Carmelo Anthony is finally facing the question that the general basketball-watching public has been asking for years now: Can he evolve into a role player the same way fellow future Hall of Famer Vince Carter has extended his career, or will he stubbornly run himself aground like Allen Iverson did?
It took less than a month for the Houston Rockets to realize what has been obvious to most everyone else since Anthony was still wearing a New York Knicks uniform: The 10-time All-Star cannot be the missing piece for a title contender if he continues to play the way he has always insisted he must.
Anthony’s isolation style of offense is not complementary, to say nothing of his defense. Like most of us who still appreciate Anthony’s contributions to the game, Rockets GM Daryl Morey surely hoped the 34-year-old would be self-aware enough to recognize that it was nobody’s fault but his that he didn’t fit in New York and Oklahoma City, and that he had to change if he wanted to make it work in Houston.
Except, Anthony and two of his best buddies are the last people to realize his glory days are behind him. Perhaps they should all ask fellow friend Chris Paul how well that his working out for their pal.
With his time in Houston all but run out, Anthony is running out of options, if there are any at all. He must decide: Can I evolve as a basketball player or do I not want to? Am I more Carter or Iverson?
There are other legends of the game who transitioned from stardom into a role-playing existence — namely, Bill Walton, Ray Allen, Grant Hill and Jason Kidd — but Carter is the most apt comparison.
Like ‘Melo, Carter forced his way out of his first NBA stop and wore out his welcome at his second. It took failed tours of duties with Orlando and Phoenix, at ages 33 and 34, for him to accept his new NBA reality, and he emerged as a valuable contributor on playoff teams in Dallas and Memphis for six more seasons. The 41-year-old has shepherded rebuilds in Sacramento and Atlanta the past two years.
During Carter’s final year in Memphis, as the Grizzlies were transitioning into the pace-and-space era, 55 percent of his shots came on catch-and-shoot opportunities, and 62 percent of his shots came from behind the 3-point line. He shot 40 percent on 241 catch-and-shoot 3-point tries and was in the 16th percentile on isolation plays — a far cry from his shot-creating days in Toronto and New Jersey.
Over 88 games in OKC and Houston, where Anthony is supposedly a role player, he has shot 37 percent on 421 catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts, which might be beneficial on its own, if not for all the other shots he’s taking. Only 42 percent of his shots have come on catch-and-shoot chances and 44 percent have come from 3-point range, and he remains in the 81st percent for isolation plays.
Anthony is not the athletic specimen that Carter was (or even still is), which means his defense has taken an even more precipitous fall at this stage, but given his size at 6-foot-8, ability to score in the post and the fact that he is six years younger than Carter was during that 2016-17 season, there’s no reason to believe he couldn’t fill a similar role on a playoff team if he were willing to accept it.
Anthony was 22 years old when the Denver Nuggets traded for Allen Iverson, who at age 31 was still averaging a vapid 31 points on 24 shots per game in Philadelphia at the time of the deal. He demanded the ball, despite the presence of a considerably more efficient option entering his prime superstardom, and shot his way out of town three games into what was supposed to be his second full season in Denver. In return, the Nuggets fetched Chauncey Billups, whose unselfishness helped elevate a team that got swept in the first round to one that came within two games of the Finals.
Meanwhile, Iverson declared on the Detroit Pistons that he would “rather retire” than come off the bench, and he was all but out of the league by season’s end. He played three games in Memphis before his unwillingness to accept a backup role to Mike Conley led to his waiver, and he lasted 25 more games back in Philadelphia before they outright released him. He never played in the NBA again.
“Before it was like, give him the ball, everybody spread out and let him do his thing,” Sam Dalembert, one of few Sixers left from A.I.’s initial Philadelphia run, said at the time. “Now, he’s like, you have to run this, you have to get him involved. He was still learning the offense. There were a couple of games where it was a struggle offensively, but other games he got the feel for it. You got the flash of A.I.”
Sound familiar? Anthony saw this blueprint with his own eyes and can’t see it in himself. Such is the life of a superstar scorer who lost his cape. Just ask Tracy McGrady, who retired at age 34, unhappy accepting a lesser role after tasting scoring titles, and urged Anthony to do the same this week.
There is a connective tissue between Anthony, Carter and Iverson. They were all Hall of Fame shot-makers who were criticized for not leading their teams to the promised land. There comes a time in all of their lives when they have to decide whether they want to go down shooting or live another day in a diminished capacity. Carter chose one way, Iverson another. It’s time for ‘Melo to choose his path.
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