One year after losing Kevin Durant to Golden State, Thunder general manager Sam Presti has pulled a rabbit out of a hat by acquiring two star scorers, Carmelo Anthony and Paul George, for a collection of misfits and albatross contracts. On Saturday, Carmelo was traded by New York to Oklahoma City for Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott, and the Bulls’ 2018 second-round pick. It’s like we’re living in the Upside Down.
As Kristaps Porzingis becomes the primary option in New York, Melo will become the third option for the first time. Though it’ll be a major adjustment, taking a back seat could be the best thing that’s ever happened for his career. Melo has logged a usage rate over 28 in each of his 14 seasons in the league. Only Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, and Karl Malone did so more times over their full careers, per Basketball-Reference. Anthony is also notorious for creating his own shot more than arguably any other player in the NBA: According to numbers derived from Synergy Sports, Carmelo has finished offensive possessions more than 40 percent of the time using an isolation or a post-up in all but one season of his Knicks tenure. Last season the number “dipped” to 39.8.
Melo’s antique style is an anomaly in a league that preaches sharing the ball. But it’s not like he’s incapable of playing other styles. It’s basically nature versus nurture. Melo has Kobe DNA; he’s inclined to stop the ball, dribble, dribble, dribble, and then shoot. But he’s also an effective complementary player. He’s proved as much at different stages of his career—when he’s nurtured by the team.
“If I had a chance to be the second option, I will definitely be the second option,” Anthony said in 2015. “That just takes the load off of me. For me, I don’t have to go out there and do it every night. So I think everybody, All-Star players, we want that light, we want to be the focal point of our team, of our organization. But if we get somebody to come in and help us out, that’s a load off of us. That’s helpful to me, that’s helpful to the other star that’s coming in, that’s helpful to the whole team.” Anthony hasn’t had many chances in his career to back up those words. But when he has had them, he’s excelled. The best basketball of Carmelo’s career has come as a secondary option for USA Basketball or when he’s shared the floor with a quality NBA point guard. The game gets easy when someone else can create offense. Instead of being forced to make plays against a set defense, Melo can unleash off the catch, slash, or cut off-ball.
Melo was teammates with Allen Iverson and Chauncey Billups for a few seasons when both of the latter were in the later stages of their careers. He witnessed Linsanity up close. Andre Miller was once his quarterback, too. But for the most part, Melo has dealt with the Chucky Atkins and Jose Calderon guards of the world. He has never played with a point guard in the prime of his career like Russell Westbrook, or with a forward of George’s caliber. Playing with Westbrook could end up being a flashback to his time with Iverson.
Westbrook is still likely going to be a ball-dominant dynamo, drawing the attention of the defense and leaving his teammates open from downtown. The difference is that now Melo will be spacing the floor. Over the past four seasons, Anthony shot 40.4 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s, per NBA.com, which makes him a more dynamic floor spacer than anyone Westbrook had last season. None of his Westbrook’s teammates could make plays off the bounce like Melo and George can. Anthony is excellent shooting or attacking a rotating defense. More space for Westbrook should lead to an uptick in his efficiency, which should only aid the Thunder’s anemic half-court scoring offense from last season (25th in the NBA, per Synergy).
Thunder coach Billy Donovan isn’t going to just have Melo standing in the corner, though. Westbrook frequently runs the pick-and-roll, but the team lacked a reliable threat who could pop for 3s. In the past Anthony was reluctant to play power forward, but the hope is that Donovan can convince him that it’s for the best. But whether Anthony is at small forward or power forward, the Thunder must be having wild fantasies imagining Anthony on the pick-and-pop in place of McDermott or Domantas Sabonis in the following plays:
Anthony hasn’t been used in the pick-and-roll much over the course of his career, either. But now, with Anthony, George, and Westbrook, Oklahoma City should consistently attempt to seek-and-destroy the most preferable matchup on defense, much like what Golden State does with its stars. There will be an adjustment for everyone involved. Westbrook will need to share the ball. George will have to ease into the second-star role. Anthony will have to adapt. The trio have teammates build for success. They’re complemented by effective defenders in Andre Roberson and Jerami Grant, two-way bigs in Steven Adams and Patrick Patterson, and two young shooters in Alex Abrines and Terrance Ferguson.
If the Thunder can unlock and highlight Anthony’s complementary traits, which have been minimized for the large majority of his career, they put themselves in a position where his trademark isolation scoring could be the key to a playoff upset of the century.