.
So what’s next a year after sluggishly lagging behind the sort of play embraced by teammates Russell Westbrook and Paul George in OKC?
Will he now join Chris Paul and James Harden on a Houston Rockets team that charged within one game of an NBA Finals berth last year? Could he alleviate (or enlarge) the potential headache LeBron James is entering given the roster the Lakers have constructed around him? What about the Miami Heat, albeit a half-decade later than would’ve once been thought?
Or perhaps there’s a surprise destination in front of Anthony once the Thunder offload him as has been reported and should occur any day now.
The most affronting takeaway from a tape session on Anthony’s 2018 season wasn’t his teammates stepping into quicksand as he ticked away the shot clock attempting to finesse his way into the post absent of smoothness. Nor was it when he sprinted out of camera’s view on the defensive end after running late to contest a shot, then got passed by as the offense reset without him making it back still. Those are all expected at this end of his career.
What shocked the audience of Oklahoma City’s melodramatic big three is that Anthony couldn’t channel Olympic Melo. The Rockets would be betting on that version of him playing in tandem with top-tier distributors Harden and Paul.
Flanked by eventual OKC teammate George at Rio in 2016 — plus a collection of others who got in trouble for hitting a brothel there — Anthony both averted the scandal and ranked second on the team in points. While the international competition is infamously inferior to the USA’s NBA all-star team, Melo proved capable of playing off the creative abilities of other stars. With pressure on the ball handlers, they could rely on his sensational ability to spot up and nail shots outside off the catch.
Anthony played with pace and enthusiasm while knocking down 40 percent of his threes in Olympic play. But Australia wasn’t the Jazz, and returning to NBA play he was flat two seasons later taking a tertiary role with the Thunder.
In spot-up scenarios many of his shots clipped the edge of the rim or even missed it entirely. With 2-6 feet of space from three (open) he hit only 30.9 percent of shots, attempting 2.5 per game. Off the catch he shot 41.3 percent from the field.
Four players handled the ball for at least 1.8 minutes per game (Anthony’s average) on the Thunder, compared to three (Harden, Paul and Eric Gordon) on the Rockets with everyone else averaging under 1.3. If Melo is to land in Houston, there’ll be even more onus on the catch-and-shoot, which he performed 50 percent of the time in OKC. Compare that to Trevor Ariza, who took zero dribbles on over 60 percent of his shots with the Rockets last season.
Mike D’Antoni had to adapt to Anthony’s natural style in New York. It almost certainly won’t happen in Houston, where only Harden and Paul averaged over Anthony’s 3.1 isolations per game in 17-18. He probably won’t receive any more than Gordon’s 1.7.
Despite the concerns Houston does need minutes on the wing vacated by departing forwards Luc Mbah A Moute and Ariza. Their defensive ratings, despite their prowess in that department, only clocked in at 107 and 106 respectively. Anthony will need to work to bridge the gap from his 109 in 2018, but it isn’t as massive as conventional wisdom would hold. With capable defenders in Nené, P.J. Tucker and likely Clint Capela flanking him there’ll be help for him as there was on OKC’s sturdy defensive unit.
The big shoe he’ll need to fill is Ariza’s 39.5 percent three-point stroke off the catch, which clocked in at 35 percent when he’s open. Fortunately for Anthony, Houston created 0.7 more wide open threes per game for Ariza than OKC did for him. As a whole, Ariza took 5.7 open three-pointers compared to Anthony’s 5. The shots will be there, it’s on him to adapt and hit.
A potential trade with the Thunder that would ship Ryan Anderson (set to make a hair over $20-million the next two seasons) for Anthony’s expiring money makes sense for the Rockets. But OKC relieves themselves of $100 million immediately in salary and luxury tax through waiving or stretching Anthony. They’ll probably pass on another hefty contract even if Anderson could assist their floor stretching and rebounding, and the deal would avert dead money owed to Melo from hanging on the books for years.
Los Angeles Lakers
Anthony would immediately slide into a leadership role in Los Angeles alongside longtime friend LeBron. He could mentor rising stars Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma on the wing, but contention for the Lakers figures to happen in 2019-20 as opposed to this year.
We’ve seen Anthony comfortably live in a big market while losing before, and that was snowy New York where he was starring and getting all the shots. LA provides him little defensive structure, chance to win, or starting opportunity.
Though money will figure minimally into his decision given the Thunder salary he’ll receive through some means, LA can’t offer more than the veteran minimum now after signing Javale McGee, Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to lucrative one year deals.
The Melo-LeBron connection makes sense, but little more does beyond that in this scenario.
We’re pretty much pairing Anthony alongside every banana boat cohort of his aren’t we?
Dwyane Wade’s yet to inform the Heat whether or not the 2017-18 season was the last of his career. A midseason trade from the Cavaliers landed him back on the team that drafted him two picks after Anthony in 2003.
It took Wade the Cleveland leg of the season to play into shape and even after the trade he only shot 40.9 percent in 21 games, battling a similar decline to Anthony’s after years of heavy minutes, deep playoff runs and knee injuries.
In the absence of the most important player in Miami’s franchise history, the storyline of Syracuse NBA success of old and new with Dion Waiters and Anthony teaming up would be compelling on our end. Waiters rejuvenated Miami’s offense — which has struggled to match their defensive aptitude since LeBron’s departure — with nearly 16 PPG in his first season there. Ankle injuries limited him to 46 and 30 games respectively over two years with the team however.
Miami’s in a bit of an identity crisis. They’re one of the various teams completely capped on on middling talent. The likes of Hassan Whiteside, Tyler Johnson, Kelly Olynyk and James Johnson on significant contracts render them a perennial playoff team with little ambition upon their arrival there. Their struggles developing Justice Winslow, lack of cap space and average age of 26 promote little hope for growth.
It’s a fantastic city to ride out in if Anthony and Wade wish to do so together. But like LA the most they can offer is the veteran minimum and sporadic playing time. A concern here is that Eric Spoelstra isn’t afraid to cast aside prominent figures to the bench if they aren’t promoting winning. Whiteside sat for numerous stretch runs in games despite his $25-million salary. The same could easily happen to Melo.
The 76ers remain in desperate need of consistent shooting and wing play despite the capable contribution of Robert Covington. They drafted Villanova’s Mikal Bridges, seemingly an answer for their perimeter woes, but quickly traded him for a project in Texas A&M’s Zhaire Smith.
For a team that struck out on the James, George and Kawhi Leonard sweepstakes, is alarmingly reliant on the progression of Markelle Fultz following a season where he barely played and watched their “rookie” of the year Ben Simmons attempt zero three-pointers, Anthony’s gun-slinging could find a welcome home in Philadelphia.
The Chicago Bulls remain an outside-the-box landing spot. They’re in no position to win immediately but have comprised an intriguing young core of Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine, Jabari Parker, Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. In a wide-open Eastern Conference he’d have a chance to play and establish winning from the ground up.
Anthony’s desire to start leaves every other destination in question. Though a return to the Denver Nuggets, where he started his career, might be the most fun long shot to consider.
For the first time since his trade to the Knicks that team has appeared to figure it out. They’ve committed long term to play-making star Nikola Jokic, return Paul Millsap from injury and feature thrilling scoring on the wing from the likes of Gary Harris, Will Barton and Jamal Murray.
Anthony’s watched his contemporaries end where they’ve started and the opportunity is open in Denver despite a likely commitment to a bench role there.
The Nuggets feature the right mix of a play-making system that produces upwards of 130 points some nights, little affinity for defense and considerable winning upside. He can also hop into the mentor seat for Michael Porter Jr., who is likely to miss most or all of the 2018-19 season.