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The Blazers Are Letting Melo Be Melo … and It’s Working

Two things have been made abundantly clear since Carmelo Anthony’s return: The NBA desperately missed the longtime All-Star, and the 35-year-old still has something left in the tank

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Seven games into his NBA return, Carmelo Anthony is still finding his way on and off the court. When Anthony entered Staples Center on Tuesday night, he nearly strolled into the Clippers locker room by mistake. A security usher had to cut him off and redirect him to the visiting locker room. There, two side-by-side stalls awaited him—the customary setup for superstar players—along with a name tag that looked slightly different than the ones adorned above the other lockers. It spelled out “Anthony” in the same font as “Lillard” or “McCollum” but, unlike the others, it was missing his number (00) and had been taped on top of what looked like another name tag. The Blazers equipment manager confirmed that it was the best they could do, since Anthony signed and joined the team on such short notice.

Anthony has been with Portland for less than two weeks, but the traveling circus that follows him is already getting crowded. “Now we have twice the media we usually have,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said.

As a crowd of reporters began to form outside the Blazers locker room, a team PR official preempted the onslaught by stating that Melo would not be talking before the game. But Anthony had spoken about seven hours earlier at Blazers shootaround, after wrapping up a solo shooting session where, at one point, he hit 14 straight 3s. Even in a neutralized setting like this one, it was hard to square the sight with what Melo said just a few minutes later, that he had gotten to a point during his year-long absence from the NBA where he was ready to fully move on from basketball.

“I was just like, ‘I am going to focus on other things in life, other things going on,’” Anthony said. “And I had come to grips with that.”

Had the Blazers not come through, Melo said he would have retired and continued to focus on his businesses, even though his family and particularly his wife refused to let him move on. “I’ve told her that plenty of times, ‘I’m done with this. I don’t want to do it. It’s time for me to accept this and move on. It’s time to focus on another part of my life.’ She won’t accept that.” He laughed, thinking about how things have turned out since he’s made it back onto a court and said: “I appreciate her.”

It would be difficult to paint such an idyllic image of Melo’s return if it wasn’t going so well. This week, the NBA awarded him Western Conference Player of the Week honors after he averaged 22.3 points and 7.7 rebounds and helped lead the Blazers to three straight wins. Melo refused to brand the award as validation, but once again, the reaction from his peers, the same ones who had griped publicly that he wasn’t on a team after being cast aside by the Rockets, was enough validation in and of itself.

That kind of reaction continued Tuesday, when Doc Rivers raved about how happy he was to see Melo back after enduring “all the negative baggage.” But the Clippers, like 28 other teams in the league, weren’t the ones who made the all-important call. The Blazers did. With Zach Collins suffering a serious shoulder injury, Portland needed frontcourt depth; Melo needed a team, one that would understand him.

“I never wanted to feel like I was begging for a job. I wanted it to be, if a team wanted me, they wanted me for what I could bring,” Melo said. The Blazers did, and they made sure to express that to him—to play free and have fun. “I think it’s a perfect fit for me, my game, my personality, those guys’ personalities, those guys’ games—it’s a perfect match.”

Stotts, who likes giving his players freedom on offense, says he thinks it wouldn’t make sense to put a player like Melo in a box. In other words, the Blazers are quite literally letting Melo stay Melo. And Melo, in return, has acquiesced to maximizing his limited role.

“I’m actually trying to fit in with those guys more than they’re trying to fit in with me,” Melo said. “And that’s something that we talk about. I don’t want them to try and fit in with me. Let me fit in with you guys and we’ll figure it out.” So far the two-way relationship has been working amicably. Stotts said Melo has even been a mentor to the younger Blazers, some of whom, he pointed out, were just kids when they began watching him play.

Gary Trent Jr. was only 11 when he watched Kobe Bryant and Anthony battle in the 2009 playoffs, and recalls Anthony torching the Lakers in Staples Center. Now he almost has to pinch himself when he looks at those famous Melo shots—the post-ups, the pull-up jumpers—being reincarnated in front of him, on the same NBA team he now plays for. And, as Trent makes sure to point out, “He’s still dunking.”

Kent Bazemore likes to keep track of all the superstars and vets he’s played with throughout his career, and he couldn’t be happier to add Melo to that list. “The game today is so different, a lot more spacing, and I feel like he’s thriving off that,” Bazemore said. ”This may be the best team he’s played with as far as personnel on the floor with the spacing, and he’s taking full advantage of it.”

To watch Melo on Tuesday was to see two different versions of the 10-time All-Star, depending on the personnel playing next to him. When one of or both McCollum and Lillard are on the floor, Melo acts as a release valve, waiting in the corners and on the wings for his time to catch and shoot or attack off the dribble. Both of the Blazers’ backcourt stars often attract the defense in such a way that has resulted in open shots for Melo. And he’s been hitting those shots enough (37 percent shooting from deep on nearly four attempts per game) that the collective chorus from Lillard and the Blazers is that this is exactly what they needed.

“He’s another threat, he just gives us another element,” Lillard, who called Melo’s exile unfair, said postgame. “I was excited to be a part of his bounce back.”

When running with the bench unit, shades of old-school Melo surface. There are the isolation plays, the post-ups against smaller players, and the fadeaway midrange jumpers. On multiple instances, Melo fooled the Clippers with the same pump fake that’s worked for ages. He finished with only nine points and six rebounds in a 117-97 loss, but as Stotts was flooded with more questions about Melo postgame, he made sure to point out, “Tonight was a struggle for everyone, but there’s no question [Melo] has been a positive addition.”

Seven games in, what’s surprised Stotts and Co. the most, and even opposing coaches like Rivers, is how Melo had stayed ready during his layoff, which has enabled him to hit the ground running.

What did staying ready look like? Apart from Melo doing cardio and lifting off the court, he connected with NBA trainer Alex Bazzell and practiced five days a week. Their routines were a mix of active drills like defending Bazzell in one-on-one situations and then transitioning to off-the-catch shooting. Bazzell did keep Melo’s midpost moves and the isolation shots in rotation to keep them sharp, but they made it a bigger point of emphasis to study film of elite perimeter defenders like George and Klay Thompson, and work on off-ball actions in a way that made it clear Melo had bought into Bazzell’s message: “Here’s what you need to work on and be better at if you want to play in today’s NBA.”

After Melo signed the nonguaranteed deal with Portland, Bazzell flew out to New York to squeeze in one more training session before his client’s debut. At last, they had a tangible thing to train for. The two worked on Blazers-specific actions like double-drag ball screens and simulated a five-on-five game to test his conditioning and recovery.

While Melo has impressed, signs of Father Time have popped up just as frequently as his midrange moves. Late in the first quarter of Tuesday’s game, Anthony got the ball in a post-up situation against Lou Williams, spun Williams off him with a quick move, and was on his way to a dunk when he was stonewalled by Montrezl Harrell. Later, he air-balled a shot after bodying a smaller defender. In the second half, he missed a layup badly and grimaced after landing. On the other end, he put his right foot on the stanchion and tried stretching out whatever it was that hurt.

It was another reminder, as if we needed one, that Melo is 35 and this is his 17th season in the league. It’s also why a year away from the game made him miss the little things that had become routine. “It’s small things,” he said. “Being in the locker room, just team lunches and brunches, having shootarounds, and just laughing and joking with a group of guys, understanding what it takes to formulate a bond. I think for me, that’s the most important part. That’s the fun part.”

Despite Tuesday’s result, it was easy to tell that Melo was having fun, even joking about his “haters” postgame. He responded with what felt like an inspirational Instagram caption: “Where there’s love, there’s hate.”

If the attention that surrounded him Tuesday was any indication, his return to the court has generated more of the former than the latter. Who knows how long that will last, but Melo says his time away from the NBA has made him appreciate this moment even more. As he walked out of the arena, this time through all the right doors, shaking hands and smiling, it was clear that what Melo said at that morning’s shootaround was ringing true.

“I’m happy.”