NBA players typically don’t advocate publicly for one another. LeBron James did it once (for Shabazz Napier!), and we never let him forget it.
That didn’t stop Damian Lillard:
#VoteForMeloFareWellSeason #StopPlayinMelo— Damian Lillard (@Dame_Lillard) July 29, 2019
The language used by Lillard, and by trainer Chris Brickley, seems to indicate that Carmelo Anthony, 10-time All-Star, future Hall of Famer, and the last great midrange assassin, is out of a job for reasons other than his ability to help a team.
There are plenty of theories for why Anthony remains unsigned. But none of them are rooted in the belief that Anthony, an All-Star in 2016-17, is no longer one of the most talented 450 players in the league. Former teammate Chauncey Billups recently summed up the most popular idea on the matter:
“The reason why he’s not in the league—because he’s still worthy—is he hasn’t mentally taken that step back to say, ‘OK, I’ll come in and play against backups. I’ll try to help the team out. I know I might not be able to close, but I just want to help.’ Well he’s not there yet.”
That sounds convincing, but it ignores the changes Anthony has already made. In the 2017-18 season with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Anthony took more catch-and-shoot jumpers than pull-ups, something he hadn’t done in the previous four seasons. His usage percentage (23.2%) dropped well below his career average (30.8%), and his 3-point attempt rate (40.6%) more than doubled his career average.
Anthony is regarded as one of the last vestiges of the way the game used to be played, even though he’s made an effort to adapt to the new meta. In 10 games with the Houston Rockets last season before being traded to the Bulls and then waived, Anthony took twice as many 3s as midrange jumpers, all while playing on a veteran’s minimum contract and coming off the bench in eight games.
“He was amazing here, a real teammate and great with the coaches,” a Rockets source told Shams Charania of The Athletic. “It’s unfortunate what happened.”
But Anthony isn’t just fighting Father Time at age 35, or legs that won’t let him move defensively; he’s fighting a battle of public perception. Every negative result is connected to the last, in spite of whether the process was altered in between.
It seems like Anthony is being asked more for atonement than actual change—an acknowledgment that what made him a superstar, and kept him from winning a ring, was that he played the wrong way. But Anthony shouldn’t have to diminish his past accomplishments, or exhibit a complete loss of ego and shelve his intrinsic motivation in order to be an effective player and teammate. He just needs to defend, to the best of his ability, every time he takes the floor, and knock down spot-up 3s like he did for OKC in the regular season (37.3% in 2017-18).
Anthony’s scoring upside is still good enough to warrant one last opportunity, this time in shorter stints against second units. That was Houston’s plan last season, before injuries set in and Melo’s role had to be altered. There are other teams that could still follow that blueprint:
Golden State Warriors
The Warriors haven’t shied away from big personalities in the past (Nick Young, JaVale McGee, DeMarcus Cousins), and their need for bench scoring is real: Only Alec Burks and Willie Cauley-Stein have scored more than 1,000 career points in the projected second unit. If there’s anyone capable of covering two frontcourt assignments instead of one, it’s Draymond Green; and offensively, Anthony could theoretically absorb some of the isolation possessions that left with Kevin Durant. The Warriors would need to shift some pieces around to make Anthony’s veteran’s minimum salary fit under the hard cap, but the juice might be worth the squeeze, especially as the younger back half of the roster gets acclimated and Klay Thompson gets healthy.
The Pistons are short on frontcourt depth; Markieff Morris and Thon Maker are the only options with real experience behind Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond. That’s a scary proposition, especially given Griffin’s injury history. Getting a capable bench scorer would help, and the Pistons could mask some of Anthony’s mobility issues by playing him in lineups with solid perimeter defenders like Tony Snell and Bruce Brown. Detroit probably has one more season with this current core before changes come down the pipe, and the signing of Derrick Rose instead of a younger player signals a desire to compete for a playoff spot now. Anthony’s defense is a little easier to hide in the weaker East, especially for a team that’s strong there (12th in defensive efficiency last season) to begin with.
Charlotte’s leading returning scorer is Marvin Williams. That seems suboptimal. At the very least, the Hornets could get some mileage out of Anthony, a Jordan Brand athlete, having his retirement tour under MJ’s watch. This wouldn’t move the needle for the Hornets competitively, but so long as Anthony didn’t block young players like Miles Bridges and PJ Washington from playing time, it wouldn’t hurt to generate a little buzz and get a bucket every now and then.
With no Team USA invite and multiple rosters around the league already full, the reality that Anthony may have played his last game is starting to set in. The league moves fast, and it moves on even faster, but Anthony is deserving of a last chance to definitively answer whether or not his time is up.