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Carmelo Anthony Will Be the Ultimate Test of the Rockets System

What will the poster child of midrange jumpers do in the land of 3s and layups? We may never see Olympic Melo in the NBA, but with just some slight tweaks to his shot selection, the much maligned future Hall of Famer could be a big contributor to Houston this season.

A photo illustration of Mike D’Antoni and Carmelo Anthony Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Thunder got what they wanted out of Carmelo Anthony. Sort of. When Thunder GM Sam Presti dealt Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott, and a second-round pick, he was hoping to get Olympic Melo in return—that rarest of birds, seen once every four years, stretching defenses with the threat of perimeter scoring. And that’s who they got, except Olympic Melo wasn’t all that good anymore.

Oklahoma City tinkered with Melo’s role, having him trade isolations for spot-up opportunities to better resemble his USA Basketball workload. The experiment was a failure: Melo played turnstile defense and posted career-low numbers on offense. Anthony seemed to understand what was being asked of him, he just didn’t particularly like the question. His season was defined by the tension between what OKC needed him to be (an efficient scorer to aid Paul George and Russell Westbrook) and what he wanted to be (basically, the same ball-stopping, midrange-loving Carmelo that he’d always been).

The Thunder went out in the first round of the playoffs, losing to an ascendant Jazz team, and as the season ended, Melo sounded a bitter note about the future. He was done changing; now it was the Thunder’s turn: “I became who I am by playing the way that I’ve played and establishing a style of play.”

Now it’s the Rockets’ turn to squeeze the remaining productivity out of the frustrating future Hall of Famer. Houston is the mad scientist lab of the NBA. Daryl Morey and Mike D’Antoni have installed an offensive system that demands players shoot primarily layups and 3s. D’Antoni happens to be the coach Anthony ran out of New York, so it’s an imperfect marriage to say the least. But if any team can reprogram Melo’s hard drive, it’s Houston. Video killed the radio star, and analytics killed the midrange scorer. Can the numbers save Carmelo?

The Rockets scored 112.2 points per 100 possessions last season, one of the best marks in NBA history. This offense doesn’t need to be fixed; it fixes players. Anyone who joins Houston needs to conform to its offensive system, not the other way around. Lee Jenkins wrote in Sports Illustrated that during film sessions, Rockets coaches place a red X on players who attempt unwarranted midrange shots. It’s their way of shaming habits out of a player’s repertoire. It works. Every guard and forward Houston has acquired since 2016 has adapted, and their midrange shot attempts have plummeted.

Midrange Shot Frequency

Player Before Houston With Houston
Player Before Houston With Houston
Chris Paul 53% 42%
Eric Gordon 39% 32%
Gerald Green 37% 15%
Ryan Anderson 36% 19%
P.J. Tucker 24% 13%
Luc Mbah a Moute 23% 5%

Stats via Cleaning the Glass. The chart above displays each player’s percentage of shots attempted from midrange their last season before joining the Rockets and then their first season with the Rockets.

Anthony should follow the same formula. Even Chris Paul, who is one of the best midrange shooters ever, began swapping deep 2s for 3s and shots closer to the rim. By being more selective with the midrange shots he took, Paul ended up shooting a career-best 57 percent from midrange outside the paint—which trailed only Steph Curry of high volume shooters and far exceeded anyone else.

Here’s the thing about Anthony: For a guy who is so commonly associated with midrange scoring, he’s not that potent a midrange scorer! He shot 41 percent from 2-point range outside the paint last season, which is the equivalent of 27.3 percent from 3. Melo attempted 372 shots from this range last season, more than Paul (161) and Harden (104) combined. It wouldn’t make any sense to have a 27.3 percent 3-point shooter jack up nearly 400 shots in a season, and it also doesn’t make sense to have a 41 percent deep-midrange shooter. He’s an obviously dynamic scorer with ancient shot distribution. Of the 73 players who logged over 1,000 possessions last season, Carmelo ranked 60th in points per possession, per Synergy. The last time he ranked highly among his peers was the 2013-14 season, back when he still drew fouls at a high rate. Carmelo must find a new way to score in his new home. Houston gets the most out of its players by placing them in the most efficient scoring spots; as a by-product, they hoist a record-breaking amount of 3s each year.

Luc Mbah a Moute, Ryan Anderson, and Trevor Ariza all departed Houston this summer, leaving Anthony a lot of room in the Rockets rotation. Melo doesn’t like to move on offense when the ball isn’t in his hands, so the Rockets offense should be good for him in that respect. Houston moves the least often and the slowest of any team in the NBA, while Melo moved on offense at about the same average speed as Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond, per Second Spectrum tracking data. It could be more reasonable to expect Melo to tweak the area of the floor where he attempts shots rather than change how he moves and his effort level.

It’s not like Melo forgot how to score once he landed in Oklahoma last fall. Sure, he got to the basket less frequently and drew fewer fouls, but that’s expected for a player declining in athleticism in his mid-30s. Melo still shot the ball well off the catch; he drained 39.7 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s over the past five seasons, per Anthony shot a higher frequency of 3s with the Thunder, but he wasn’t required to launch 3s at will. D’Antoni has never dimmed any player’s green light.

Anthony scored 16.2 points per game on a subpar 1.01 points per shot last season, but with a revised workload and shot distribution he could see his scoring efficiency rise. It’s unreasonable to expect Melo to shoot as many 3s and as few midrange shots as Anderson or Ariza did last season, but there’s a happy medium between their totals and Paul’s that still stays true to Anthony’s style.

Shot Distribution, 2017-18 Season

Player Rim Mid 3-Point
Player Rim Mid 3-Point
Trevor Ariza 27% 6% 69%
Ryan Anderson 20% 14% 67%
Chris Paul 11% 42% 46%
Carmelo Anthony 2017-18 15% 47% 39%
Carmelo Anthony 2018-19 Projection 20% 30% 50%

Stats via Cleaning the Glass

If Melo attempts half his field goal attempts from 3, drops his midrange attempts to around one-third, and slightly increases his shooting percentage by two points in each zone, his points per shot would increase from 1.01 to 1.1. These are only moderate projections; Anthony’s efficiency could increase further if he sacrifices even more midrange shots for layups and 3s. The more Carmelo trusts the math, the more he’ll produce.

At the very least, Melo should project as a more dynamic, higher-volume scoring version of Anderson or Ariza when the ball isn’t in his hands. When the Rockets run pick-and-rolls involving a forward like Ariza, they often set a pick then slip to 3-point range. Paul or Harden would be happy to feed the screening forward for an open 3. Anthony got reps in a similar action last season; he shot a no-dribble jumper out of a pick-and-pop 25 times, but 16 of those attempts came from midrange.

These midrange shots are a waste of a possession and have essentially been eliminated by the Rockets system. Houston’s wings and forwards combined for 105 no-dribble jumper attempts out of a pick-and-pop last season, and only four attempts came from midrange. Three of them came when P.J. Tucker accidentally had his toes on the 3-point line. Expect to see much more of this from Anthony:

Anthony can attack off the dribble at a higher level than Ariza or Anderson, which makes pick-and-rolls involving Harden or Paul even more interesting. Defenses prefer to switch against screens in the modern NBA, since that involves less movement and rotations than traditional hedging or dropping. The Rockets exploited this technique by spacing the floor and creating, essentially, open-court one-on-one situations for Harden and Paul. It resulted in the most efficient isolation scoring season in NBA history:

The Rockets are fine with their guard duo taking late-clock pull-up 2s because those attempts are usually the best available shots as the clock winds down. Melo gives them a third option for isolations and positional diversity. The Rockets can use Melo as a more effective screener than any forward from last season, or they can invert the play with Melo running the action and either a guard or big screening. At 6-foot-8 and 240 pounds, Anthony would present a new wrinkle for defenses to account for. No matter the case, Melo will have more spacing than he’s ever had in a system unlike anything he’s ever experienced.

Anthony has played one way his entire career—dribble, dribble, dribble, shoot—and it’s worked: He was a McDonald’s All American who became an NCAA champion at Syracuse, a three-time Olympic gold medalist, a 10-time All-Star, and six-time All-NBA selection, all while logging the 19th-most points in league history. But his career is still unfulfilled as his style of play has grown more and more antiquated. Success is no guarantee in Houston. Melo must accept a lesser role just like he did last season with the Thunder and overhaul his lifelong shooting habits.

There’s a chance Anthony continues to resist change and rages against the machine. Or, even if his efficiency improves, the gains may not outweigh the points lost by his paltry defense. But it won’t cost the Rockets nearly what it did Oklahoma City. Houston is paying Anthony only $1.5 million against the cap this season. He’s a minimal financial risk; if it doesn’t work, it won’t be hard to cut bait. Carmelo needs this to work the most. A chance at the Finals is at stake, as is a chance to rewrite his narrative of a memorable but selfish player unwilling to sacrifice for the greater good of the team.