Carmelo Anthony may have played his last game as a member of the Houston Rockets. Or maybe not. Who knows? Either way, the Carmelo Experiment in Houston hasn’t gone according to plan over the first month of the season. Coming off a charmed 65-win campaign in 2017-18, this year’s Rockets are below .500 — and while Houston’s problems run deeper than Anthony, he has done little to suggest they’re merely coincidental with his presence on the team.
Going into the season, my colleague Chris Herring wrote that Anthony’s success or failure in Houston would largely depend on his ability to curtail his usual scoring tendencies and play effectively off the ball — finding opportunities for open shots (presumably off passes from Chris Paul and James Harden) and knocking them down. In addition, Anthony would need to prove he wasn’t a total liability on defense, considering Houston lost lockdown forwards Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute over the summer.
Unfortunately, Anthony hasn’t really done much in any facet of that role so far. He has dialed back the share of team offense he’s using — down to a career-low 20.5 percent usage rate — which would normally be a positive sign of accepting a diminished function in the offense. But he’s also stopping the ball too often — he has assisted just 2.9 percent of teammate buckets while on the floor — and his shooting hasn’t been up to par. Anthony is hitting catch-and-shoot jumpers at an effective field goal percentage of just 51.8 percent, which according to Second Spectrum ranks 32nd out of 48 shooters with at least 50 attempts. More concerning, Anthony also ranks 224th out of 266 qualified shooters in overall quantified shot quality, Second Spectrum’s metric for judging the expected value of a shot (based on distance, defender proximity, etc.). Anthony has always excelled at making tough shots, but in order to fit into Houston’s obsessively efficiency-maximizing scheme, he needed to prove he could generate easy ones, too.
Moreover, Anthony has been a prime culprit in Houston’s drop from sixth in defensive efficiency last season to 20th this year. According to Basketball-Reference.com, the Rockets are allowing an eye-popping 119.2 points per 100 possessions with Anthony on the court, 10.1 more than they do with him off the floor. That 109.1 mark without Anthony would rank 14th in the league anyway, so it’s more than just Anthony that’s causing the Rockets to slip from their defensive form of last season. His arrival certainly hasn’t helped the cause, though.
Anthony’s friend (and fellow Banana Boater) Dwyane Wade tweeted Sunday that fans and journalists were trying to make Anthony “the fall guy” for Houston’s slow start, and he has a point. Looking beyond Anthony, Houston has three rotation players — Eric Gordon, Gerald Green and Michael Carter-Williams — with true shooting percentages below 50 percent. Harden hasn’t quite recaptured his MVP form from last year, and Paul appears to be slowing down at age 33. The Rockets look sluggish (they rank 28th in pace) and are making only 32.7 percent of their many three-point attempts, which ranks a shocking 25th in the league.1
But Anthony is also hitting new statistical lows in what has been an otherwise Hall of Fame career. At age 33 with Oklahoma City last season, he’d never been worse according to Player Efficiency Rating (12.7), Win Shares per 48 minutes (.071) or Box Plus/Minus (-3.8). Although there was hope he’d just slumped in a bad situation on OKC, Anthony is blowing away those old career-worst marks this season: He currently has a PER of 11.5 with .043 WS/48 and a BPM of -5.1.
It’s not unheard of to see a player dip so drastically in production as he ages into his 30s, but it is shocking to see it happen to a player who has been as good as Anthony has been and also hasn’t suffered a major injury. According to Basketball-Reference’s data, Anthony’s 7.7-point decline in BPM from 2015-16 to 2018-19 is tracking to be the largest since the ABA merger for any player who logged at least 50 percent of team minutes over each season in a four-year span.
Few players have ever declined so much as Melo, so quickly
Biggest decline in Box Plus/Minus (BPM) for qualified NBA players over a four-season span, 1976-2019
|BPM by Year in Span …|
|Player||Ages||Year 1||Year 2||Year 3||Year 4||4-year Change|
A player had to be very good in order to even suffer so large a decline in the first place, and Anthony certainly fit that bill … once upon a time. Many of the names on that list managed to bounce back and be quality contributors going forward, though few were as old (and none as bad) as Anthony has been recently. So in that sense, the collapse of Anthony’s game has been historic — we’ve never really seen a star’s numbers fall off quite so much in such a short time.
If the Rockets do end up cutting ties with Anthony, he may still draw interest from certain NBA teams. (At the very least, the Melo-to-the-Lakers rumor mill is already starting to rumble back to life.) And, however small, there is some evidence Anthony could be more effective in a different system than that of the Rockets, where his game never meshed with Mike D’Antoni’s overarching philosophy at either end of the court. But whether due to fit or declining skills, it has been a nothing less than stunning fall for Anthony these past few seasons.