Last week, Carmelo Anthony put the speculation to rest. Shams Charania confirmed that Melo will sign with the Houston Rockets, as had been presumed for weeks, after the Atlanta Hawks waived him on July 31. Though it still isn’t official until pen strikes paper, which won’t happen until he returns from opening a refurbished court in South Africa.
Before leaving an organization he never played a game for, Anthony requested a Hawks jersey that will undoubtedly be reproduced overseas for Syracuse students seeking clout at parties. Anthony’s national championship with the Orange in 2003, deep playoff runs with the Denver Nuggets, three gold medals and the (however minuscule) timeframe where he returned the New York Knicks to relevancy guarantees him entry into the Basketball Hall of Fame. Basketball Reference gives him a 98 percent chance.
Nobody is taking those achievements away, even the NCAA. What could possibly be Anthony’s only season in Houston is a formality in that sense. Despite that, a debate recently emerged regarding whether or not he deserves HOF status. Sean Keeley backed up his credentials, but the sheer existence of the debate underscores the damage Anthony’s basketball reputation underwent in New York, before a near-knockout blow in his lone Thunder season. In terms recency bias, Anthony’s legacy is hurting. This is most important season of his career, one where he can leave a lasting impression.
The accomplishment missing on his Wikipedia page looms large: NBA champion. In a sport whose fans are more ring-obsessed than any other (with its pioneers Bill Russell, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson floating in them), that hole in Melo’s resumé hurts his chances of standing alongside fellow ‘03 draftees LeBron James and Dwyane Wade all time. But that’s peak company, since each of them boast cases that they are the GOAT at their positions.
Tiers of greatness do exist for Anthony to fit in though. Jerry West lost a million Finals and he’s the logo. Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing, Allen Iverson, Steve Nash and Reggie Miller never won championships and few diminish their legacies substantially, even if a chip would’ve helped. Nobody questions their HOF credentials at the very least.
Different treatment fell on Charles Barkley during his TNT telecasts, Kevin Durant — before he stuck the largest middle finger ever back at his detractors by joining Golden State — and Anthony. The scrutiny they face likely transcends their lack of winning, and stretches into the manner in which they’ve lost.
While the name “Melo” holds an allure with some, others will think of that time he took a nap on the floor in the middle of a game, or the endless jab steps. If none of that, anybody can point out that he isn’t an imposing defender. He is only a career 1.0 box plus minus because he’s never posted a positive defensive box plus minus in a season (a rating of points per 100 possessions added or subtracted vs. an average player) and his 108 defensive rating negates his 108 offensive rating. His strategy of methodically attacking opponents head on didn’t adapt well into a new era of high-paced offense.
It may be a stretch to imagine Anthony changing after 16 NBA seasons. His tendencies worked to this point for him to reach 19th all time in scoring and an average of 24 points per game alongside Kobe Bryant and Bird. But he had never approached bottoming out the way he did in OKC before. A strange inability to knock down open threes compounded his usual weaknesses and natural aging at 33 years old.
Anthony became the face of the Thunder’s regular season and playoff disappointment while touting three stars. A summer after he was one of the marquee offseason additions, OKC decided his $28-million deal contract was worth eating to rid themselves of him before one of the few teams with significant cap space added his immediate money to dump long-term salary. Anthony — one of the NBA’s greatest money makers — gave back $2 million to the Hawks, and probably should’ve then asked for “$25M” on the back of his jersey.
Now that he’s cashed out and for the first time almost universally doubted entering a season. A data science site even calculated that Houston’s championship odds decreased directly based on adding Anthony.
The Rockets lost Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah A Moute, while the Warriors could be adding a fifth all-star caliber player in Demarcus Cousins if he recovers effectively from an achilles tear. Those factors don’t bode well for Houston alongside LeBron joining their conference, but they did take a 3-2 lead over the seemingly unbreakable Warriors before Chris Paul’s hamstring injury. If that never happened, a team led by two players also ripped for their inability to win titles could have cruised to one over the Cavaliers.
Anthony is entering that environment with a chance reverse the stigma against his own game by turning could have into did. If Melo lifting the Larry O’Brien Trophy becomes the final memory of him on a NBA court he will never be doubted again.
That is easier said than done though. On a team even more predicated on the catch-and-shoot than the Thunder, every three will be excruciatingly important. He’ll figure to get more attempts, and with even more space for both himself and those around him. That’s a plus, but it will bring continued adjustment as his isolation possessions likely disappear into him shooting almost exclusively threes. Ariza attempted 189 twos and 462 threes last year, while the team collectively shot 3,436 twos and 3,470 threes.
They also valued defense, with the sixth best points allowed per 100 possessions (106.1) of any team.
Anthony could hang up his Jordans and let the numbers speak for themselves now, but 2018-19 provides him a chance to supplement his career with a parting taste of greatness. He’s never entered a better situation to win and Houston is now more predicated on his contributions. He saw the difficulties of sacrificing to win last year and now will either learn from it or leave fans with more material to criticize him with if he sinks a team with title aspirations.
In that sense: it’s the most important year of his career.