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Carmelo Anthony Doesn’t Have to Go, but He May Have to Get the Hell Out of Houston

The Rockets’ Melo experiment could already be coming to an end

NBA: Houston Rockets at Los Angeles Clippers Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Carmelo Anthony’s time in Houston may be coming to an end before the NBA season reaches the one-month mark. Anthony and the Rockets are reportedly already discussing how they “might be able to proceed” this season. Too convoluted; didn’t read: Melo is most likely not going to be a Rocket for much longer. He’s sat out the past two games due to an undisclosed “illness,” and The New York Times’ Marc Stein reported Sunday that Anthony has been informed that his time with the team “will soon be ending.”

In an impromptu press conference on Sunday before the Rockets faced the Pacers, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey basically gave one prolonged “I can neither confirm nor deny” statement: Morey said he still expected Anthony to play when healthy, and that it was unfair that Anthony was being singled out because the team is “evaluating everything.” As it should be. The Rockets have regressed hard from last season, when they won a league-best 65 games. Their offense has gone from best in the league to 27th, and their defense, which was a top-10 unit last season, is now 19th. Game 7 of the Western Conference finals happened only six months ago.

Even if it does make sense to cut the dead weight and move on from Anthony, Houston’s rough start is not strictly on him. Has Melo been less than useful on offense? Yes, he’s shooting 40 percent from the field and 32 percent from 3. Has Melo continued to be a detriment on defense? Yes, the Rockets’ defensive rating improves by 11 points when he sits. Overall, Houston is nine points per 100 possessions worse when Anthony steps on the floor. But Anthony was only supposed be an add-on to the strong offensive core the Rockets had built when he signed for the veteran’s minimum last summer. In an ideal world, his defensive shortcomings would have been mitigated by the Rockets’ switching, stifling defense. His ability to (allegedly) hit open shots, even if they are in the midrange, was supposed to be valuable to a team that had James Harden, one of the best drive-and-kick players in the NBA. The Rockets gave “iso ball” a positive connotation last season; maybe they could do the same with Melo in that scheme.

But Houston has been a disaster. The Rockets have won four games so far, with only one against a team with a winning record (Indiana). Harden has missed three games, while Chris Paul looks like he’s lost a step. Losing Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute this offseason hurt the Rockets more than expected, and trying to fill their spots by signing Michael Carter-Williams and trading for Brandon Knight and Marquese Chriss was like trying to repair a water leak with a Band-Aid. Signing Anthony for a low price was a harmless risk. That they’re already talking about letting him go only shows how badly Houston needs change, namely on defense. The Rockets have already brought back defensive assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik after he retired following last season, and they chased after Jimmy Butler—hard. They’re clearly doing everything they can to address the issue; keeping Anthony in the rotation would be counterproductive.

The good news is the Rockets can afford to cut bait whenever they see fit. The Thunder were on the hook for the final two years of Melo’s max deal when they traded for him last year and had to give up a protected 2022 first-round draft pick and take on Dennis Schröder’s $15.5 million in each of the next three years to move on from Anthony this year. But the Rockets aren’t committed to him financially long-term. The Thunder had to swallow the burden of Anthony’s contract to try to make a big move in the Western Conference, but Anthony was always going to be a small blip in the arc of the Rockets’ story the past few years.

Anthony himself, however, is in a much more dire situation. When he didn’t work out in Oklahoma City, it was clear that his ability no longer fit his perception and the money he was costing. Maybe, you could’ve argued, he just needed the right situation, the right role, and lower stakes. But now he might not make it on a minimum contract for a team that excelled without him last season. The Rockets’ injuries and defensive issues may have changed the calculus of how he fits into the team. But the fact it takes a team so much effort to fit Melo in, and that Melo still has strong thoughts on how he should be used, has become more trouble than it’s worth.

So what does Anthony want? What does he think he can be at 34 years old after 15 full seasons in the league and over 25,000 career points? Money isn’t the answer—he’s making over $30 million this season ($27.9 million from the buyout with the Hawks and $2.4 million from the Rockets). Rings? Houston was his best shot. A starring role? No team will offer that. If he can’t carve out a role on Houston, where can he do that?

It’s hard to see how Anthony revitalizes his career anywhere now. Whether it’s a choice or an inability, he hasn’t been able to transition into becoming an effective role player like some of his peers have done as they’ve aged. Now it may be too late to even do that. It’s looking more and more like the beginning of the end.