It has been 13 days since a deal that would send Carmelo Anthony to the Houston Rockets was reportedly “at the two-yard line.” But as August approaches and the NBA prepares to go quiet, Anthony is still in New York. He remains a Knick, until we hear otherwise. Houston GM Daryl Morey, apparently, needs to work on his red-zone offense.
While Morey and the Rockets try to get their deal over the goal line, the Melo rumor mill has been churning. The Ringer’s Bill Simmons reported Monday that Anthony and the Oklahoma City Thunder “are officially circling each other” — whatever that means. The New York Daily News’ Frank Isola confirmed that the Thunder have interest, but indicated Houston is still the strong favorite.
Meanwhile, C.J. McCollum has been pulling out all the stops to persuade Melo to waive his no-trade clause for the Portland Trail Blazers, and McCollum thinks Anthony is interested. However, former Blazers broadcast Mike Rice tweeted Monday that Portland is likely to be involved as the third team in a deal that would send Anthony elsewhere.
All of the speculation leads to the obvious follow-up question: If Melo does get dealt to Houston or Oklahoma City or Portland, how would he fit? Would he send the Rockets into the same stratosphere as Golden State? Would he cement the Thunder as a two-way, Warriors-neutralizing force? Would he make the Blazers a true contender?
Damian Lillard was asked a form of those questions at his basketball camp last Wednesday, and took things a step further. “I can only imagine what it would be like having [Anthony] iso’ing on one side, and C.J. [McCollum] in a corner, and me on the opposite wing and Nurk [Jusuf Nurkic],” Lillard fantasized. “I can only imagine how hard it would be to guard us when it’s already hard to guard us.”
Lillard’s backcourt running mate, McCollum, added some specificity: “If we get [Melo] — when we get him, speak it into existence — top-three in the West, easy.”
But are McCollum and Lillard right? Or, generalizing the question to loop in the Rockets and Thunder, could any trade that sends Anthony to the Western Conference jeopardize the Warriors’ dominance?
Answers revolve around Melo’s ability to adapt to a system that doesn’t feature him as the undisputed top option. And the evidence that supports those answers, whether affirmative or negative, is unfortunately sparse at best.
A trade to Houston — still the most likely resolution — would place Melo alongside Chris Paul and James Harden, and in a position in which he has never been during his 14-year NBA career. Ever since his third year in the league, Melo has been the guy. Offenses ran through him and were structured around him. He has never had a supporting cast equal to Paul-Harden-Clint Capela. He has never had one equal to Russell Westbrook-Paul George-Steven Adams. Heck, he’s never had one equal to Lillard-McCollum-Nurkic, at least not on the offensive end.
In part because he hasn’t, but also in part because of his skill set, Anthony developed a reputation as a ball-stopper, a go-to isolation scorer. The corollary thought is that such a player wouldn’t jell with Harden and Paul, nor with Westbrook and George, nor with Lillard and McCollum. At the very least, he wouldn’t allow for the maximization of his and others’ talents.
That last point cuts to the heart of superteam-building. On paper, when you add Paul to Harden, and then add Anthony to Harden and Paul, each move seemingly comes with diminishing returns. Neither Harden nor Paul is as valuable alongside the other as he is on his own. Ditto for Anthony.
But that, to some extent, is inevitable when superstars team up. The real question is whether such pairings or groupings optimize efficiency — as the Warriors’ do. If the ball isn’t in Harden’s or Paul’s or Anthony’s hands as much as it used to be, and if their shooting percentages and per-possession averages rise significantly as their usage rates fall, the acquisition of superstar on top of superstar is worth it.
As far as the Rockets are concerned in this department, there are statistical reasons to believe that Paul, a 46 percent-plus catch-and-shoot 3-point marksman each of the past two seasons, can be just as ruthlessly effective playing off the ball. Harden has plenty of NBA experience doing just that.
But with Anthony, who has been a decent catch-and-shoot guy when he’s gotten the opportunity to play off-ball in the NBA, perhaps the best evidence we have are his short summer stints with Team USA against overmatched competition.
The Team USA evidence is extremely positive. Anthony’s international basketball exploits have been well-documented. He starred as a sixth-man on a team that featured LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant (and Paul and Harden) at the 2012 Olympics, scoring 16.3 points in 17.8 minutes per game on 53 percent shooting and 50 percent from beyond the arc. He then captained the 2016 squad to Olympic gold.
Since 2006, Anthony has played 63 games for Team USA, equivalent to more than three quarters of an NBA season. In those 63 games, largely as a secondary or tertiary option, he’s compiled an effective field-goal percentage of 60. His NBA career eFG% is 48.2. This BBALLBREAKDOWN video from last summer delves into the reasons for those differences:
The key figures are Anthony’s tendencies. Per the above video, via Synergy, Anthony’s isolation rates with the Knicks from 2013-14 to 2015-16 ranged between 23.7 percent and 25.6 percent. With the national team, however, his isolation rates from 2007-12 were between 10.1 percent and 11.1 percent. That, obviously, is a significant difference, and coupled with the increase in efficiency, it tells a promising tale.
But those trends don’t necessarily mean that Anthony would be both comfortable and effective off the ball in Houston. There are alternative explanations for both. Just as Anthony was pigeonholed as an iso scorer because of the lack of talent around him in the NBA, he was forced into a lesser role on the national team by the presence of talent around him. And the increased efficacy could in large part be due to the severely inferior competition that Team USA encounters in international play (and, to a lesser extent, the shorter FIBA 3-point line).
Plus, Anthony wasn’t nearly as dominant at the 2016 Olympics as he had previously been with the national team. He shot under 40 percent from the field, his worst Team USA mark since 2004.
His play in Rio mirrors his declining NBA performance over the past three seasons, and leads to the overarching question: How much of Carmelo’s superstardom remains alive inside his 33-year-old body? It’s one of the more intriguing mysteries in today’s NBA. The 2016-17 season was his worst in over a decade. But how much of that was typical mid-30s regression, and how much of it was Knicks dysfunction?
If it was primarily the latter, and if Anthony’s propensity for isolation offense can be explained more so by situation than disposition, perhaps 2012 Olympics Melo can reappear in Houston.
And if he does — and even if his numbers don’t quite match the ones he put up in London, which they almost certainly won’t — then the Rockets could threaten Golden State.
But even with Anthony, neither Portland nor Houston would come close to supplanting the Warriors atop the NBA. That’s because of defense. Those two Melo suitors ranked 21st and 18th in defensive rating last season, and haven’t markedly improved on that end of the floor this offseason. Anthony, meanwhile, has been a below-average defensive player. He ranked 65th out of 69 qualifying small forwards in defensive real plus-minus last season. His defensive box plus-minus, per Basketball Reference, has never been above 0.0 in any one of his 14 NBA seasons. There is no reason to expect that to change, and therefore no reason to expect Houston or Portland to match Golden State.
The Thunder are slightly more intriguing. Andre Roberson’s presence would ease the defensive onus on both George and Anthony, and could keep Oklahoma City’s defense in the league’s top 10 while allowing a Big Three of Westbrook, Anthony and George to carry the offense into the top five. A small-ball lineup of Westbrook, Roberson, George, Anthony and Adams would carry all kinds of firepower.
These aren’t just hypotheticals, though; they’re also best-case scenarios. The Thunder could push the Warriors on paper. But we’ve seen what the Warriors are on an actual basketball court, and they might be even better in 2016-17. In all likelihood, the Thunder aren’t matching that. Neither are the Rockets. Neither are the Blazers.
A Melo trade could prevent another 12-0 Golden State sweep through the Western Conference playoffs. But it shouldn’t keep the Warriors from a fourth straight appearance in the NBA Finals.
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