NBA Daily: Is Milwaukee’s Best Enough?

Carmelo Anthony’s return to the NBA last month caused a major divide among viewers.

When he signed with the Portland Trail Blazers, optimists believed that Carmelo never really got a fair shot when he was with the Houston Rockets last season and would thrive in a different scheme. Pessimists believed that Carmelo’s struggles both with the Rockets and the Oklahoma City Thunder gave enough evidence that his prime was not only over, but that his effectiveness as a player was gone.

Now, with ‘Melo having played 13 games with the Blazers this season, we’ve come to the following conclusions:

  • He’s doing better in Portland than he did in Houston
  • He’s been an upgrade over Mario Hezonja and Anthony Tolliver

Okay, that’s selling Carmelo pretty short there because those two “accomplishments” don’t really count for much these days. He flat-out stunk in Houston, so it’s best that we don’t revisit that disaster. Plus, Hezonja and Tolliver, while not scrubs, are both journeymen for a reason. Carmelo’s wildly impressed the masses because he’s done far more than what’s listed above.

For the contract Portland gave him when they brought him in, Carmelo has done a wonderful job given the circumstances. So wonderfully, in fact, that it didn’t take long for them to make sure he’d stay the whole season.

You would think this wouldn’t be surprising since it’s Carmelo Anthony for goodness sake. Lest we forget, the guy was out of the NBA for almost an entire year. Then we see what he’s been doing and ask ourselves, “How did nobody want this guy?”

‘Melo is averaging almost 17 points a game on 42/43/80 splits. He hasn’t been very efficient from the field as a whole, but his ability to still put the ball in the bucket has given Portland a necessary boost. Despite that he hasn’t been automatic night-in and night-out, his presence is proving to be a positive for the Blazers.

First, Carmelo has an overall net rating of plus-7.9 for Portland, good for third among players who have played at least 100 minutes behind, well, who do you think?

In fact, the three-man lineup of Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Carmelo is plus-8 when they’re on the floor together. Offensively, the three work quite well together. They post an excellent effective field goal percentage — 56.9 percent — as well as true shooting percentage — 60.3. They even have a solid assist-to-turnover ratio (2.05). Defensively, they allow 105.5 points per 100 possessions. That is as mediocre as it gets, but it far from nullifies what they can do on the offensive end as a trio, scoring 113.5 points per 100 possessions.

That group together makes the fourth-best three-man lineup on the team going by net rating. If that isn’t enough proof of ‘Melo’s good work, note that the three lineups ahead of Lillard-McCollum-Carmelo all have Carmelo in them.

But let’s backtrack for a second. The same Carmelo Anthony who struggled to make it work with Russell Westbrook and Paul George — and definitively failed to support James Harden and Chris Paul — is somehow thriving next to Dame and CJ? Two players who, as good as they are, don’t have the same reps as the aforementioned names?

The following theory may sound confusing, so bear with me here. The reason why Carmelo is playing better is that Portland is letting him play more of his style while also having his offense fit within the team’s offensive scheme.

Over the last two years, OKC and Houston both tried to turn Carmelo into more of a three-point marksman, which made him have to change up his game. It’s not that he wasn’t a good three-point shooter in years’ past. It was that he didn’t rely on his floor spacing to make him a premier scorer.

In his noble attempt to adapt to both teams, Carmelo put up career-highs in three-point attempts a game, but taking away his mid-range game may have confused him on what shots his team wanted him to take, hindering his production on the floor.

The Blazers, by contrast, are letting Carmelo take a lot more two-pointers as he did during his heyday. He’s not hitting them at a good rate — shooting 42 percent in that department — but taking 72 percent of his shots from below three-point land is a return to form for him. By going back to his old game, ‘Melo no longer has to try to be something he’s not. Because his shot selection has more variety, he actually has become a better three-point marksman, shooting near 43 percent from distance on 4.2 attempts per game.

That also has to do with his baskets being assisted, as 91 percent of his three-pointers are on assists. This means that even though he’s playing more like his old self, Portland is finding him in his spots. Almost 45 percent of Carmelo’s two-point shots are assisted too, which is the highest percentage he’s had since his days with the Denver Nuggets

To be fair, his shots with the Thunder and the Rockets were also heavily assisted, but now that he’s in a role in which he doesn’t have to overthink where he shoots, he’s thriving again — to a certain extent.

Yet, it’s not the offensive end where Portland has benefited the most from Carmelo. In what has to be a twist no one saw coming, it’s defensively where Portland has gotten better with him on board.

Portland allows 5.5 fewer points per 100 possessions when Carmelo is on the court, which is the best among the team’s active players who have played more than 100 minutes. Going by defensive rating, the last time Carmelo Anthony helped his teams tremendously on the defensive side was in his last half-season in Denver, where the Nuggets allowed 3.3 fewer points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor.

Portland doesn’t boast exactly an elite defense right now — it has the 21st-rated defense — so Carmelo’s sudden defensive impact is a welcome sight for them.

Even while he’s gone back to his old roots offensively, this development defensively may show a metamorphosis in Carmelo Anthony’s game. From his days as a New York Knick to his brief time as a Rocket, the best ‘Melo ever did on the defensive end was being neutral on the floor, and that was rare.

So, has this been a success? While Carmelo has helped the Blazers out a bit, they haven’t gotten that much better. When he first came to Portland, the Blazers were 5-9. Since then, they’ve gone 6-7, which doesn’t exactly make his addition look like a franchise-saving move. It does, however, make it look like adding someone like him wouldn’t prove to be a negative like the doubters once thought.

The real question is, will this continue throughout the season? The “small sample size” excuse isn’t the reason why this is being brought up. It’s that Portland is going to go through a lot of changes in the next coming months. Zach Collins will be coming back in a matter of weeks. Jusuf Nurkic aims to be back before seasons end. Those guys could influence what kind of minutes Carmelo is going to see.

It possibly could have been less had it not been for Rodney Hood’s injury which will put him out indefinitely. With him out, there will be more scoring required for Portland to keep its offense humming. They also have team-friendly contracts to use to get bigger fish. Carmelo’s place on the team will depend on if they use them in trade and who they trade for.

No matter what happens, Carmelo Anthony is back everyone, and he’s not going out on a whimper.

That in and of itself is a victory.

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