It took more than a month, but Carmelo Anthony finally joined the Houston Rockets on Monday, signing the one-year, $2.4 million contract he verbally agreed to last week. We’ve long known the 10-time All-Star would be headed to Houston just as soon as he made his way out of Oklahoma City and bid an emotional adieu to Atlanta; how productive a partnership it’ll be, though, figures to depend largely on how willing Anthony is to accept a complementary role alongside reigning NBA MVP James Harden and star point guard Chris Paul, and whether he’s able to produce more effectively in that framework for the Rockets than he did during his lone year with the Thunder.
One possible resolution to the potentially sticky issue of how best to integrate ‘Melo: bringing him off the bench to allow him to act as the shot-creating, high-usage focal point of Houston’s second unit. Anthony flatly rejected that notion in Oklahoma City last year, but a story by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski published Monday morning suggested Anthony might be singing a different tune in Texas:
After an update just after noon Eastern time, though, that passage reads quite a bit differently …
Anthony will have a chance to compete for a starting spot in training camp, but could ultimately come off the bench based on whatever Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni decides is best for the team.
… which suggests that how things are expected to shake out might not be quite so settled.
D'Antoni said he does not know whether he will start @carmeloanthony or bring him off the bench, but that was discussed in the first meeting and Anthony was open to either role. Said @JamesDa_Truth has been overlooked and that he is excited about having him in the mix, too.
— Jonathan Feigen (@Jonathan_Feigen) August 13, 2018
That sounds about right, because the possibility that ‘Melo would be on-board with the move represents a verrrrry significant departure from his well-documented previous feelings on the matter.
Carmelo Anthony has been very clear about not wanting to come off the bench
After joining the Thunder in late September, just before the start of training camp, Anthony immediately dismissed the idea that Oklahoma City — a squad whose starting lineup already featured a premier creator in former MVP Russell Westbrook and a dynamite No. 2 option in All-Star swingman Paul George — might benefit most from having him work off the bench:
Two months later, after Oklahoma City had struggled to an 8-12 start to the season, Anthony once again brushed off the notion that a change to the starting lineup might be the cure for what ailed the Thunder:
“No, no,” Anthony said. “Hell no. No, no, not at all.” […]
“We’re fine, man,” [Anthony] said. “Like I said, it’s on us to figure how we’re going to be consistent. I think that’s our biggest downfall right now, we’re not a consistent team. Once we get that consistency and the way that we want to play and continue on that level of play throughout the course of the game, we’ll see that turnaround.”
Oklahoma City did improve over the course of the season, winding up with a 48-34 record that was good for the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference. The Thunder did perform better with Anthony on the floor than off it, and the starting lineup did turn out just fine: the fivesome of Anthony, Westbrook, George, Adams and Andre Roberson blitzed opponents by 14.1 points per 100 possessions, the eighth-best net rating in the whole league among groups that logged 200 minutes.
Even after his worst season, ‘Melo still sees himself as more than a role player
But adjustment doesn’t necessarily mean acceptance, and after an awkward-if-intermittently-successful season ran aground against the Utah Jazz in the opening round of the 2018 playoffs — a series in which Anthony struggled mightily on both ends of the floor — ‘Melo made it clear that he envisioned a different, and larger, role in his second season in Oklahoma City:
“I’m not sacrificing (by playing) no bench role,” Anthony said of next season. “That’s out the question.” […]
“I don’t think I can be effective as [a complementary] type of player,” Anthony said. “I think I was willing to accept that challenge in that role, but I think I bring a little bit more to the game as far as being more knowledgeable and what I still can do as a basketball player.” […]
“I think everybody knows that I’ve sacrificed kind of damn near everything — family, moving here by myself, sacrificed my game for the sake of the team, and was willing to sacrifice anything and everything in order for this situation to work out,” Anthony said. “So it’s something I really have to think about, if I really want to be this type of player, finish out my career as this type of player, knowing that I have so much left in the tank and I bring so much to the game of basketball.”
After Anthony and the Thunder acknowledged they’d never found the right fit and then agreed to split up, paving the way for him to join the Rockets, he reiterated to ESPN’s Jemele Hill that, even at age 34, he still doesn’t feel like he’s reached the point where he shouldn’t be included in his team’s first five:
“I know how to play this game of basketball,” he said. “I’ve been playing it for a long time. When I feel like I’m ready to take [a bench] role, then I’ll take that role. Only I know when it’s best for me to take that role. I’m not going to do that in a situation where I still know my capabilities and what I can do. And at the end of the day, the people who really matter know my capabilities and what I can still do.”
Will ‘Melo move to the bench if that’s what’s best for the Rockets?
It’s not hard to understand Anthony’s reluctance to accept a bench role. In 15 NBA seasons, encompassing 1,126 total regular- and postseason games, he’s never once come off the bench. For as long as Carmelo Anthony’s been a basketball player, he’s been viewed as the best, or one of the best, players on his team, a first-squad pick for as far back as he can remember. We might think that it doesn’t really matter if you start games as long as you finish them, but it clearly does matter to a lot of players; there’s a reason someone like Manu Ginobili is held up as the exception rather than the rule. Carmelo Anthony still sees himself as an elite player, and for the most part, elite players start.
By virtually any definition, though, Anthony wasn’t an elite player last year. While it’s reasonable to expect him to get a bump from sharing the floor with top-drawer playmakers like Harden and CP3, it’s very much an open question as to whether he’ll perform much better in Houston than he did in Oklahoma City, and whether his addition will help the Rockets get back to within striking distance of the Golden State Warriors this season. The first step toward maximizing his value is identifying the role that most successfully puts him in position to succeed; the next step is getting Anthony to buy in and play the part he’s assigned.
If Anthony looks brilliant in training camp and makes D’Antoni’s decision easy, then so much the better. But if by mid-October it’s looking like somebody else (P.J. Tucker, James Ennis, Gerald Green, et al.) is a better fit in the first-unit frontcourt … well, it ought to be interesting to find out whether someone mere weeks removed from saying, “Only I know when it’s best for me to take that role,” would be ready to face that particular realization.
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