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Carmelo Anthony’s Failed OKC Experiment

Melo’s disappointing season with the Thunder not only revealed a player nearing the end of his career—it offered a tantalizing glimpse of what could have been

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Carmelo Anthony was bad in the playoff series that ended his first season on the Thunder. Given the narrative that’s surrounded Carmelo for most of the past 15 years, we need to be more specific.

For the majority of Anthony’s career, he was an unmistakable star who was sometimes labeled as “bad” because his teams weren’t good enough to beat a myriad of better-organized teams, often led by superstars of their own. Anthony hasn’t won much in the playoffs, with just three series victories in 15 seasons, and has become so synonymous with falling short each spring that his futility is memorialized in what I believe is the only sports reference Frank Ocean has ever made. (Said she need a ring like Carmelo … Must be on that white like Othello …) But Carmelo is also directly responsible for the only periods of modest success two NBA franchises have sustained this millennium. The Nuggets hadn’t made the playoffs for eight years prior to Anthony’s arrival in 2003; with Carmelo on the roster, they immediately began a seven-year playoff streak. The Knicks have been profoundly awful for almost every season since the Patrick Ewing era; the first three seasons after they traded for Anthony are their only three above-.500 campaigns since 2001. Anthony generally has been “bad” in the same way your favorite sandwich is “bad” compared to the greatest meal you’ve ever eaten. Fundamentally, that sandwich doesn’t have the ingredients or depth to compete with the cuisine you’re imagining, but we don’t have to defame quality sandwiches.

In Oklahoma City’s first-round loss to the Jazz, Anthony was “bad” in the same way that an unexplained wad of human hair in a fast-food meal is bad. When Anthony was off the court, the Thunder stood a chance—in fact, OKC outscored the Jazz by 32 combined points in the series when Anthony was benched. That was most notable in Game 5, when the team mounted a raucous 25-point comeback with Anthony mostly on the sideline. But when Melo played, Oklahoma City was doomed, as the Jazz outscored the Thunder by a whopping 58 points. He was a defensive liability, useless when switched onto quicker scorers (which happened virtually whenever Utah wanted). And despite having a reputation as an offensive menace, he was brutal shooting the ball. On 3-point shots that classifies as “open” or “wide-open,” Anthony was 6-of-26. If a guy on your rec league team went 6-of-26 on uncontested 3s, you’d be like, “Man, Steve thinks he’s good at shooting, but …”

And much like that wad of hair ruining a combo meal, Anthony is inextricable from the Thunder. He has a $28 million player option for next year, and will almost certainly opt in.

Carmelo seems to believe that his role, not his play, was the biggest problem throughout 2017-18. His season was bookended by a pair of moments in which he ridiculed the media for suggesting he might not deserve to start. In September he cackled, “They said I gotta come off the bench!” when a reporter suggested a reserve role was an option on a team featuring Russell Westbrook and Paul George:

In his exit interview on Saturday, Melo explained that he wouldn’t “sacrifice” by coming off the bench next season, and that he had already “sacrificed [his] game for the sake of the team.”

Carmelo’s gall here is almost impressive. He seems to believe that the team held HIM back. This is like the hair in your food declaring that your meal would taste better if you knew how to prepare hair better. Have you ever tried braised hair, asshole? Use garlic next time. My guy, we have videos of you bricking jumpers and failing to defend Alec Burks, and OKC becoming a fun, happy basketball bunch the moment you plant yourself on the bench.

After observing Anthony this season, we have to acknowledge that his career is nearing its end. Joining Westbrook and George in Oklahoma City was perhaps his best opportunity to fill the role in which he was historically most successful, and it didn’t work. In fact, it didn’t come all that close. It seems, as with all things Carmelo, the timing was a bit off. And we’re left frustrated because the things Carmelo wants are still different from the things we want from Carmelo.

I love Carmelo Anthony. I find something deeply satisfying in watching him stand 18 feet from the rim, stare down the person trying to guard him, and then casually drain a shot over that defender. It awakens the pickup-game part of my soul, which screams “TAKE HIM! TAKE HIM!” every time Melo gets the ball with a defender in his sights. The NBA doesn’t keep advanced stats on this, but I’m fairly confident that Carmelo has the best all-time percentage on my favorite type of shot, jumpers that hit flush against the back of the rim and drop straight down, barely even prompting a swish.

On two stages, Carmelo has proved himself as one of the most important players in basketball. He had the most impressive single-season college basketball career in the sport’s history, showing up at Syracuse in 2002 and then instantly powering the program to its only national championship. He averaged 22 points and 10 rebounds per game, and in the NCAA tournament led the Orange past Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas, respectively, en route to cutting down the nets. To date, he remains the greatest one-and-done college basketball has ever seen, and “one-and-done” wasn’t even a thing at the time.

And Carmelo won at the Olympics. In fact, he’s the leading scorer in American Olympic history (336 points), and has won three gold medals (and a 2004 bronze that we simply don’t talk about). (It was Larry Brown’s fault. OK, now we’re done talking about it.) Part of that stemmed from Anthony’s willingness to just show up—LeBron James and Kobe Bryant declined the opportunity to try to win a third gold in 2016. But part of it was Melo emerging as the critical linchpin on rosters stocked with superstars, helping Team USA win back-to-back-to-back golds against the stiffest international competition in the history of the game.

Ah, yes, Olympic Melo: Playing as a power forward or even a center, Carmelo feasted against international big men who had to choose between guarding his shot or his drive. With a closer 3-point line, Melo felt more comfortable shooting from beyond the arc—more than half of his shot attempts at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics were 3s; in his NBA career, fewer than 20 percent of his shots have come from deep. (The shorter 3-point distance perhaps also explains his college success: 27 percent of his college attempts were 3s, a mark he didn’t hit until his 10th year in the pros.) He set the single-game U.S. Olympic scoring record with 37 points against Nigeria, and had team highs in more competitive clashes with Lithuania, Argentina, and Australia.

If we were to compare Carmelo’s career to Michael Jordan’s—and by law, we are required to compare every basketball career to Michael Jordan’s; check back later for our story How Does Malik Rose Stack Up Against the GOAT?—we’d note that both reached the pinnacle of the sport on multiple fronts. Jordan, too, won in college, hitting the game-winner for North Carolina in the 1982 national championship. Jordan also thrived in the Olympics, capturing gold in 1984 and famously in 1992 with the Dream Team. And, well, that’s where the comparisons end. Because while Jordan’s college and Olympic successes are garnishes on the most celebrated career in NBA history, they are the primary highlights of Carmelo’s career. They should be frosting; instead, they’re Carmelo’s whole damn cake.

You could view Anthony as a one-man argument against capitalism. In unpaid gigs, he has been willing to learn the 2-3 zone, play positions he doesn’t like, and share the ball. In the NBA, he became one of the top 10 highest-paid players of all time—and the highest-paid to have never won a ring. His actions have often put himself first: He demanded a trade that broke up a young Nuggets team so he could play in a larger city; privately and publicly bristled when Jeremy Lin threatened to steal his spotlight in New York; consistently expressed his displeasure with playing power forward even though the Knicks had their most successful season this century (54-28 in 2012-13, setting the NBA record for 3-pointers in a season at the time) with him at the 4; signed one of the most onerous contracts in the NBA, a full-max deal with a no-trade clause; and only agreed to waive that no-trade clause if the Knicks sent him to a small list of teams with which he thought he’d have a chance to contend.

In Oklahoma City, he had an opportunity to reset this narrative. He agreed to play power forward—90 percent of his minutes were at the 4, the highest clip of his career. He agreed to mainly camp out behind the arc and shoot 3s; 40.6 percent of his shots came from beyond the arc, while his previous career high was 30.3 percent. His usage rate was a career-low 23.2 percent; it had never been lower than his rookie season 28.5 percent. He acquiesced, agreeing to be a catch-and-shoot 4 spacing the floor for more valuable players, just like he was in the Olympics.

And holy hell, did this fail. Carmelo shot the lowest field goal percentage of his career (40.4 percent), which is partly attributable to the uptick in 3s, but also partly the result of him recording the lowest 2-point percentage of his career (43.7 percent). For the first time, Anthony’s PER dropped below the league average, to 12.7. And that’s before the playoffs. His decision to get paid by opting in next year will severely hamper the Thunder.

Perhaps Melo’s enemy here was time. We know that he could have thrived in a system like the one he had in OKC—his previous successes, in the Olympics and with the Knicks, came when he played power forward and shot a lot of 3s. But by the time he got to OKC, his game was gone. He arrived in the ideal situation after it was too late.

Carmelo Anthony
Carmelo Anthony
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

We’ll never see a player like Carmelo Anthony again. I don’t mean that as fawning hyperbole, but rather as a description of the style he prefers. It’s vanishing. Over the course of Anthony’s career, 27.9 percent of his shot attempts have been 2-pointers from at least 16 feet away from the hoop. Just 19.1 percent have been 3s. We’ll likely never see another 6-foot-8 player become a superstar with that style. In a bygone era, Carmelo’s exceptional midrange game could’ve made him a legend. In this era, it made him a stan for inefficiency, an outlier who was reluctant to join his counterparts in embracing a 3-point revolution.

But even this year, as he tried to adapt to a league seemingly leaving him in its wake, Carmelo was best at the things he supposedly shouldn’t try. He hit 46.8 percent of his shots with “tight” or “very tight” defense, per; he made just 39.7 percent of his shots described as “open” or “wide-open.” He drilled 42.4 percent of shots after he held the ball for fewer than six seconds, and 45.3 percent of those after he held the ball for longer than six seconds. Anthony is more efficient when playing less efficiently. It’s just what he likes to do.

We have always said that we know what’s best for Carmelo. But what Melo wanted was to be the star in a big city and to get paid. He did both. This year, he gave up on one of those dreams to be a sidekick in a much smaller city so he could fill the basketball role we all thought was best for him. And it was a catastrophic failure.

Did Carmelo play poorly this season because he hated his non-star turn? Or did Carmelo hate this season because he played poorly? Carmelo’s chickens and eggs will sum up his NBA career: Maybe he was “bad” as a result of his poor decisions and misguided priorities. Or maybe Carmelo knew what was best for him all along, and made the most of it.