The Rebooted Carmelo Anthony: Same as He Ever Was

The New York Times Sports 3 weeks ago

NEW ORLEANS — Carmelo Anthony came to shoot on Tuesday night for the Portland Trail Blazers. And then he shot some more, often from midrange. There was some Good Melo, like when he bullied a defender and hit one of his patented pull-up jumpers from just outside the foul line. There was lots of Not So Good Melo: Bricked, inefficient shots combined with turnovers and fouls. But whatever it was, this was the quintessential Anthony experience. As the catchphrase associated with him might put it: Anthony Stayed Melo.

“I’m here now. That’s what’s important,” Anthony told reporters after the game. “Portland pulled the trigger and no matter what happens, I will always appreciate that.”

While the Trail Blazers waited until just before the game to announce that he would be starting, Anthony said that the team’s brass offered the starting job up front when they called at the end of last week. Right when Anthony’s long career appeared to be over, Portland offered a lifeline: a one-year, veteran minimum contract that only becomes guaranteed if he stays on the roster past Jan. 7.

“That was a miscommunication about my past couple seasons about what my role would be and what they were expecting from me,” Anthony said, seemingly referring to his two most recent teams, the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Houston Rockets, the latter of which cut him after ten games. “That was a big point, me talking to those guys. Let’s be transparent. It’s not nothing that I won’t be able to do, but just let me know up front.”

It was clear after Anthony’s first performance that he is a work in progress. He shot 4-14 for 10 points, along with five fouls, five turnovers and several lapses on defense. Asked about whether Anthony would remain in the starting lineup, Coach Terry Stotts said before the game, “I don’t see why not,” and added that it had not been necessary to have an extended discussion with Anthony about what his role was.

It’s easy to chalk up Anthony’s first performance to rust, but he didn’t actually look rusty. He was able to get to his spots — often posting up or in the midrange. He just couldn’t convert very often. His stat line from Tuesday wasn’t too dissimilar from what he was doing for Houston a year ago, and Anthony acknowledged he had some adjusting to do.

“Within a year, the game has changed. The physicality of the game has changed,” Anthony said.

What is clear is that Anthony is not going to fade into the background in the way veterans like Vince Carter, Ray Allen and Andre Iguodala did in their later years. In Carter’s prime in particular, he was faced with many of the criticisms as Anthony. But by picking his spots and accepting a bench role with zero complaint, Carter has extended his career well into his forties. But that’s not Anthony. He’s not one to be tentative on the floor. Good or bad, Anthony’s presence is to be felt. On Tuesday, his 14 shots were the second most on the team, despite playing only 24 minutes with minimal familiarity with his teammates and the offense. He had zero assists. (Part of his high usage was because of Damian Lillard being out with an injury.)

This means that Portland, with a season already teetering on the brink at 5-10, needs to be careful about this gamble. Anthony has nothing to lose. He’s 35 years old without the same athleticism he had a decade ago — and plays a style of basketball more suited for that decade. How much string does Stotts give Anthony if he doesn’t adjust quickly? And what if, despite Anthony’s protestations to the contrary, the ability to adjust is not just there? But as of right now, Stotts is all in.

“I would anticipate that he’s going to play the way he’s played his entire career,” Stotts said after the game, referring to Anthony. Given what we’ve seen in recent years from Anthony and how basketball has changed, is this a good thing?

In some ways, Anthony, a no-doubt-about-it Hall of Famer, is a perfect fit for this year’s version of the Trail Blazers. He made his living in his prime as a prolific scorer who thrived in isolations — meaning players opting to go one-on-one against man defenses — at a time when this type of game was in vogue.

Portland is second in the N.B.A. this year in isolations according to the N.B.A.’s tracking numbers, behind only the Houston Rockets. This kind of attack puts less emphasis on ball movement, cuts to the basket and set plays. It has resulted in a league-average offense for the Blazers. Maybe Anthony is the antidote to this, but last year, Portland wasn’t even in the top-10 in isolations and had one of the best offensive teams in the N.B.A.

It’s clear that Portland needs something. Coming off a Western Conference finals run last year, the Blazers are mired in a rut. They will hopefully get back Jusuf Nurkic at some point this season, a bruising center who, in the midst of a career year, fractured his leg last March. But the franchise still looks significantly different from last season: The team traded away role players like Meyers Leonard and Maurice Harkless. Seth Curry and Al-Farouq Aminu left as free agents. None of the players that left Portland are lighting up the stats sheets on their new teams — but culturally, they fit in with what Stotts was trying to do.

In their place is Hassan Whiteside, an excellent rebounder and shot blocker, with limited offensive capability. He has been the frequent target of critics who have said for years that his effort is lacking and that his statistics are empty. Other players, like Anthony Tolliver and Mario Hezonja, are also new additions trying to help take the load off Lillard and McCollum.

So maybe Anthony is the answer. The Blazers certainly need another playmaker, and Anthony is willing to make plays. Sometimes that’s enough to juice an offense. But it is worth considering whether any inefficient shot that Anthony takes is one that might be better taken by someone else — perhaps a better shooter like Tolliver, who did not see the court Tuesday.

On Tuesday afternoon, Anthony offered some insight as to why he chose the number “00” instead of his typical 7. He posted an image to Instagram — one side of it was his face with a hoodie on (Anthony’s sweatshirt wearing has become ubiquitous enough that it’s a part of his image). Opposite that was a list of lines apparently relating to his new number. They included: “A number greater than any assignable quantity or countable number,” “Without end” and “Process that never stops.” There were other, more abstract lines like, “The mysticism of our past and the possibility for an eternal future give the infinity symbol a sense of awe and wonder,” followed by “Infinite Nature of (God)7.”

But one line stood out more clearly than any other: “The chance to have a new and great beginning with the past left behind where it belongs.”

Anthony, and several of his friends from around the league, are thrilled he’s back. As they should be: Talents like Anthony are rare and it’s a treat to see them when we can. It’s just a question of whether this will lead to wins for Portland.

After the game, Anthony discussed his “low point” ever since the Rockets exiled him to a Basketball No Man’s Land. Teams weren’t calling. His Hall of Fame legacy was at stake.

“There was a time where I actually thought that I was about to let go a love of my life,” Anthony said. He talked about being at peace with whatever became of his career, but that he had to first “get over that hump mentally and emotionally.”

But he got past that point. The exact moment?

“The call, 72 hours ago,” Anthony said with a smile.


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