After a summer riddled with doubts about Carmelo Anthony’s willingness to buy in and accept a lesser role with the Houston Rockets, here we are.
Through four preseason games, Anthony is averaging 13 points and 4 rebounds per game while shooting 47 percent from the field and 50 percent from deep. In a drastically reduced role, Anthony’s game looks revitalized, and his standing amongst NBA intelligencia is following suit.
It’s tough to say what exactly is driving Anthony’s success as a third-option in Houston. Perhaps it’s Mike D’Antoni’s system being run by two of the five best passers in the league. Perhaps it’s his clearly defined standing in league’s sturdiest hierarchy. Perhaps it’s having close friend, Chris Paul, around to keep him in check. Or perhaps it’s the whole summer of tertiary scoring preparation he was robbed of last season after being dealt on the eve of training camp to Oklahoma City. Either way, it’s working.
One theme has become common, however, in Anthony’s nascent revival— less is more. Compared to last season, Anthony’s halved his usage, causing his efficiency to skyrocket.
Anthony’s team-first acceptance of the Ryan Anderson role shows through in his shot profile, as he’s tightened up the lowest-hanging fruit in his archaic midrange-happy game. Despite all the skeptics, per Synergy Sports, Anthony’s isolation play decreased from 18% of his offense in the 2017-18 regular season to below 7% this preseason.
In place of his usual ball-stopping, jab-stepping habits, Anthony has been running the floor and spacing out. Through four games, both his spot-up and transition offense have nearly doubled in frequency. This modernized, Morey-ball style of play has coincided with a jump in his individual offensive efficiency from the 45th percentile in 2017-18 to the 96th percentile this preseason.
That efficiency will inevitably go down as his three-point shooting normalizes and teams defend harder when the games count, but it’s undeniable that the early returns for the Anthony experiment have been as good as any Rockets fan could’ve hoped.
And honestly, considering last season Anthony was 37.8 percent on catch-and-shoot threes, and 42.8 percent when those threes were deemed “wide-open”, it’s absurd there was so much doubt that he could thrive as a cog in Houston’s machine.
Additionally, Anthony’s ability to deviate selectively from the Rockets’ usual three-or-key style of play is an asset they covet. As an organization, Houston has become acutely aware that end of game scenarios require much more deliberation on each possession. Therefore, hoisting early threes doesn’t have the same value as it does in the other 44ish minutes.
D’Antoni raved to the Houston Chronicle’s Jonathan Feigen about the added punch the Rocket’s offense has with Anthony’s ability to morph into his old self come the fourth, saying:
“He’s going to be perfect. James and Chris don’t have to carry the load. He can make plays. His game, too, toward the end of games, mid-range, post-ups are good. We don’t want to do it most of the game because threes are better throughout the game, but when it comes down to one point, two points, three points, whatever, it gives us another big option.”
As the Rockets saw when Anthony made two isolation mid-rangers to close out the San Antonio Spurs during one of their dress rehearsals, his individual shot creation is another reliable weapon they can call on when play slows down during a game’s stretch run.
Regardless of what your prior opinions of Anthony were, it’s clear that at least so far, he’s bought in to Houston’s system. If his efficiency stays even in the ballpark of his preseason numbers, his veterans minimum contract is one of the steals of the offseason.
It took a while, but Anthony seems to have finally realized that less very well can be more.