Wob: Carmelo Anthony Takes on His Biggest Challenge Yet, the NBA’s Evolution
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Carmelo Anthony during warm ups at Madison Square Garden.
- Carmelo Anthony remains unsigned by an NBA franchise after being let go by the Houston Rockets last season.
- Rob Perez gives his thoughts on Melo's past and potential future in the NBA after his interview with ESPN's Stephen A. Smith.
For what feels like an eternity, Carmelo Anthony has been out of the league, speaking publicly primarily through cryptic social media captions only. Every month or so, we see a highlight video of him playing pickup at Chris Brickley’s Black Ops run in New York City, showcasing his NBA-caliber talent.
The videos raise the same recurring question: Why has nobody signed him yet?
On Friday morning, the silence was broken when Melo sat down with Stephen A. Smith on ESPN’s “First Take” for an hour-long 1-on-1 interview — one which Anthony was able to “speak his truths” about everything that went down the over past two years and beyond.
While much of what was discussed occurred off the court, it remained vague in context to protect the privacy of those involved — and thus we can only take everyone at their word unless they start waving legal document receipts in front of the camera.
Adding to this, we all know everything happening behind the scenes affected the on-court product at a mainstream scale, so, statistics can only tell us so much.
Let’s use all of the tools at our disposal to determine the validity of some of the things Melo said during his dialogue.
Anthony on being released by the Rockets. “I can’t make a nine-man rotation, that’s what you’re trying to tell me? … It’s deeper than basketball.”
Facts: The two worst shooting seasons of Carmelo Anthony’s career came during 2017-2018 with the Oklahoma City Thunder and in 2018-2019 Houston Rockets, recording field goal percentages of 40.4% and 40.5% respectively.
These two campaigns were not only his two worst box score +/- averages ever (-3.8/-5.9), but the first time he had ever recorded a negative VORP (Value Of Replacement Player), -1.1, -0.3.
Using the Rockets as the guinea pig here, advanced analytics tell us: No, Melo, you can’t make a nine-man rotation because the team’s bench of James Ennis, Gary Clark, Michael Carter-Williams, Gerald Green, and Isaiah Hartenstein were statistically more “valuable” than you were.
Context: During his exit interview with team general manager Daryl Morey, Anthony prefaced his defense with: “I’ve already started to accept the fact that I have to come off the bench, which was very hard for me.”
Anthony had played in the NBA for 16 seasons as a starter, 10 of them as an all-star. Asking him to change his game, his routine, his attitude, what made him so successful for so long — completely overnight — was simply unreasonable.
This is not NBA 2K where you can just click a couple buttons and move his name out of the main rotation without any repercussions. He’s human, like the rest of us, and reacted to a demotion in a way that was most natural to him — one that required time. Time he didn’t have.
While the obvious counter-argument to this is: “he is paid millions of dollars to make this transition happen seamlessly, him being sad is not an excuse,” you are not wrong, but need to remember that every player is different.
Just because Greg Maddux was able to develop the best change up in baseball after losing his fastball to father time doesn’t mean every other player can do the same — it’s what separates ‘the all-time greats’ from ‘the good’.
In Melo’s case, he was asked to learn a completely different offensive system and embrace the role as a ‘catch-and-shoot’ wing player, deferring to Chris Paul and James Harden as the primary options.
In the 10 games Anthony played for the Rockets, 90.5% of his 3-point field goals were assisted, the highest number of his career since 2005. He did exactly what was requested of him, but that doesn’t mean it was for the best.
Anthony on his tenure with the Oklahoma City Thunder: “I wasn’t even the third option, I was the fourth option, Steven Adams was the third option.”
Facts: Of OKC’s main rotation players, Anthony ranked third on the team in usage (23.2%) while Adams ranked fifth (16.7%). That means Melo, while he was on the floor, was directly involved in the individual play’s result 23.2% of the time.
Let’s round up for argument’s sake and say that was one out of every four. While that number is 10 percentage points lower than Russell Westbrook’s figure, it was consistent with secondary options for every other team in the league. And while it was the lowest of Anthony’s career to that point, there was absolutely no shortage of getting touches.
Context: Adams, the team’s interior anchor, was (and still is) in his prime. He was beginning the second season of a four-year, $100 million extension. The franchise was arguably as committed and invested in Adams’ success as anybody on the team.
For the Thunder to ignore his rapid development would be nothing short of foolish. The usage statistic only tells us so much, because Steven Adams is the complete opposite of a ball-dominant player — his success derives from playing off-ball, blitzing the paint, and wreaking havoc on the glass.
For Melo to say he himself was the fourth option may not be true statistically, but it very well could have been the case in terms of the team’s game plan and business outlook, which ultimately translated to the court.
Anthony on perceived lack of team success: “I’ve never had the teams LeBron James has had … never had the teams D Wade has had … I’ve never had the teams a lot of these stars has had. It’s always been me.”
Facts: LeBron James took a starting squad of Drew Gooden, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Larry Hughes, and Eric Snow to the NBA Finals. He also played with Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Kevin Love, and Kyrie Irving in their primes at separate times.
Carmelo Anthony won 54 games and went to the second round of the playoffs with Raymond Felton, Iman Shumpert, Tyson Chandler, Jason Kidd, and a zombie Amare Stoudemire. He also played with Kenyon Martin, Chauncey Billups, Nene, and J.R. Smith in their primes in addition to Allen Iverson.
Context: As soon as you heard Melo say this, you can’t help but scream “LEBRON WAS KICKING OUT TO JAMARIO MOON” to yourself internally. But similar to only remembering your bad fantasy beats, sports gambling mooses, or poker river suck outs — for every Scot Pollard James played with, he eventually had a Big 3, too.
LeBron took the Tune Squad to the Finals multiple times, god bless him, but don’t discount the help he had as well. Like James, Anthony had his chances with all-star caliber help, granted not on the level of Wade/Bosh or Kyrie/Love, but whether it was with the Nuggets, Westbrook/Paul George, or CP3/Harden — it was there.
Anthony on his future in the NBA: “I know I can still play.”
Facts: Even during these two “tumultuous” seasons leading to his NBA exile, Melo still did what he was put on this planet to do — score — to the tune of 16.2 and 13.4 points per game averaging only ~30 minutes per.
Context: That doesn’t happen by accident. Melo remains a gifted scorer and will undoubtedly be giving dudes buckets at Rucker one day as the real-life Uncle Drew.
In his interview, he spoke to his feelings after being released: “I loved the game, but it didn’t love me back.” That may be true, Avon Barksdale told us ‘the game is the game’ — life being defined by essentiality and institutional consistency rather than innovation — and Melo may have been the most-recent victim of it. But if he wants to resurrect his NBA career, he needs to evolve as the association does before him.
He is not 25 years old anymore and doesn’t possess the physical tools required to succeed as a 40 minutes per game, ball-dominant scorer. To make matters worse, the NBA game has sped up significantly since the mid-2000’s.
Pace is through the roof, assists are up, centers are shooting (and making) threes, nobody is standing still anymore, big men are required to guard their assignments 25 feet away from the rim now.
There is nowhere for Melo to hide.
Nobody is doubting his talent, what they are doubting is his ability to adapt. What we learned on Friday is he’s finally willing to evolve with the NBA in 2019 and make whatever changes his potential team deems necessary, but can he?
That remains a completely different question.