It's Time for Carmelo Anthony to Defeat His Own Ego
What does a move to the Houston Rockets really mean for a future Hall of Famer who hasn't looked like a future Hall of Famer in a very long time?
Photo by Jason Szenes - European Pressphoto Agency
Carmelo Anthony is 34 years old, and the glory days that once encouraged him to piddle from the mid-range without a conscience have been distilled into a memory. As his relevance dwindles after a disastrous year with the Oklahoma City Thunder in which he was the least efficient, most vanilla iteration of his once-dominant self, Anthony finds himself in an unfamiliar position: unwanted.
On Wednesday, the ten-time All-Star was traded to the Atlanta Hawks, a rebuilding organization that has no use for anyone older than 28 who isn't named Vince Carter. From there he will be waived, likely clearing a path for the Houston Rockets to grab someone they pray can salvage an offseason that didn’t go as well as they'd hoped.
Here’s an optimistic take on the situation: Up next is basketball redemption, the chance to adjust the trajectory of a career that will in part be remembered for a diverse set of decisions that placed Anthony’s own wants and needs above everything else. He grew up in an age where talent was spread around the league and each team had a fixed hierarchy. But without warning or his permission, the NBA suddenly shifted into an era defined by sacrifice, a word long foreign to Anthony’s vocabulary.
Shades of megalomania have long obstructed him from accepting what the final stage of his career needs to look like. But if his experience with the Thunder taught him anything, it’s that delusion should be replaced by a willingness to acquiesce for the greater good. Anthony’s offensive responsibilities don’t need to hollow out in order for him to help a basketball team, but the dosage in which he’s unleashed should probably recede.
Anthony drifted through Oklahoma City in somewhat of a stupor, with a game that balanced stubbornness, unconcern, and doubt on its way to poor shooting nights that quickly revealed him to be more a part of the pseudo-contender’s problem than solution. The Thunder were fine with him at the four, boasting a 56-win pace, deadly offense, and competence on the other end. But Anthony also averaged 101.1 points per 100 shot attempts, which was fewer than Wesley Johnson and Marquese Chriss.
Oklahoma City and Houston are very different situations, though. The Rockets have more versatility, outside shooting, and befitting talent than the Thunder. Anthony will have more space than ever before, in lineups that can bombs away beyond the arc at every position. James Harden and Chris Paul are two of the most intellectually searing passers who ever touched a basketball. They make the sport more digestible for everyone who plays with them, Anthony included.
Meanwhile, OKC was at times, and in different ways, held prisoner by the two All-Stars above Anthony on the totem pole. Russell Westbrook takes what he believes is his (AKA everything) while Paul George is at his best finishing possessions himself. Unselfish ball movement was not the modus operandi in Houston last season, but that’s only because they didn't need it to be successful. The Thunder did. They finished second-to-last in passes per game (the Rockets were 30th) while ranking second in isolation possessions (the Rockets were first). But according to Cleaning the Glass, OKC finished 18th in points per half-court play while Houston only trailed Golden State. Their offensive strategy wasn't awful, but didn't necessarily suit their personnel.
And even in an environment Anthony should've been able to comfortably slide into, there was noticeable change in his role. From 2014 to 2017 the percentage of Anthony’s shots that were catch-and-shoot threes ranged from 15-20 percent. Last season, it skyrocketed to a whopping 35 percent. This is a stylistic step in the right direction for someone who should bounce back from what was in some ways a dreadful season beyond the arc: on 194 “open” attempts, Anthony only shot 30.9 percent.
Back in April, he reflected on the experience with a sour taste in his mouth: "As far as being effective as [a spot-up shooter] I don't think I can be effective as that type of player. 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."
After getting traded and bought out, Anthony had even more time to process where he is and what he needs to do, and his most recent words come from a man who just touched down in reality:
"I had a conversation with my wife and family. I said to them, I'm not taking no buyout. I'm not getting waived. And they said, at the end of the day, nobody is going to know that. You have to do what you have to do. It's going to be a blip on your radar. It's on to the next chapter. It took me a while to get to that point where I'm like, OK, I'm going to accept it."
Looking ahead to Houston, a case can be made for Mike D’Antoni to start James Ennis at the three—instead of Anthony—alongside Paul, Harden, P.J. Tucker, and Clint Capela. He’s a low-usage wing with good size and a willingness/ability to stand in the corner and make open threes while switching through a gauntlet of different positions.
Even with fewer touches in less minutes, Anthony’s defense atrophied last year. He guarded with the enthusiasm of a flight attendant who’d like to know if you want some complimentary almonds, and was constantly put in pick-and-rolls designed to roast him. There’s no reason to think this area of his game will ever improve, even to a passable degree, and that has to concern a Rockets team that A) just lost two quality two-way wings, and B) believes it can defeat the Golden State Warriors.
But having him come off the bench—perhaps even as a tag-team replacement with Eric Gordon that can allow Harden and Paul to rest at the same time—not only lets Anthony spend more time guarding second units, but should also provide freedom within an offense that wants him to isolate in space and run some spread pick-and-roll. As a screener, Anthony can dare opponents to switch whenever he sets a pick on Paul, Harden, or Gordon's man. If there's hesitation, any one of those three will knife their way downhill and force help off the three-point line. If they switch, Anthony will find himself with a smaller, weaker defender on his hip, in position to still do the type of damage he's capable of.
Anthony’s assist rate took a nosedive last season, dropping from 21 and 14.1 percent in the previous two years to 6.1. Playing beside Westbrook and George, uneasiness overtook the stoic ways of a great scorer who’s confident enough to draw two defenders and then hit the open man. His triple-threat position rarely led to anything more than a series of jab steps and ball fakes that set the table for a contested jumper. These sequences were stagnant and upsetting, whether the ball went in or not. (According to Synergy Sports, he used 255 possessions to isolate last season. 245 of them ended in a shot, foul, or turnover, which means he only passed the ball ten times.) And even when he was given a high screen, Anthony’s focus rarely shifted from the front of the rim.
But the remnants of his basketball insight were always on display whenever he found a mismatch in the post—a situation Houston’s coaching staff should try and put him in as often as possible. Years of experience have made him an expert at recognizing when double teams are on their way and where they’re coming from. He’s tall enough to survey the entire floor, read help, and kill you with a skip pass .
This should be a staple of Houston’s second-quarter offense, when Anthony will be surrounded by more spacers (Gerald Green, Gordon, and Paul) who’ll either let him penetrate deeper against an individual matchup or kick out to an open shooter. In the starting lineup, those opportunities will be few and far between.
It feels weird to be optimistic about the rest of Anthony’s career after watching him struggle the way he did on the Thunder, but it’s even more strange to look at his bottom-line talent and cast him off as a net negative. Fit always matters unless your name is LeBron James—and even he may succumb to an illogical supporting cast next season—and this fit is so much better than Oklahoma City's.
There are no answers for Anthony’s weaknesses, which will flare up in the playoffs like incurable arthritis. But what he can control is a commitment to team above self, an ego that must be reasoned with, and the acceptance of a system and roster that can temporarily rejuvenate his career. Half a decade removed from his most recent All-NBA team, Anthony can still be an effective, uniquely valuable role player. Whether he becomes that in Houston is totally up to him.
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports US.