Just about any way you slice it, the 2017-18 campaign was a trying one for Carmelo Anthony.
Although Melo’s sole season with the Oklahoma City Thunder saw him reach the postseason for the first time in five years, he never achieved the same sort of individual success that teammates Russell Westbrook and Paul George did, posting career lows in scoring, usage, true shooting percentage,1 assists and win shares per 48 minutes. His playoff showing was a letdown at both ends of the floor, so much so that he rode the bench for long chunks of time during the last two games of Oklahoma City’s season. And once the Thunder made their first-round exit, Anthony bristled at the idea of accepting a bench role next season, saying, “That’s out of the question.”
“I think the player that they wanted me to be and needed me to be was for the sake of this season,” Anthony told reporters after his exit interview with the club. “As far as being effective as that type of player, I don’t think I can be effective as that type of player.”
Anthony will reportedly sign with the Houston Rockets for the veteran’s minimum once he’s officially been traded to Atlanta (and then released). So with his career at a crossroads, his comments raise the questions: Can he still be effective at this point? If he can, what would that role look like?
Considering the film, his numbers and the potential fit with his new teammates, Houston figures to be Anthony’s last, best hope for a situation in which he can be a productive scorer again.
Much of that hope will be predicated on Anthony’s ability to play off of James Harden and Chris Paul in a more effective way than he did with Westbrook. In that regard, Anthony’s life may get easier this season. While Anthony certainly underperformed last year — and likely could have shown more willingness to accept a secondary spot-up role sooner in OKC — the fit with Westbrook wasn’t always ideal, either. One big reason for that: Westbrook, despite being a triple-double machine, isn’t always the most accurate passer.
Westbrook drives to the basket more than any NBA player, using his blistering speed and leaping ability to get around and over defenders. (When he opts to make jump passes, he uses both skills at the same time.) But that often leaves him off balance as he tries to hit a shooter who’s already spotting up and in position for an open look. And it sometimes results in a pass being thrown at a shooter’s ankles, or up above his head, forcing a teammate like Anthony to take a split second to reposition himself or extend further than he should have to in order to get off a jumper.
On passes from Westbrook, Anthony hit just 34 percent of catch-and-shoot threes, down from the 36 percent that an average player would have been expected to make from those spots (based on defender distance, according to data from Second Spectrum).2 By contrast, Anthony shot 41 percent on catch-and-shoot threes when fed by George, up from the 36 percent an average player would have been expected to make.
“As a scorer, you want the ball in rhythm, where you can catch it and go right up and not have to alter your stance or your shot,” Anthony told reporters in March. “Any small thing — the pass could be off a little bit — [could be] a big difference between making a shot and missing a shot.”
Westbrook commits more bad-pass turnovers (4.1 per 100 passes) than any NBA player, according to Second Spectrum. Then again, Harden (3.5) ranks No. 2 in the same metric, raising the obvious question of whether things would be any better for Anthony with the Rockets. But Harden and Paul — neither of whom is wildly athletic or reliant on speed — throw much different types of passes, and both are known for hitting teammates in the hands when they spot up.
That pinpoint accuracy, paired with the abundance of open shots that Houston players get in the team’s wide-open offense, is the potential upside for Anthony with the Rockets. Still, there’s the issue of whether Anthony is willing to play off of the ball again. While the Rockets isolate even more than Oklahoma City does, Houston’s offense will be at its best when Harden and Paul are running the show, even if Anthony continues to view himself as a top-end scorer. Another potential problem: Anthony and Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni didn’t necessarily see eye-to-eye when they worked together in New York several years ago.
Anthony’s defiant season-ending presser wasn’t very different from the one in which the Thunder introduced him, where he laughed off the suggestion that he could potentially come off the bench to stagger OKC’s scoring threats. And as obvious as it to NBA observers that Anthony isn’t anywhere close to a No. 1 option anymore, it’s not too surprising that he doesn’t see that for himself. He connected on 44 percent of his 2-point jumpers when tightly guarded last season (meaning a defender was standing within 2 feet of him), slightly better than the 42 percent he drilled four seasons ago, per NBA Advanced Stats. Translation: He can still hit tough shots.
But in a way, even one of Anthony’s best attributes is somewhat problematic in nature. While teams will always be in search of players who can knock down an undesirable shot — especially in the playoffs — today’s NBA, with all the spacing it provides, prioritizes the notion of reducing such attempts. (This is particularly true in Houston, which led the NBA in wide-open 3-point tries last season.) So, ideally, a player will bring more to the table than simply making tough jumpers.
And from that standpoint, it’s hard to see how Anthony would give the Rockets an upgrade over what they just lost in free agency, with Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute both departing. Those wings were among the most skilled in the league on defense, and they were key cogs in the club’s ability to switch nearly every pick-and-roll action if it chose to.
Plugging Anthony into the Rockets’ defense figures to mitigate a great deal of that advantage. In fact, Utah — in an effort to punish the Thunder for playing Anthony such heavy minutes — ran pick-and-rolls over and over during the teams’ first-round series, seeking to force Anthony into switches onto ball-handlers. The Jazz found success with that approach, scoring 1.22 points per direct screen when getting Anthony to switch onto a pick-and-roll ball-handler, per Second Spectrum. For context, Kevin Durant — who led the league in efficiency when handling the ball in pick-and-roll situations — averaged 1.15 points per direct screen set for him during the season.3
With all that in mind, the Rockets’ defense — which helped lift the team into true championship contention last year — looks set to take a step back this season with Anthony in the fold. Houston can only hope to make up for it on offense, where it has a chance to unlock some of what made Anthony lethal at times with the Nuggets and the Knicks, in an earlier phase of his career.
But one thing seems almost certain at this point for the Brooklyn-born Melo: If the 34-year-old can’t make it work in Houston, with a pair of passers as otherworldly as Paul and Harden, he probably can’t make it work anywhere.