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The Clock Is Already Ticking on the Carmelo Experiment

Anthony’s debut as a Trail Blazer had its moments early on, but familiar problems quickly reared their ugly head. Can Melo find a way to stick around in Portland?

AP Images/Ringer illustration

If the last time you’d tuned in to an NBA game was November 8, 2018, and you suddenly got interested enough to tune in again Tuesday night, you probably wouldn’t have had any idea that Carmelo Anthony had been out of action for the past 377 days. Whether that strikes you as a compliment or a criticism will probably depend on your biases, but the version of Anthony that took the floor for the Trail Blazers on Tuesday was, essentially, what everyone probably expected when Portland signed him last week—an offense-first option whose effectiveness will rise and fall on the strength of his jump shot, who remains a concern on the defensive end, and who’s probably still Portland’s best choice at the 4 even after a year on ice.

The most surprising thing about Anthony’s performance against the Pelicans on Tuesday was when it began—which is to say, that he came in off the street, started at power forward, and was the intended target of the Blazers’ very first offensive set. Portland tried to feed Anthony on its opening possession; the result was a turnover, as New Orleans forward Kenrich Williams beat Melo to his spot on the block and intercepted Hassan Whiteside’s entry pass. (The good news: Hassan Whiteside passed! The bad news: It turns out he is a bad entry passer.)

The Blazers, who were missing superstar point guard Damian Lillard due to back spasms, went right back to Melo on their next trip, too, with Rodney Hood hitting Anthony curling around a left-elbow Whiteside screen for a quick-release top-of-the-key jumper that caught back rim. On Anthony’s third trip, though, he popped to his left after setting a screen, found an open spot along the arc, caught a pass from CJ McCollum, rose up, and knocked in a 3-pointer. His account was reopened; Melo was back in the NBA, doing what he’s done for going on two decades, and doing precisely what Portland hoped he would.

The final tally looks grim: 10 points on 4-for-14 shooting to go with four rebounds, zero assists, and five turnovers. The Blazers were outscored by 20 points in the 23:37 that Anthony logged in a game they lost by 11. Then again, that Melo was in position to log 24 minutes at all and get up as many shots as he did was, frankly, kind of wild.

He joined the team without the benefit of a training camp, a practice, or even a shootaround, with the Blazers getting Tuesday morning off after flying into New Orleans to play on the second night of a back-to-back. All Melo had was a cursory walk-through with Terry Stotts and the Blazers’ coaching staff; according to Joe Freeman of The Oregonian, “When [Anthony] stepped foot on the Smoothie King Center floor, he knew only five of the team’s roughly 100 plays.” And yet, with injuries ravaging the Blazers to the point where Stotts’s other choices were long-in-the-tooth Anthony Tolliver, scuffling reclamation project Mario Hezonja, and rookie Nassir Little, in went Melo, thrown to the fire against Williams, Brandon Ingram, Jaxson Hayes, and the rest of a long, athletic Pelicans frontcourt.

As you’d expect for someone joining a brand-new team after a year away from the irreplicable speed of the NBA game, Anthony’s timing and touch weren’t quite there. He tried to thread a pocket pass to Whiteside after a side pick-and-roll, but bounced it into a turnover, and threw Whiteside a fastball on a dive through the lane, but it was high and outside and the center couldn’t corral it. He didn’t seem to be on the same page with his teammates defensively, resulting in multiple possessions where, as color commentator Kevin McHale noted, it looked like half the Blazers were playing zone and half the Blazers were playing man, which is not what you’re looking for in a defensive scheme.

Anthony was far from the sole reason New Orleans gashed Portland to the tune of 115 points—the Blazers entered Tuesday ranked 20th in points allowed per non-garbage-time possession, according to Cleaning the Glass, all conceded without Melo—but he didn’t exactly help matters. Everybody knew that, though; the merits of his addition will be determined by how he performs on the offensive end. Ten points on 14 shots isn’t a strong start, but you’d be within your rights to chalk at least a couple of the misses up to ring rust, and to wonder whether Anthony got short-changed on a few calls when driving to the basket. A make here, a free throw or two there, and maybe the ledger looks a little different. For Anthony’s part, the mere fact of being on the court was enough for one night.

“It felt great to be back into the flow of the game, be back on the court, be back to where I think I belong,” Anthony told reporters. “Just being out there with the guys. As far as the game goes, it felt good to be back out there.”

What was enough for one night, though, won’t be enough for Portland—now 5-10 and second to last in the West—as the losses pile up. Anthony’s return doesn’t mark the end of an unjust blackballing or leaguewide collusion to keep him from a 17th pro season; it comes because one team experienced a brutal run of injuries that compromised the effectiveness of its offense, and needed an immediate infusion of the sorts of skills Melo might theoretically provide. That’s what’s most interesting about the Melo experiment: For all the talk about the degree to which his decline has been predicated on an unwillingness to accept a diminished role as Father Time came for his All-Star form, the role Anthony is expected to play with the Blazers is, essentially, Be Carmelo Anthony.

Hood told reporters after the game that Anthony is “going to be an integral part of our offense, so we’ve got to continue to use him, get acclimated with him.” That seems to be Anthony’s understanding, too; in a video released after he came to terms with the Blazers, Anthony said, “I just look at that opportunity, that team, and say, ‘Look, this is what I can bring to the team, there is where I could help.’ It will only work if all parties see it the same way.”

From the sound of it, that’s not an issue right now. Anthony stepped in as Portland’s starting power forward, and barring a major change, he’ll stay in that spot in the lineup. He’ll be expected to provide supplementary scoring to prevent defenses from throwing box-and-ones and other overload defenses at Lillard once he returns to the lineup, and to take some of the heat off McCollum, who led Portland with 22 points and five assists in Tuesday’s loss.

Melo will be asked to partner with Portland’s starry backcourt in the pick-and-roll, in the hopes that his reputation as a titanic scorer and the reality of what he’s still got left will induce moments of panic for opponents—ones that might cause them to momentarily give Lillard or McCollum too much room behind a screen or too much time to survey the floor. If opponents try to erase that space and time by switching the action, Anthony will be expected to seal off the smaller defender in the post and bully-ball his way to the basket, to a clean look on a turnaround, or to the foul line.

If defenders properly assess the threat levels and stay glued to the ball handler, the hope is that Melo will put his years of experience as an offensive monster to good use. He’ll be expected to either pop back behind the 3-point arc for catch-and-shoot long balls, or to move into a crease in the defense, presenting a big release-valve target and beating the rotating defense by either rumbling to the rim or making the next pass in the short roll. He probably won’t be the first guy the Blazers try to get going every night, but he’ll still be in position to make and finish plays; the rest will be up to him.

For every moment on Tuesday that reminded you why Anthony was out of the league for a year—the lack of lift on offense and foot speed on defense, the predilection toward low-percentage pull-ups and no-shot isolations against good defenders …

… there was also a kernel of evidence that Anthony can offer some of what Portland’s looking for—that release-valve shooting, a forward capable of making a contribution when either popping or rolling, a potential source of mismatches on switches against smaller defenders, and a complementary shot creator when a possession bogs down:

Given some time to develop a familiarity with his new teammates and find some rhythm on those turnarounds out of the post, maybe it all looks a bit better than it did against New Orleans. Maybe, no matter how snugly Melo fits into the hierarchy behind Dame and CJ, his lack of lateral quickness on defense will prove too big a burden to bear for a team that can’t afford to give major minutes to a persistent net negative—a lesson that both Oklahoma City and Houston learned the hard way.

Either way, this is what we’re going to see for the foreseeable future—at least, until December 15. That’s when players signed to free-agent contracts this summer become eligible to be traded and Portland president of basketball operations Neil Olshey can start hunting the sort of larger trade that will likely be needed to push the Blazers up the standings; it is, perhaps, not a coincidence that Anthony’s contract does not become fully guaranteed until January 7.

That gives Melo a little less than a month, or about 11 games, to prove he’s got enough left in the tank to stick around in a league that left him for dead, and to show a legion of skeptics that there’s another, less distasteful way for his story to end.

“When players come to their twilight years, you like for them to be able to go out on their terms,” Stotts told reporters after Tuesday’s game. “The way Dirk [Nowitzki] and Kobe [Bryant] went out was terrific. I’m glad that he’s having another opportunity, and who’s to say how much longer he’ll play? Vince Carter’s still playing in the league. And LeBron [James]. So this might be the beginning of another three-, four-, five-year run. Who knows?”

A lot of us think we do; it’s hard to find too many pundits who think this will all end well for Anthony or the Blazers. For a few weeks, though, Melo’s got the floor, and the opportunity to introduce something unexpected into an NBA regular season that could always use a bit more of that. Let’s see what he does with it.