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The Opinionated 7-Footers: MJ thought Carmelo Anthony was going to be better than LeBron James?
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Carmelo Anthony started this season in NBA purgatory. Now he’s more relevant than he has been in years. The seven-time All-Star is starting for one of the most interesting teams in the bubble, the Portland Trail Blazers, and if things go according to plan, he’ll meet his buddy LeBron James in the first round of the playoffs. 

Unlike James, Anthony’s days as a franchise player are long over. Both of them, however, have experienced this season as vindication. And while James might be pulling a LaBradford Smith, Anthony’s doubters were real, respected and armed with statistical evidence. He was unemployed for a full calendar year, cut loose by the Houston Rockets and left hanging by the rest of the league after swallowing his pride to sign a minimum contract and come off the bench. 

Days ago, Damian Lillard said that he thinks Portland could’ve made the Finals last year if Anthony had been on the roster. This feels like an overstatement, but the merit of the claim itself matters much less than the fact it was made about a player who was contemplating retirement before the Blazers called.

Anthony scored 20 points on 7-for-13 shooting in Portland’s 124-121 win against the shorthanded Philadelphia 76ers on Sunday. The Blazers are now 33-39 and 4-2 in Orlando, half a game behind the Memphis Grizzlies with four days of seeding games between them and a potential play-in. As Anthony, 36, prepares for the most meaningful basketball he has played since being the piñata at Donovan Mitchell’s pick-and-roll party in April 2018, it’s worth trying to put his comeback in context. 

Should everyone who brought up Anthony’s defensive deficiencies have filled out an apology form by now? Should the Rockets regret waiving him, or at least doing so after only 10 games? What can we learn from this reinvention in Rip City? Sam Quinn, Brad Botkin and James Herbert attempted to answer these questions:

James Herbert: Seven and a half years ago, Chris Ballard profiled Anthony for Sports Illustrated, and the story is as much about the way the man is discussed as it is about the man itself. Professional gambler Haralabos Voulgaris told Ballard that his team of number-crunchers had made more money on the New York Knicks than on any other NBA team. The secret was to bet on them when Anthony didn’t play.

“It’s not that we think he’s bad; it’s that the market thinks he’s better than he actually is,” Voulgaris said. 

Voulgaris is now the director of qualitative research and development for the Dallas Mavericks. Anthony is now less polarizing a figure, given that nobody is arguing that he is “at a place where he can lead a team to a championship,” as his college coach Jim Boeheim told Ballard back then. But people still feel strongly about him — supporters say it was a travesty that he fell out of the league in the first place, and skeptics still question his defense and shot selection.

My question: In 2020, how does Anthony’s performance in Portland square with public perception? It is easy for me to say he has fit in better than I anticipated, but I find it next to impossible to parse his reputation. Words like overrated and underrated seem inadequate here, so I’ll get this going with a mild take: It is possible that Anthony has been more important to the Blazers this season than is commonly understood, and that his success in this context tells us less than people think about how he’d perform in a different one. 

Sam Quinn: I want to build on a couple of quotes that you just dropped, James. Voulgaris was right in saying that the markets overvalue Anthony, but the issue runs deeper than that. From the outpouring of support that came after his signing to Lillard’s Finals fantasy, there is a mountain of evidence suggesting that players overvalue Anthony as well. 

I shudder to think of what might have happened to Anthony defensively in a seven-game series against Golden State’s perpetual-motion machine. Even now, as his comeback tour rages on, he’s a genuine liability on that end of the floor. Synergy Sports ranks him in the 23rd percentile of defenders league-wide, and much of that still boils down to effort. Opposing shooters score 1.23 points per possession against him in spot-up situations largely because of his laissez-faire approach to closeouts. At his peak he could summon stretches of defensive adequacy, but defending anyone in space is asking too much of him now. Mitchell hunted him like a wounded deer in the playoffs two years ago; just imagine what LeBron freaking James would do to him if Portland sneaks into the playoffs. 

We aren’t in the playoffs yet, though, and Anthony hasn’t been playing for a playoff-caliber team. It’s easier to ignore deficiencies when they aren’t being exploited on a play-by-play basis, and it’s easier to justify playing someone with obvious weaknesses when you lack any viable alternatives. Should Portland be invited to the postseason, Anthony’s weaknesses will be treated very differently. But as long as the bar is “better than Mario Hezonja,” yes, it’s fair to say that Anthony has provided genuine value to the Blazers. His shot-making alone has pushed him above replacement level. 

But nobody questioned whether or not he could hit shots, and now that he is, something of a feedback loop has formed between the support he generates from common fans and from those same players who, ironically, were the ones that exposed his flaws on defense. The public perception that the analytics community, the media, and anyone that would fit under the broad umbrella of “haters” was wrong about Anthony has only hardened as fans see their support for him as a shot-maker parroted by players. The truth of the matter is that few ever argued that Anthony couldn’t contribute to any team. The problem was that his defense made it unlikely that he’d ever contribute to a particularly good one. 

I’ll pose this question: In a setting in which he will be relentlessly attacked defensively, does he do enough on offense to justify staying on the floor? And does the answer to that question need to be “yes” for Anthony to be fully vindicated?  

Brad Botkin: These are well-stated, sufficiently supported arguments. I agree that Melo’s defense will become a much livelier talking point if and when Portland makes the playoffs. I also believe his playing on a team that spent most of the season outside the playoff picture and, relatively speaking, outside the national consciousness, has cushioned him from the attacks that were constantly being hurled his way when he was in Oklahoma City and Houston. 

For me it’s pretty simple: Melo isn’t, and never was, as detrimental to winning as his most ardent critics have long lobbied, and he also wasn’t, and certainly still isn’t, as great as his fellow players and traditionalist supporters alike would have you believe. 

Where things went awry for Melo is in New York. He never was the kind of superstar that was going to single-handedly lift a bad team in the way, say, LeBron James lifted the Cavaliers in his first stint with Cleveland. Expectation is the root of frustration, and the simple truth is we expected too much of Carmelo as a solo star in New York. 

This is where the “empty-stat player” label begins to attach itself. Time was when we said the same thing about Devin Booker, and I think we now all realize that if you put Booker on a team with other great players, he’s going to help you win at a big-time level. 

That was the Carmelo of old. He’s not that kind of a star anymore. But the way we viewed him — through the superstar prism — continues to cloud the way we see him as a role player. Yes, he still has analytically questionable tendencies, but generally speaking, we continue to err on the side of criticizing Melo for what he can’t or doesn’t do rather than accepting and appreciating him for what he is and what he can do. 

With a lot of other players, that equation is flipped. Tony Allen couldn’t play offense a lick. Teams exploited it. But we LOVED to talk about what he was good at. Yes, we talked about his lacking offense as well, but not to the point where we questioned whether the guy should be in the league. 

So here’s the deal: Melo can obviously still help a good team. The Blazers are as collectively flawed as perhaps Melo is individually, but nobody wants to dismiss them because we know the one thing they can do, which is score like crazy. Melo, right now, is a big part of that with his shooting. 

And that’s an important distinction. Sam says nobody questioned whether Anthony could make shots, but I would disagree with that. He didn’t make shots in his short stint in Houston, and he didn’t make shots consistently in OKC, where he was also trying to be too big of a focal point. When he’s not making shots on an efficient level, that’s when the flaws of his game become too glaring to hide. And people definitely questioned his ability to do that. 

With Portland, he’s not just hitting a few jumpers here and there. He’s knocking down gigantic, game-changing shots in the final minutes of one-possession games in what are essentially must-win games. He’s shooting from 3-point range in the bubble. He’s just under 40 percent since Feb. 1.  

As a truly complementary player who takes a few bad shots here and there but for the most part sticks to his role and serves as a floor-spacer/shooter who can still put it on the floor and get a big bucket, Melo is still valuable, even if his flaws will have to be accounted for in a big way if Portland gets to the postseason. 

From where I’m sitting, I’d rather celebrate what Melo is doing well than look down the road at where it will apparently all inevitably go wrong. I bet the Lakers would like to have Melo spotting up in the corner right now or playing pick-and-pop with LeBron on occasion. He’s not perfect. He never was. But I would disagree with anyone who tries to say he wasn’t playing high-level NBA basketball right now.  

Quinn: There’s a middle ground here between celebration and condemnation. It comes down to Draymond Green’s argument about 82-game players vs. 16-game players. Anthony has solidified himself as a viable 82-game player, but those are a dime a dozen. Contributing to the 16 wins that ultimately matter tends to be a function of skills that Anthony, right now, doesn’t have. 

And again, we don’t necessarily need to vilify Carmelo for being who he is. But we’re having the conversation, aren’t we? How often do we need to relitigate the legacy and perception of a typical 82-game player? I would submit that Alec Burks, another likely 82-game player with some of the same weaknesses, is performing at a similar level on a similar team right now, but we aren’t paying him nearly the same consideration. He signed for the minimum this offseason. Where’s his redemption arc? 

Burks is not getting one because he never asked for one. Anthony spent last summer campaigning on his own behalf. His stardom invites criticism because it is that stardom we are critiquing. If the tone of the Carmelo discourse was based on him merely helping a team, that would be one thing. But fans are treating this run as proof that none of the criticism Carmelo has ever received has been valid. For his Portland stint to merit any sort of reexamination of his legacy or his treatment by the media, it would have to include some materially new information. 

But as a player, not much has really changed. He’s 25th in the NBA in percentage of possessions used in isolation at 12.9 percent, just behind CJ McCollum, one of the star teammates he is ostensibly supporting. Melo is eighth on the Blazers in passes per game despite having the third-highest usage rate among players who were healthy and on their roster for most of the year. He still doesn’t play defense. 

More shots are going in than they did in Oklahoma City or Houston, and maybe he’s being a better sport about coming off the bench, but, unsurprisingly, 36-year-old Carmelo Anthony looks like what 36-year-old Carmelo Anthony should look like. He was a flawed star and now he’s a flawed role player. We can enjoy that flawed role player for what he is, but his former stardom shouldn’t buy him much more than that. The concerns that accumulated over 16 years are as valid as ever. He’s taking a victory lap when he hasn’t actually disproven those concerns. He’s only shown that he can function in spite of them when the stakes are low enough. That’s fine, but Alec Burks can do that too, and we aren’t throwing him a parade. 

Herbert: My unfairly simplistic read here is that Brad wants grumpy analysts to let people enjoy things (or at least accept that Portland is sincerely thrilled to have him), and Sam wants Anthony’s cheerleaders — players, fans and analysts alike — to be less smug about Anthony becoming a functional role player on a team that has the third-worst defense in the bubble.

Instead of directly arguing with either side, I’m going to Eurostep all this perception business and pivot to basketball. I have three points to make:

1) The next time I hear someone say that Anthony has “finally accepted his role,” I’ll have a meltdown. It is true that he didn’t come off the bench in Oklahoma City, but he was undeniably a supporting player. He was a stretch 4 in Houston, too, backing up P.J. Tucker and finishing his 10-game stint with a 19.9 percent usage rate. Anthony gets a few more touches with the Blazers, but the numbers haven’t changed that much since leaving New York — the Rockets just stopped him from playing at the elbow and posting up:

Frontcourt touches

43.7

28.5

21.2

25.6

Time of possession

3.1

1.8

1.1

1.6

Seconds per touch

3.06

2.06

2.04

2.4

Dribbles per touch

1.84

0.97

0.94

1.15

Elbow touches

3.3

1.4

0.4

1.3

Post-ups

6.3

3.6

2.8

5.5

2) Offensively, Anthony has been effective for one main reason: He is on fire from the corner, an extremely important part of the court for Portland. For years in the playoffs, opposing defenses would cheat off of Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless in the corner, shrinking the court and making Lillard and McCollum’s pick-and-rolls easier to defend. Anthony is making 52 percent of his corner 3s, which ranks 12th in the league among players who have logged at least 1,000 minutes, per Cleaning The Glass. (When it comes to midrange shooting, his oft-cited bread and butter, he is only shooting 36 percent, per CTG, his worst mark since his rookie year.)

3) Anthony remains a deficient defender. Qualitatively, though, he appears more comfortable on that end, and he has clearly lost weight, particularly now that Skinny Melo has become a thing in Orlando. Before the hiatus, Portland gave up a terrible 112.5 points per 100 possessions — almost identical to New York’s mark this season — with Anthony on the court, but fared even more poorly without him. In the bubble, the Blazers’ defense has been a train wreck, but again they’ve been even more atrocious with him on the bench. As bad as they’ve been, one could reasonably argue that coach Terry Stotts has done a good job protecting him, the same way Stotts did with Enes Kanter last season. None of this, however, means that the Rockets were wrong to conclude that Anthony couldn’t survive on defense in their switch-heavy scheme, or that any team hoping to field an elite defense could realistically incorporate him. 

In Portland, Anthony found a team that desperately needed another offensive weapon and someone to energize the locker room. Two of their starters — Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins — were injured when they signed him, and Lillard was seeing triple-teams and box-and-one defenses. Nurkic and Collins are back now, but the absence of Trevor Ariza and Rodney Hood has kept Anthony in the starting five, awkwardly playing small forward (and, yes, hitting some clutch jumpers). 

I cannot in good conscience call this a match made in heaven, not with the Blazers’ glaring defensive flaws. But given where both sides were in November, Anthony’s attempt to revive his career could have played out 100 different ways, most of them much less pleasant than this. 

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