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Will Melo Be More Open to a Bench Role in Houston?

Carmelo Anthony seriously, definitely, officially signed with the Rockets on Monday. But how he’ll be utilized next to Chris Paul and James Harden remains uncertain.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Carmelo Anthony is officially Houston-bound, forming a union almost a year in the making. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Melo signing without a little melodrama. Buried in a report stating that Anthony would finally sign a one-year, veteran’s minimum contract with the Rockets on Monday, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski revealed that Anthony is “expected to come off the bench.” Woj later clarified that nothing was locked in heading into training camp. Still, coming off the worst season of his career, it’s likely Anthony won’t win a starting spot. Who wants to tell him?

Two and a half weeks ago, Anthony rejected the idea that he wouldn’t be in a starting lineup this season. “When I feel like I’m ready to take that role, then I’ll take that role,” he told The Undefeated’s Jemele Hill. “Only I know when it’s best for me to take that role. I’m not going to do that in a situation where I still know my capabilities and what I can do. And at the end of the day, the people who really matter know my capabilities and what I can still do.”

Anthony’s dismissal came as no surprise; in preseason interviews last year, he essentially told Thunder media the same by laughing off the question completely. (Melo’s fake laugh is about as bearable as his defense.) After Utah eliminated OKC in the first round, he doubled down. “I’m not sacrificing no bench role,” Anthony said in his exit interview. “So, that’s out the question.”

The lack of agreement between coach Billy Donovan and Anthony on a proper role drove the latter’s desire to play elsewhere. “I have enjoyed my six months, seven months here,” he said in the same season-ending interview. “But I think now, it’s more about just kind of reevaluating everything, me individually, career-wise, team-wise. [...] I don’t think I can be effective as that type of player.” He’s right. He wasn’t: Melo ended the season with career-low averages in scoring (16.2 points), shooting (40.4 percent overall), and assists (1.3), meanwhile hitting only 36 percent of the 3s OKC desperately needed from him. He shouldn’t be cast in a starring role in Houston, either, and there’s no guarantee his cameos will be any more convincing.

After Anthony’s signing became official, Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni talked to USA Today’s Sam Amick about his potential fit in Houston’s offense: “If you’re committed to doing it, and committed to, ‘OK, this is how we’re playing, and then when it’s your turn it’s your turn, but if it isn’t then we’re still within these guidelines.’”

Anthony has spent the summer working out with teammates-to-be James Harden and Chris Paul, but how (whether) he’ll fit in a rotation with the two remains to be seen. (To be fair, it’s the same question we asked of Harden and Paul last offseason.) Anthony could be the first man off the bench, and by continuing to platoon their star guards the Rockets could ensure he’d be next to one of the league’s elite playmakers no matter what. Houston’s spacing is a remarkable upgrade to Oklahoma City’s, but unless either Harden or Paul is off the floor, Melo’s playing style will only clog it back up. However, a particularly painful 3-point shootout in Game 7 of the West finals against Golden State might have convinced the Rockets that having another midrange threat tucked away is worth the risk.

“We’ve just got to make sure we don’t get too far away from taking 3s and layups and foul shots,” D’Antoni told USA Today on Monday. “It’ll be a little bit of a learning process. But again, if everybody is committed, then I have no doubt it can work. Whether we can all get it to work? We’ll see.”

If what Donovan and the Thunder were asking of Anthony led to this summer’s divorce (my guess is it was mutual), then Melo is knowingly signing up for a similar clash in Houston if the plan is indeed for him to come off the bench. Only this time, it’s Mike D’Antoni, his former coach in New York, making that decision. D’Antoni has said before that Melo’s ultimatum in 2012—either D’Antoni leaves the team, or he will—caused him to resign from the Knicks. “I just went in and quit,” he told ESPN in 2017.

Now D’Antoni holds the advantage. Anthony is a role player at best, washed at worst; D’Antoni led Houston to the top seed in the West last season. “I was going by my gut,” D’Antoni told USA Today of their Knicks days, “and he was going by (his) gut, and it’s just, you know, styles clash. And I think now, things have changed and everybody is playing the same way.” The system Melo previously rejected in New York is now what he’ll be forced to conform to, to whatever degree D’Antoni decides is best. It might be sitting next to him on the bench. Depending on Melo’s disposition, it could be the seat at the end.

This story was updated after publication to include comments made by Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni.