The Portland Trail Blazers are reeling, thanks to a raft of injuries that has absolutely ravaged their frontcourt. With former stalwarts Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless wearing different uniforms, and Jusuf Nurkic, Zach Collins, and Pau Gasol all stuck in street clothes, coach Terry Stotts has asked role players like Rodney Hood, Mario Hezonja, Anthony Tolliver, and Skal Labissière to step into the void and play up a spot in the lineup. It hasn’t gone well: Portland sits at 4-8, in 13th place in the Western Conference, with only a 26 percent chance of making the postseason, according to FiveThirtyEight’s projections. Considering the Blazers were talking about winning the NBA championship less than a month ago, continuing on a path that leads to the lottery would be a fairly massive disappointment.
After six losses in seven games, including one in which Damian Lillard popped for a career-high 60 points against the Nets, the Blazers desperately needed something, anything, to shake things up and give them a jolt. Well, this certainly qualifies:
Portland is signing Carmelo Anthony, league source tells ESPN.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) November 15, 2019
The 16-year veteran and 10-time All-Star hasn’t suited up in more than a year, but Carmelo Anthony has made it clear multiple times that he wanted back in the league following his 10-game flameout with the Rockets last season. Anthony last week expressed his desire to return to an NBA court—asked whether he wanted to be back in the NBA, he quickly said, “2,000 percent”—and told TMZ Sports on Wednesday that he was “open to every opportunity” to join a team. That opportunity will come in Portland, the most sensible spot for him in the league—a franchise with established talent, championship aspirations, and a dire need for aid at forward. But Anthony will have to earn it: His contract with the Blazers is nonguaranteed, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
The contract will pay him just under $15,000 per day he’s with the team, and will only become fully guaranteed if he makes it past January 7, according to ESPN’s Bobby Marks. In other words: This is a prove-it deal, one wholly contingent on Anthony evincing in short order a willingness to play the specific, circumscribed role that Portland asks him to. And, perhaps even more importantly, an ability to do so productively enough to represent an improvement over the undersized and overmatched contributors whom Stotts has had to rely so heavily on in the absence of his main frontcourt players.
There’s reason to be skeptical on that front. After an up-and-down 2017-18 campaign in Oklahoma City during which he bristled multiple times at the idea of coming off the bench, Anthony made his way to Houston to join James Harden, Chris Paul, and former sparring partner Mike D’Antoni on the Rockets. There, he made his peace with being a reserve who’d get spot starts when injuries and matchups called for it. He struggled to produce in the role, though, with a couple of big nights surrounded by shaky shooting and, crucially, exceedingly permeable defense.
The Rockets were outscored by 63 points in Anthony’s 294 minutes of floor time, during which they gave up a dismal 112.2 points per 100 possessions. Opponents targeted him in the pick-and-roll time and again—a strategy, ironically enough, that Harden and Paul themselves popularized when Anthony was with Oklahoma City, that Donovan Mitchell used to devastating effect against Melo and the Thunder in the 2018 postseason, and that made surviving Anthony’s minutes difficult for a Houston team already struggling with injuries and inconsistency early last season. Rockets sources told ESPN’s Baxter Holmes that “they didn’t anticipate just how limited [Anthony] would be in their aggressive switch-centric defense,” with one speculating that “had they known he’d struggle so much in their defense, Anthony wouldn’t have been brought aboard.”
Adding a 35-year-old who struggled to play modern NBA defense before spending a year away from the game would seem like a dicey proposition for a Blazers team that ranks 19th in points allowed per non-garbage-time possession, according to Cleaning the Glass. Hassan Whiteside blocks a lot of shots, but he’s not the sort of elite paint-patrolling defensive center who can cover up his teammates’ mistakes with smart positioning and back line deterrence. Portland already starts a small backcourt without any real ace perimeter defenders; Kent Bazemore probably comes closest, but he’s punching above his weight class guarding bigger wings as it is. (One potential saving grace: Stotts has long favored conservative defensive schemes in which his bigs drop back on pick-and-rolls rather than step out to the level of the screen and invite switches; an approach that could save Anthony from routine scorching on the perimeter.)
Would inserting Melo into an already scuffling defense without anyone to protect him really make matters much better for the Blazers? Maybe not, but Portland’s hoping that Anthony’s still got enough gas in the tank and enough touch on his jumper to make an impact on the other end of the court. With the exception of Hood, who’s had a nice start, they’re getting virtually nothing from their 3s and 4s on offense.
Bazemore’s shooting 35.8 percent from the floor and 34 percent from 3-point range. Hezonja has struggled even more, shooting just 32 percent inside and outside the arc. Tolliver’s somehow been even worse, shooting just 24 percent on 2s and 3s. The three of them have combined for 39 assists and 41 turnovers. Opponents are essentially ignoring them, training all of their defensive attention on Lillard and CJ McCollum and daring Portland’s “others” to beat them. On Wednesday, Raptors coach Nick Nurse even went so far as to give Dame the “Steph in the Finals” treatment, up to and including a little of the ol’ box-and-one. It worked: The Raptors limited Lillard to just nine points on 2-for-12 shooting; Bazemore, Hezonja, Labissière, and rookie Nassir Little combined to score 24 points on 7-for-28 shooting; and Toronto won going away.
This is how things will keep going if Portland doesn’t unearth some new answers in the frontcourt. Good help is hard to find, though—especially for a team that’s already deep into the luxury tax, that has few enticing trade assets and doesn’t want to part with the ones it does have (good luck getting Anfernee Simons out of the Pacific Northwest after the 20-year-old’s stellar start to the season), and whose list of prospective trade targets is limited by league rules preventing players who signed free agent contracts this summer from being dealt until December 15. The Blazers needed somebody who was cheap, who could score, and who was available. Enter Melo, whom Portland had reportedly tried to land several times in years past. Lillard has recruited and advocated for Anthony and reportedly supports his addition now—perhaps, in part, because he’s seen more than enough Hezonja Time, thank you very much.
Anthony doesn’t have to turn back the clock to help the Blazers. Even the diminished form he showed in Houston—13.4 points and 5.4 rebounds in 29.4 minutes per game on 41/33/68 shooting splits, taking more than 50 percent of his shot attempts from beyond the arc rather than insisting on midrange pull-ups as he had in his heyday—would still make him the most productive offensive frontcourt option available to Stotts.
If he could nudge his catch-and-shoot efficiency back up to where it was in Oklahoma City two seasons ago, when he knocked down 37.3 percent of his off-the-catch triple tries, he could provide a valuable threat spotting up on the opposite side of the floor from Lillard and McCollum when they isolate or run pick-and-rolls. And while Melo has always been a shoot-first, -second, and -third type, he’s also a smart and experienced offensive basketball player who has averaged three assists per 36 minutes of floor time for his career, and who can make a productive pass as a release valve when opponents trap the ball out of the Blazers guards’ hands. Whether he will make that smart next play, I don’t know. But he can, and for a flailing Portland side all but devoid of frontcourt playmaking, that’s not nothing.
That role is neither massive nor glamorous, but it’s what’s on the table for Anthony at this stage. If he embraces it, he could wind up finding a new lease on life in the NBA, just as Dwight Howard—another former superstar whose relevance had faded in recent years—has by accepting life as a rim-running, rim-protecting, complementary piece in Los Angeles. If he balks at it, or can’t cut the mustard … well, his exit from Portland will likely be even swifter than his 10-game ouster from Houston.
That was an ignominious end for a future Hall of Famer, and you could tell it weighed on Anthony. As he told ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith during an interview this summer, “I felt like I loved the game, but the game didn’t love me back.” Now, though, after months away to “re-evaluate myself, re-evaluate my career, re-evaluate my life,” Anthony’s getting another chance to write something closer to his preferred final chapter. He believes he can still play at the NBA level, can still help a team—an overlooked scratch-off ticket that can turn into a million-dollar payday. The Blazers’ chances of pulling out of their nosedive and moving back into playoff contention might depend on whether or not he’s right.