Carmelo Anthony still hasn’t reached his final destination yet, but he’s a bit closer to it after Wednesday’s announcement that the three-team deal between the Oklahoma City Thunder, Atlanta Hawks and Philadelphia 76ers — first reported last Thursday — has finally been officially completed. Anthony is, for the moment, a Hawk; soon, though, he will be waived, and once he clears waivers, he’ll head to the Lone Star State so he can finally join up with the Houston Rockets.
Once he arrives in Texas, Anthony will be expected to serve as a third scoring threat on a team featuring a pair of All-Star offensive weapons — reigning NBA Most Valuable Player James Harden and Hall of Fame-bound playmaker Chris Paul — to bolster his new team’s hopes of chasing down and supplanting the defending champion Golden State Warriors atop the Western Conference. The expectation, then, is the same as the one Anthony faced last year, when a late-September deal landed him in Oklahoma City, where he went from the top gun on a circling-the-drain New York Knicks squad to the No. 3 option on a revamped Thunder team led by reigning MVP Russell Westbrook and All-Star swingman Paul George. It didn’t quite work out that way.
Anthony, as you might expect, remains optimistic about what’s next, in part because he’ll have more time to get acclimated to his new situation than he did heading into Oklahoma City. During a conversation with ESPN’s Jemele Hill, Anthony chalked up the awkwardness of his lone year with the Thunder to “timing,” and the difficulty of joining a nearly complete team late in the game:
“At the end of the day, it wasn’t a good fit,” he said. “I think last year — and I haven’t talked about this before — everything was just so rushed, going to the team for media day and the day before training camp. Them guys already had something in place, and then I come along in the 25th hour like, oh s—, Melo just come on and join us. Like, you can figure it out since you’ve been around the game for a long time. That’s why it was so inconsistent. At times, I had to figure it out on my own rather than somebody over there or people over there helping me.”
Adding Carmelo Anthony always felt like one move too many for the Thunder
It’s true that Anthony’s arrival in OKC seemed, even at the time, like sort of an aftermarket-add-on of an afterthought to the way Presti and company had sketched out the ’17-’18 Thunder.
‘Melo had maintained virtually all summer that he’d only waive his no-trade clause to head to either Houston or Cleveland, gumming up the works on a deal as the Cavs dealt with their own trade-related mess and the Knicks held firm on not taking back the $61.1 million owed to Rockets forward Ryan Anderson, whose salary would be needed to make the deal legal. It wasn’t until the eve of training camp that Anthony expanded the list of teams to which he’d accept a trade, opening the door for Oklahoma City.
It was hard to fault Presti for pouncing. While Westbrook had been an unbelievable and unbelievably fun force of nature in his yearlong solo mission, the Thunder clearly needed more firepower if they hoped to get back in hailing distance of the Kevin Durant-era Warriors. Adding a 10-time All-Star fresh off averaging 22.4 points per game with a history of being a top-notch catch-and-shoot option — especially at what seemed like the pretty paltry cost of big man Enes Kanter, shooter Doug McDermott and a 2018 second-round pick (later used on intriguing center prospect Mitchell Robinson) — seemed like a risk worth taking. (And, of course, if it helped convince Westbrook to agree to a five-year, $200-plus million contract extension to stay with the Thunder, so much the better.)
But since the end of the 2016-17 season, the Thunder had planned to be one sort of team: Westbrook on the ball as the primary creator, George as the secondary option who teamed with Andre Roberson to wreak defensive havoc on the wings, Steven Adams in the middle acting as a two-way stabilizing agent, and a slew of long-armed, athletic, aggressive dudes filling out the roster around them. Now, all of a sudden, they had to figure out how to fit a player who’d always been a No. 1 option into a tertiary role, how to integrate a one-way player into a team built around its defense, and how to revamp its rotation, approach on both ends of the floor, minutes allotment and role definitions on the fly, 3 1/2 weeks before opening night.
The Thunder never really got into a groove with ‘Melo
While the Thunder won 48 games and earned the No. 4 seed in the West, Anthony clearly chafed at a complementary role in which his minutes, shots and productivity dropped virtually across the board. The Oklahoma City stars’ talents never quite jelled, with each step forward seemingly followed by two steps back before ending in a six-game first-round playoff loss to the Utah Jazz in which Anthony shot poorly, defended even worse, and was largely relegated to watching as first Westbrook and George, and then Westbrook all by himself, tried to extend OKC’s season.
It didn’t work, and after Anthony made it clear both that he had no interest in coming off the bench or making less than $27.9 million next season, the only questions that remained were how long it’d take Thunder general manager Sam Presti to figure out how to move Anthony, where he’d land after the dealing was done, and whether Anthony — at age 34, with 15 NBA seasons under his belt, coming off the worst year of his career — could meaningfully move the needle wherever he wound up.
Even for an experienced coaching staff and a roster with multiple veterans and star-level talent, that’s a lot of reconfiguring to do in a short period of time. (Viewed through that prism, it’s kind of impressive that OKC’s late-arriving starting lineup performed as well as it did, outscoring opponents by 12.5 points per 100 possessions, the seventh-best net rating in the whole league among groups that logged 200 minutes.)
Will more time to get acclimated help ‘Melo mesh better in Houston?
The shotgun-marriage quality of his preseason addition was an issue that Anthony hinted at in his post-playoff exit interview, as detailed by Fred Katz of The Norman, Okla., Transcript:
“Everything was just thrown together, and it wasn’t anything that was planned out,” Anthony said. “It wasn’t no strategy to me being here, me being a part of the actual system and what type of player and things like that.”
To whatever degree that’s true, though, it’s fair to ask what responsibility Anthony himself might bear for that, given both his waiting to signal he’d accept a trade to OKC until late September and his immediate unwillingness to consider a bench role in which he might have found a more comfortable fit as a second-unit focal point roasting opposing reserves. And while Anthony did eventually make concessions, dealing with reductions in minutes and touches while more frequently working as an off-ball release valve rather than a primary initiator, he clearly never fully embraced the role that Billy Donovan and his coaching staff carved out for him over the course of the season; if he had, and if he’d been capable of more consistently producing at a higher level in it, then maybe Oklahoma City wouldn’t have been as eager to shed his $27.9 million salary this summer.
With Anthony now earmarked for Houston, he faces a major decision. Does he accept that he’s no longer the player he once was, remain open to the possibility that he could best serve the Rockets by coming off the bench, and embrace what could be a successful (and perhaps lucrative) second chapter as a role player on teams with something to play for? Or will he once again bristle at the notion that, at this stage in the game, it’s time for him to get comfortable with a less central capacity? The answer — this time coming with eyes wide open, and a full summer for Mike D’Antoni and his players to plan — could determine the future of both the Rockets’ championship aspirations and his career prospects.
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