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New Faces from Old Places: Carmelo Anthony

In Part four of our new series, we take a look at the most polarizing Rockets’ offseason signee, 10-time All-Star Carmelo Anthony.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

At age 34, Carmelo Anthony is not the player the Denver Nuggets drafted at No. 3 overall 15 years ago. He is not the player that led the Nuggets to the Conference Finals 10 years ago. He is not the player that the Nuggets traded to the Knicks seven years ago. And he is not the player the Knicks traded to the Thunder just 11 months ago.

However, adding a player who has averaged 24 points per game over his decorated NBA career is still a step in the right direction. The Rockets may not be getting the Melo they have been wanting to trade for since he was in New York, but given the loss of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute in the offseason, acquiring Melo should soften the blow at least on the offensive side.

To learn more about Melo, we went to our friends at Welcome to Loud City, the Thunder’s SB Nation blog, to ask about the newest Rocket. J.A. Sherman has been gracious in answering these questions for us. Thank you J.A. for your participation.

Jeremy Brener, The Dream Shake: Did the national media overblow the Melo situation last season or was it really as bad as advertised?

J.A. Sherman, Welcome to Loud City: I don’t think I can really measure the balance between the media reaction (we work in media; it’s always overblown!) so what I’ll do is give you my inside perspective at a high level on how things unfolded. The nexus of the dynamic began with our own internal question - ‘which Melo would we get?’ and our answer was, ‘Who Me?

Glass half full folk were convinced he was just joking, that he’d embrace a new way of playing to embrace a new chapter in his career with a winning franchise, while the rest were startled and shocked that he was already laying the grounds for a player-coach conflict.

We saw both things play out in varying degrees. Melo to his credit did do a great amount to alter the way he fit into the new team. He played within sets, was often not the primary option, and was used more as a spot-up 3-point shooter than at any other time in his career. That was the good.

The bad was that for whatever reason, his minutes never really scaled to his effectiveness. He still played normal rotation minutes, down from some of his career highs, but his impact didn’t increase the longer he played. In fact, there were diminishing returns, so the sets that worked well in the 1st half were disastrous in the 2nd half.

To this day we still don’t really know why coach Billy Donovan would stay with Melo past his game by game effectiveness, when he could have used Melo’s offensive strengths early, rested him for much of the game and shift to a more athletic, defensive mode, and then back to offense where needed and with a more energized Melo.

Even after defensive stalwart Andre Roberson was lost for the year, the model didn’t change, and that’s where things really began to turn against Melo. Again, Donovan stayed with him in heavy rotation minutes way too long, and that’s on him and not Melo, which made the sudden shift in the playoffs all the more a whiplash moment for the player, leading to his rather bitter exit interview.

But in the end, Melo was a player who couldn’t do what the team needed from a 32 mpg player, and Donovan never adjusted until it was too late. Had Melo been turned into a more efficient, 20 mpg player who yielded to other teammates for defense/energy, we might not be having this discussion today.

But is it because Melo wouldn’t yield on his status as “All-Star Melo” and instead embrace “Olympic Melo?” We can speculate, but will never know for sure.

Jeremy Brener, The Dream Shake: Do you think Melo fits better in a starting role or a bench role? Why?

J.A. Sherman, Welcome to Loud City: For Houston, I think the question to ask is, do you need extra offense in the first half of games? And that question may not be readily apparent until December.

Melo was at his most consistent in first halves of games where his opportunities to score came easier, not surprisingly because he was at his highest energy. This is not an insignificant thing when you’re 34 and have over 1,000 games on your treads and nearly 38,000 minutes hanging off your shoulders.

The bursts don’t come as readily, and the recoveries take a little longer. That’s why using Melo in a very strategic way at strategic moments is the best way to draw out his talents.

Regardless, the key word in both is “role.” The Rockets have to determine the best role for Melo and then convince him it is his best possible way to be a contributor on a championship team. Mike D’Antoni, with his success in Houston that has surpassed his Suns and Knicks experiences, has the gravitas to do this, to say “This is what you’re going to do for us.” It is up to Melo to buy in to the concept.

He either will or he won’t, but his skillset on offense won’t change much, nor will his inability to play the kind of switching defense that worked so effectively for Houston last year.

Jeremy Brener, The Dream Shake: How did Russell Westbrook affect Melo’s game? Will James Harden have a similar effect on him?

J.A. Sherman, Welcome to Loud City: I don’t think Westbrook impacted Melo’s game nearly as much as people think, and in fact I believe he should have impacted it more.

Now, to be fair, Westbrook’s last year was not top notch. He was playing slower and more imbalanced than in the past, probably partly due to becoming a father for the first time over the summer, curtailing his normal preparations, and getting treatments on his left knee prior to the season. And of course, playing with 2 new starting teammates. All combined, he was several steps removed from the prior season.

What we saw was Westbrook intentionally trying to integrate Melo into the offense, almost forcefully so, even at the cost of helping Paul George acclimate. Many dedicated sets were run in the early part of the season, not just to get Melo open threes (which he did a solid job catching and making) but also mid-range sets, ISO sets, and even some PnR sets that got him to the rim.

But it all came at the cost of everything else the offense should have been trying to do, which is move quick, rely on their athletic players, and then dominate the glass.

Russ seemed to intentionally favor Melo over George, quite reasonably because Melo needed more help as well as emotional support to feel part of the team, even though George was by and large the guy OKC should have been favoring.

But it didn’t work, because unless you’re LeBron or Durant or maybe Giannis, large wings working out of the high post isn’t a consistent winning measure in today’s NBA.

In fact, you could argue that Melo’s favorite shots were the very shots the defenses where trying to work the Thunder into getting him to take. Even if he made some of them, the defense still won because they didn’t need to do anything or make any decisions; the opposing forward would simply defend one on one, wait for Melo to make his move, and the rest of the defense rested and waited for shots to come off the rim.

I’m not sure what impact Harden will have, if any. I could see that dynamic play the exact same way. I’m more curious about Chris Paul, who tends to have an impatience for players who aren’t on board with the system.

He’ll expect Melo to move, he’ll expect Melo to screen, and he’ll expect Melo to not let the ball stick in his hands 18 feet away from the rim with a defender draped across him jab-stepping seconds off the shot clock like a metronome. If Paul can force Melo out of that tendency, that will be an achievement unlocked.

Jeremy Brener, The Dream Shake: What makes Melo different in Houston than in Oklahoma City?

J.A. Sherman, Welcome to Loud City: What role do you want him to actually play? In other words, If we created a ven diagram of all the things Houston needs from a forward like him and all the things Melo could potentially give, the question is how much will they overlap?

Shoot threes? Yes, no problem.

Play switchable defense? No, sorry. That’s gonna end poorly.

Defensive rebounds? He’s not terrible, but I don’t know how he’d play against a human spring like Capela vs a mountain like Steven Adams.

Screen setting out of the high PnR? He likes to slip those, watch out.

Play limited starting minutes or come off the bench? Here is where you will find out how well D’Antoni can manage Melo. Was Melo effectively humbled in OKC, or did he exit feeling misused and still feel vindicated in his abilities? Perhaps the biggest question of your season with him.

Posting up? You guys don’t post up. Melo will want to post up. Watch carefully how this gets handled.

Drawing fouls? This right here is the absolute biggest red flag of Melo’s decline in the league as a matter of both ability and reputation. Melo will. Not. Get. Calls.

He won’t get all-star calls, regular calls, or missed calls. He has no presence at the rim anymore, and defenses know it.

They’ll wait for him at the rim, he’ll pump-fake his headband off, and they’ll stay down till the shot goes up and it will get blocked. There will be no calls. And because no calls, no fouls and free throws, one of the staples of your offensive effectiveness.

Jeremy Brener, The Dream Shake: What is your projection for Melo this season?

J.A. Sherman, Welcome to Loud City: One of the biggest areas of intrigue for me will be the relationship that evolves between Melo, Mike D’Antoni, and Chris Paul. In my opinion, of which many share, is the Thunder coach Billy Donovan (of whom, to be fair, the jury is still out) failed in this regard and never appropriately used Melo where his diminished yet still material skills still mattered.

I will largely blame the failed Meloexperiment on the combination of a player who didn’t want to change, not really, and a coach who didn’t know how to make him, to the detriment of the rest of the squad.

I always hope for the best in players, even ones who disappointed Thunder fans and are now playing for a direct competitor. Best case scenario, I hope Melo doesn’t just listen to D’Antoni and Chris Paul and then keep doing his own thing, but embraces a role more similar to Ariza or Tucker.

I think Melo will have a better season statistically and perhaps emotionally playing this way than he did in OKC, and I fully expect Houston fans to let OKC fans know about it. ;-)

But in the end, Melo’s defense is going to kill what made your team special on that end of the court, and D’Antoni will have to figure out a solution for that, of which I don’t know what that would be.

Many thanks to you for offering me a forum to explain one Thunder person’s perspective on a complex Melo situation. My goal was to be honest and balanced, because from a personal standpoint, I’ve been a Melo fan since his Syracuse days and always wanted him to succeed.

If this is what it takes for him to put a stamp on his eventual HoF career, then I’m ok with that. That said, we at WTLC will be watching closely.

To read the earlier parts of our ‘New Faces from Old Places’ series, click here:

Wednesday, August 1: De’Anthony Melton

Thursday, August 2: Gary Clark

Friday, August 3: Michael Carter-Williams