Carmelo Anthony officially signed with the Portland Trail Blazers Tuesday and later that night, made his return to NBA action. Portland fell to the New Orleans Pelicans 115-104, Anthony finished with 10 points on 4-for-14 FGA, 2-for-3 3PA, 5 turnovers and 4 rebounds.
I desperately wanted to see some vintage, scoring champion Melo and for him to have a moment, hell everyone did. The Basketball Gods have a funny way of giving guys one last hurrah on the way out, and that’s the rarity people were tuning in for… but the moments were at best a mixed bag and at worst…something far more depressing for Anthony and his prospects at getting one last run in the league.
Melo has spent the last year in a bizarre grey area just outside of the league, openly talking about his desire to play but evidently failing to find a home until this week. As cool as those workout videos were (*pulls collar*) they did not net an NBA contract.
Could he have probably been on a team filling out a roster somewhere in the league? At least from a talent perspective, sure, he’s still probably in the group of 600 guys who make up the NBA. But until Portland saw injuries pile up in its front-court, no one was willing to take Anthony on.
Why that was the case is still up for debate. The spectrum ranges from “he’s washed” to “he doesn’t want to take a lesser role” to “he’s still good” to “he can be a real difference maker to a championship team”. Somewhere in the middle is the most realistic reasoning, one would think.
Compared to his old self, Anthony is a drastically different athlete. He’s no longer any type of an iso-threat and to his credit, was willing to become more of a catch-and-shoot artist during the last runs of his career with Oklahoma City and Houston. He’s just not the Denver or early New York Melo who is going to beat guys with a first step and muscle, those days are gone. And defensively… well those days are long, long, long gone.
Still though, like I said I thought he was still a top 600 talent. He was a good shooter in OKC and was coming out of a slump by the end of his short Houston tenure, playing alongside James Harden and Chris Paul. For all the hype about his refusal to accept a lesser role, he seemed generally okay to take a half a step back offensively in games. At the very least, it seemed like he could be the second or third guy off the bench, score effectively against second units and be a positive factor for a playoff team.
The problem wasn’t with Anthony, it was with the following that surrounds him. He’s amongst the most popular athletes in the sport still. He’s married to LaLa. He’s best friends with LeBron and a host of other stars. He’s a big freaking deal!
Can someone like that come off the bench next to David West and really fit into a locker room? There’s actually not a lot of precedent for it, and so it’s been amongst one of the league’s most tempting mysteries this season. Was Melo really going to just be done like that? And if he did come back, would it actually be in like a…Udonis Haslem role? Dwyane Wade in his last year with the Heat? What the hell was this thing going to look like?
So it’s not a surprise that his return on Tuesday was heavily anticipated and probably even more heavily scrutinized.
(worth noting that it was not heavily scrutinized by the NBA TV crew on the game, in particular Isiah Thomas — who scolded the Trailblazers and Anfernee Simons at halftime for not exclusively clearing out for Melo because of “the moment” — and Kevin McHale — who insisted that Anthony looked “great” and correcting anyone that dared to suggest he merely looked “good” or “solid”. McHale even praised Anthony’s three fouls and early exit in the first half because it would keep him fresh for later in the game. Nope, he just picked up a couple more fouls and rode the bench the majority of the late-4th quarter)
Listen, right off the top, it’s important to note that this was one game, 24 minutes, and Anthony’s first NBA game in one year and ten days. This is an impossibly small sample size, and it’s worth reserving judgement at least for a couple games, if not until Damian Lillard returns to action. If you want to throw on the blinders and keep on capping for Melo, I’m all for it…
It certainly wasn’t reassuring.
Offensively, his role was much closer to the one he had in New York: handling the ball, posting up and trying to win one-on-one. Outside of a couple fun moments early on (a pick-and-pop three and vintage step-back mid-range jumper), he really did just look old in almost all of those post ups. Defenders were all over his first step, and he just didn’t have the juice to get up through them and to the rim anymore, although it’s not for lack of trying.
Again though, I can talk myself into a small sample size and a ton of rust to some extent. Hell, I actually liked a couple of the easy looks Terry Stots got him you won’t see on the highlights. Plus it’s probably fair to assume he’ll get to slide into a less-intensive scoring role once Dame returns and CJ slides back into the number two option.
Defensively, on the other hand, is far more difficult to talk yourself into.
There was a lot of standing, a lot of pointing, a lot of pulling on the shorts. All of the vintage Melo you expect to see on that end, but also doing it even slower than usual. He essentially camped on the block and yelled at Hassan Whiteside, refusing to budge as he gave up a handful of wide-open triples. For those into that sort of thing, he finished as a team worst -20 plus/minus (individual game plus/minus can get really silly really quick…but it’s not like he was helping things out there a whole lot).
The threat is that the Pelicans probably didn’t have the personnel to really make Melo’s defensive stuff kill the Blazers, with injuries to Josh Hart, Lonzo Ball, Derrick Favors, Jahlil Okafor, and of course Zion Williamson. Melo’s role was largely to be as hidden as possible and with so few playmakers available to the Pelicans, Stotts and Co were able to do a good job of keeping him away from Jrue Holiday and Brandon Ingram.
Instead, he was able to hide on corner shooters (mostly Kenrich Williams, who?) and dart his eyes back-and-forth like he’s Doctor Strange darting through millions of potential outcomes for this possession (they all end in his man splashing an open three…except for the one possession he pokes a ball away in the paint because no one is afraid to try and blow by him. This will then be used as years as an example of him actually being a good defender on Twitter). Most teams will not be so forgiving.
Virtually all of the league’s teams are going to get busy if you aren’t willing to make rotations and close out in today’s NBA, and Anthony looked practically cemented to the block in his first game back, and honestly nobody on Portland looked super thrilled about it after some of the defensive breakdowns.
You can argue that the Trail Blazers were in a zone for a lot of the breakdowns (and announcers made sure to defend him by pointing that out), but when virtually every one of these collapses is caused by Carmelo standing and pointing for a rotation while wide-open threes fly off… that’s not going to go over great.
Plus, are you really going to tell me Anthony in a Man-on-Man defense is going to be anything, like, good? He wasn’t four years ago, it would be pretty shocking if he suddenly became passable as a 35-year-old whose been out of the league for 12 months.
Again, we can and should give Anthony some time to find a rhythm within the game, something many have forgoed in the name of “these jokes”, and it is probably even fair to rip off some “Vintage Melo!” tweets when he points furiously at Kent Bazemore as a wide-open triple sails through the air above him.
But I want this to work. I want Carmelo Anthony to get one last run, get a couple of moments on the way out, and be a piece for this Portland team that is extremely thin. I want him to show us he still has something in the tank, but it’s impossible to say he accomplished that in Game One.