After being traded by the Oklahoma City Thunder and then waived by the Atlanta Hawks, Carmelo Anthony is headed to Houston. On Wednesday, the forward cleared waivers, paving the way for him to sign a one-year deal with the Rockets for the $2.4 million veteran’s minimum. But while we now know where Anthony will play basketball to start the 2018-19 season, there are other questions to address.
Does this make sense for Melo?
Absolutely. For starters, Anthony will get paid all $27.9 million he’s owed for the upcoming season. (He took a $2.4 million reduction in the Hawks buyout to shake free of Atlanta, which he then made back by signing with Houston.) That’s good money if you can get it—and he did.
Beyond that, the Thunder never felt like a good fit for Anthony. He went from being the first option in New York City to the third option in Oklahoma City, which is a considerable drop-off in both his professional and personal lives (no offense, OKC). And don’t underrate the work-life balance here. In Houston, at the very least, he’ll be reunited with his buddy Chris Paul. Together, they’re halfway to a wine quorum. How it’ll shake out on the court is more complicated (we’ll get to that shortly), but Anthony went from a team that got bounced from the first round of the postseason in six games by the Utah Jazz to a team that won 65 games and came within one win of dispatching the Golden State Warriors in the conference finals. By all accounts, this is a much better spot for Anthony. This is an admittedly out-of-context tweet, but it feels like it probably sums up Melo’s current mood.
*Mood— Carmelo Anthony (@carmeloanthony) June 18, 2018
“All Critics Can Duck Sick”#STAYME7O pic.twitter.com/mJfSWP9kYC
OK, but does it make sense for Houston?
That’s trickier. Context is key here. The Rockets re-signed Paul to a four-year deal worth $160 million. They also retained center Clint Capela with a five-year contract for $90 million. Those were priorities for general manager Daryl Morey going into the offseason, but keeping those guys around also limited the team’s flexibility in the free-agent market. (The Rockets are looking at an estimated luxury-tax bill of around $19 million, in part because they owe Ryan Anderson an indefensible $20.4 million next season.)
As a consequence, Houston watched Trevor Ariza sign a one-year deal with the Suns for $15 million. Luc Mbah a Moute also hit the road, landing with the Clippers on a one-year contract worth $4.3 million. Those might not seem like big losses on the surface, but Ariza is a capable 3-point shooter on a team that led the league in attempts and makes from distance last season. The Rockets also scored 40.9 percent of their points via the 3-ball, according to NBA.com; that, too, was tops in the league. Also, Ariza and Mbah a Moute are quality defenders who helped Houston to the sixth-best defensive rating in the league. Melo has never been shy about shooting from deep, but the next time he plays defense might be the first.
But, again, context matters. Given the cap constraints, there weren’t many players the Rockets were capable of adding this offseason, as my Ringer colleagues Kevin O’Connor and Chris Vernon discussed on a recent NBA Show podcast in a way that only those two could:
KOC: What other options are there for them to get a guy who can go off for 30 points?
Verno: Thirty is a little strong, Kev. How many times did Carmelo Anthony score 30 points last year?
KOC: How ’bout 20?
Sometimes you have to take what’s available, even if what’s available isn’t exactly what you need.
Is Anthony washed? It sounds like he’s washed.
Provided you know it and acknowledge it, being washed isn’t so bad. The problem here is that Anthony has always had an overinflated opinion of his abilities, and even if he realized he was on the decline he’d probably never admit it and adjust his game. His numbers aren’t exactly trending in the right direction. Melo is a 10-time All-Star, but last season was unquestionably his worst in the NBA. Anthony posted career lows in points, assists, and steals per game; field goal percentage; free throws attempted and made per game; free throw percentage; PER; TS percentage; BPM; and VORP.
Part of that decline is because of the way he was deployed in OKC. Anthony had a 23.2 usage rate with the Thunder—the lowest of his career. Acquiring a ball-dominant player and then not giving him the ball seemed like a bad idea all the way around. It was like Thunder GM Sam Presti decided he really wanted a goldfish, went out and bought a goldfish, and then stuck that goldfish in a really small bowl with no water. It shouldn’t have been a surprise that Melo just sort of flopped around all season and then looked largely lifeless in the end.
But even in an ideal situation where Anthony isn’t told to go stand in the corner and wait for Russell Westbrook to pass him the ball, Melo is still 34 years old. That’s not real-world old, but it is NBA old. (Sadly, it is also Ringer old.) At this point, his career is winding down and there’s only so much you can reasonably expect him to contribute.
About that: What can the Rockets get out of him?
As we know, the Rockets like to shoot 3-pointers. The good news for Houston is that Anthony spent a lot of time taking them in OKC last season. That’s pretty much all he did. Melo averaged 6.1 3-point attempts and 2.2 makes. Both numbers were the second-highest of his career.
But taking and making a lot of 3s was only part of Houston’s success last season. The Rockets were also an excellent defensive team. That’s not exactly Anthony’s end of the floor. Houston’s offensive system also calls for a lot of iso ball. In theory, that would seem to fit well with Anthony’s ball-goes-in, ball-doesn’t-come-out game.
The problem here is that the Rockets like it best when Paul and James Harden are the ones doing the isolation, and the players around them are set up as shooters (or, in the case of Capela, ready to dive to the rim). The question is whether Anthony will finally adapt to not being the main guy and adjust his style for the greater good.
But that’s a coaching issue, right? Isn’t that Mike D’Antoni’s problem?
“Problem” is a good way to put it. You will, of course, recall that D’Antoni and Anthony were in New York together with the Knicks for what amounted to two not-terrific seasons for the pair. D’Antoni tried to get Anthony to move to power forward. Melo refused and essentially told him to take a hike—which D’Antoni did.
D’Antoni told ESPN last year that Anthony basically delivered an ultimatum to the Knicks front office during the 2011-12 campaign and said the organization had to choose between the franchise player and the head coach. When D’Antoni found out, he said he “just went in and quit.” This is going to be the most awkward reunion since Nick Young ran into Iggy Azalea last year.
Before Anthony signed with the Rockets, D’Antoni was asked for his thoughts on giving the Melo marriage another go. Multiple sources told The Washington Post that the head coach said he would be “fine” with it. See? Everything is fine. This is fine. Of course, that report also operated under the assumption that the Rockets would bring Anthony off the bench.
Oh, so he’s willing to come off the bench?
Willing? Willing is a problematic word when applied to Anthony and the prospect of not starting. Let’s review the history here. Last September, not long after joining the Thunder, a reporter asked Melo whether he might consider coming off the bench. Anthony responded the way any good professional with a firm grasp of his skill set would—by laughing out loud at the idea.
Carmelo Anthony was asked about the possibility of coming off the bench and his reaction was hilarious. pic.twitter.com/NG3Hvv7s64— Alex Kennedy (@AlexKennedyNBA) September 25, 2017
Then, after a long and unspectacular season with the Thunder that included a dreadful playoff performance against the Jazz—Anthony scored a grand total of four fourth-quarter points in six games against Utah—he was asked once more whether he would entertain the prospect of not starting. He was as open-minded as you might expect.
Melo asked about possibly coming off the bench: "I'm not sacrificing no bench role. So that's out of the question."— Royce Young (@royceyoung) April 28, 2018
But that was then and this is now, right? Surely he’s reconsidered.
Yeaaaaah … no. In a recent interview with The Undefeated, Anthony said he knows “how to play this game of basketball” and when he’s “ready to take that role, then I’ll take that role.”
“Only I know when it’s best for me to take that role,” Anthony added. “I’m not going to do that in a situation where I still know my capabilities and what I can do.”
How much Xanax can you take and still coach a professional basketball team? Asking for a friend who looks a lot like Mike D’Antoni.
All right, forget the bench thing for now. Is he at least cool with being the third option again?
Anthony was asked that very question after the Thunder’s season ended. If you’re a Rockets fan, maybe don’t read the following quote, or pretend like he meant it only as applied to OKC and not to the Rockets, where he will surely reverse course on everything he’s ever done and said and become the model selfless, team-first guy Houston hopes.
“As far as being effective as that type of player, I don’t think I can be effective as that type of player,” Anthony said. “It wasn’t no strategy to me being here, me being a part of the actual system and what type of player.”
What could go wrong?
Will the Rockets be better or worse with Melo in the mix?
Considering the players they lost, it’s hard to imagine them being better. They had the best regular-season record in the NBA, led the league in net rating, and very nearly toppled the Warriors despite the fact Paul was unavailable for the end of the Western Conference finals due to a hamstring injury.
But as D’Antoni told the Houston Chronicle, you have to “take some chances” when you’re chasing Golden State. That’s fair, and that’s what Anthony is at this point—someone to take a chance on who will cost the Rockets only $2.4 million. And even if the Rockets aren’t as good as they were a year ago, D’Antoni is convinced that “the worst we’re going to be is great.”
Seems like the Xanax is already working.
Bottom line: Will this work out?
Look, nothing is certain in this world. But … no.