The way the broadcast teams discussed Carmelo Anthony in his first two games back in the NBA after a yearlong hiatus, you might think it was a crime against basketball that he was out of the league so long.
“His midrange is exceptional,” New Orleans Pelicans play-by-play announcer Joel Meyers said after Anthony buried a contested first-quarter jumper on Tuesday night. “He’s an elite scorer in the midrange.”
Marv Albert and Chris Webber showered Anthony with similar praise on Thursday, when he scored 18 points in just his second game with the Portland Trail Blazers. That nationally televised broadcast ran a segment in which Anthony said all the right things two years after laughing at the idea of coming off the bench and a year removed from insisting, “I’m not sacrificing no bench role. That’s out of the question.”
“I know what I can still do from a basketball standpoint,” Anthony said into a TNT camera. “It’s just, I have to humble myself, I have to get rid of my ego, I have to get rid of my pride, but also approach the game differently. I talked to Coach [Terry] Stotts and said, ‘The only thing I would like you to do for me is just be transparent. If you want me to do X, Y, Z, I have no problem doing it, just let me know up front, and we can both be transparent and we can make this thing work.’ And he told me, ‘Look, this is what your role is going to be, this is what we expect from you, and we were ready for you, like, yesterday.”
“Inside the NBA” commentators Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley lauded him for acknowledging that his last two runs ended in “embarrassment,” likening Anthony’s experience to their own late-career transitions from leading men to supporting actors. Except, as much as we have heard how humbled Anthony is by the lack of interest in his services, what we have seen through two games is no different from what we saw in his failed experiments with the Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets.
Granted, Anthony has not entirely been set up for success. Damian Lillard has been sidelined since Monday with back spasms. The rest of his Blazers teammates were playing on the second night of a back-to-back in Anthony’s debut, and Portland was also without Hassan Whiteside (hip) on Thursday. Starting Gary Trent Jr. in the backcourt and Anthony Tolliver at center did Melo no favors. Still, we have yet to see anything from Anthony to suggest that his soul-searching has had any bearing on his game.
In 53 minutes across losses to the Pelicans and Milwaukee Bucks this week, Anthony scored 28 points on 10-for-29 shooting, doling out four assists against eight turnovers and committing seven fouls. Over the past two games, the Blazers have been outscored by 21 points with Anthony on the floor and outscored their opponents by two points in the 43 minutes he has been on the bench. With him in the lineup, they have operated at a league-average level offensively and a league-worst level defensively.
The Blazers have been 21.7 points per 100 possessions worse with Anthony in the game than they have been with him on the bench since his debut. The sample size is obviously minuscule, but the Blazers cycled through similar short stints with Anthony Tolliver, Mario Hezonja and Nassir Little as the starting four before deciding Anthony was worthy of the spot mere hours after a solitary walkthrough of the team’s offensive and defensive schemes. All three owned far better on/off ratings than Anthony in the 11 games between Zach Collins’ shoulder injury and the decision to sign the 10-time All-Star. Yet, when asked if he expected Melo to remain in the starting lineup, Stotts told reporters, “I don’t see why not.”
Sample sizes and excuses aside, all it takes is a rewatch of his two games to see why Anthony might be less likely to stick as a starter than he is to see his tenure in Portland end as it did in OKC and Houston.
Offensively, Anthony is 2-for-11 in the paint, showing the lift you might expect from a 35-year-old who had not played an NBA game in 12 months. On multiple occasions, he has driven to the basket, about to throw down on a helpless defender as if he were in his prime, only to have his shot blocked by one man before a second had his chance to reject him. Posting up Brandon Ingram yielded similar results.
Melo is 7-for-10 from midrange so far, many of them contested early in the shot clock, in line with his production in OKC and Houston, where he shot sub-40 percent on 5.6 midrange attempts per game.
It has been three years since Anthony was an elite midrange scorer, and even then his success rate was equivalent to that of a 30 percent 3-point shooter. This strikes at the heart of the Melo debate. The perception among many players and fans is that the skill set that made Anthony a scoring champion six years ago should still translate to above-average bucket-getting at age 35, when in reality even slight dips in his efficiency have only reinforced analytical arguments for turning him into a spot-up shooter.
It is there that Anthony has shown some promise. He has made five of his eight 3-point attempts. All five of those makes were assisted, most of them wide open. He should see even more spot-up chances on the perimeter once Lillard returns. Then again, this was the theory when Anthony was working alongside Russell Westbrook and Paul George on the Rockets and James Harden and Chris Paul on the Thunder.
Portland’s offense has looked potent in spurts with Anthony spacing the floor. This has been the case for years, but if he can increase his spot-up threes and decrease his isolation twos, there is at least a chance that the Blazers can score enough to remain competitive. And they better, because defensively they were an abomination before Anthony’s arrival and could actually very well be worse with him there.
Stotts has tried hiding Anthony on defense against Pelicans wing Kenrich Williams and Bucks center Brook Lopez, limiting his assignment to a third or fourth option, and even then Melo has gotten lost. It is far harder to watch him get switched onto Jrue Holiday or chase Wes Matthews around screens.
Worse yet is Anthony’s effort in transition. Defensively, the hope, if we are holding out for it, is that improved game-ready conditioning helps him regain half the step he has lost, but consistently jogging behind the play is not a great way to convince us that he is as committed to this comeback as he says.
This clip — in which Melo isolates on Giannis Antetokounmpo, turns the ball over and watches Eric Bledsoe drive for a layup — is everything you do not want to see from Melo on both sides of the ball:
It is here, then, that we might remind you we heard all of this about and from Melo a year ago, when he was humbled by his ouster in Oklahoma City that landed him in Houston via an Atlanta Hawks buyout.
“I know what I can still do and what I still have,” he said then, “so my confidence from that standpoint — yeah, I always have to say I don’t want to come off the bench, but knowing that ahead of time and having those conversations and going game to game and understanding, ‘OK, we might need you to do this tonight, we might need you to do that tonight,’ I have a clearer understanding of what my role is.”
Here is hoping he means that after a year to reflect on it. We just have not seen it yet.
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