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Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Carmelo Anthony and the Houston Rockets: Subtraction by Addition

The Houston Rockets have signed Carmelo Anthony to a one year contract, reportedly for the veteran minimum $2.4 million. Anthony received a buyout in excess of $25 million from the Atlanta Hawks en route from Oklahoma City to Houston, so he is not suffering a significant salary decrease after making over $26 million last season while playing for the Thunder--but this is a humbling drop in status for Anthony, a 10-time All-Star who finished third in the 2013 NBA regular season MVP voting. Anthony averaged a career-low 16.2 ppg last season while shooting a career-low .404 from the field. He performed even worse in the playoffs (11.8 ppg on .375 field goal shooting) and yet he was vocally displeased about having his minutes cut and his role diminished.

In his prime, Anthony was an excellent one on one scorer who could be effective both in the post and facing up on the perimeter. Anthony averaged at least 20.8 ppg in each of his first 14 seasons, including three seasons when he scored at least 28 ppg, and he won the 2013 scoring title (28.7 ppg). However, he was never a strong defender, he passed the ball in spurts (as opposed to consistently making timely, accurate passes when the situation dictated it) and he was an average rebounder at best considering his size and the big minutes that he played.

Daryl Morey and the Rockets' brain trust believe that a one-dimensional scorer whose NBA teams never won anything of significance during his prime is the missing piece to Houston's championship puzzle. I disagree with that notion.

Anthony won an NCAA title as a freshman at Syracuse when he was a basketball prodigy who could physically overwhelm less talented players. He won a record three Olympic gold medals as a member of Team USA, but his contributions to those victories have been somewhat overhyped in the mainstream media. I gave Anthony a C- minus grade in my Team USA report card for the 2008 Olympics, noting, "Team USA outscored the opposition by 86 points overall when Anthony was on the court and they outscored the opposition by just 25 points when Anthony was on the court during medal round play. Among the five players I tracked, Anthony is the only one who had a negative on court rating for an entire game--and this happened twice: Angola outscored Team USA 46-42 when Anthony was on the court and in the gold medal game Spain outscored Team USA 49-38 when Anthony was on the court. It is no coincidence that Anthony was not in the game for the last eight minutes of the fourth quarter of the gold medal game; throughout the Olympics, Anthony was often on the bench when Team USA made its best runs and when he was in games during such runs it was generally James, Wade and/or Bryant who shouldered most of the load." Anthony performed similarly during the 2012 Olympics, after which I graded him B- and commented, "Anthony is a shoot first player--in both NBA and FIBA competition--who can rebound when he is so inclined but is indifferent at best defensively. When he shot well he provided instant offense but it is noteworthy that when the score was close he was often on the bench; he scored just eight points on 3-9 field goal shooting versus Spain in the gold medal game as Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul did the heavy lifting." During the 2016 Olympics, Anthony again struggled in the gold medal game, finishing with just seven points on 3-7 field goal shooting.

So, the idea that Anthony is a proven winner based on his championships won at the NCAA and FIBA levels but has just been in bad situations in the NBA is a distortion, to say the least. The NCAA is obviously not nearly as competitive as the NBA, so leading a team to an NCAA title is no guarantee that a player can lead an NBA team to a title. Elite FIBA play is more competitive than NCAA play--but Anthony was a role player for Team USA behind, at various times, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and Dwyane Wade.

Anthony has never led a team to the NBA Finals--something that he has in common with his new teammates James Harden and Chris Paul--and he seems to be blissfully unaware that his one dimensional skill set has declined rather precipitously.

Houston Coach Mike D'Antoni has tweaked his offensive system from "Seven Seconds or Less" (ball movement leading to open shots) to a very isolation-heavy scheme that relies on Harden or Paul to dribble, dribble, dribble until either the dribbler or a teammate gets open. It is not clear if D'Antoni envisions Anthony as a third dribble, dribble, dribble guy--which would not be wise, as Anthony does not have the passing skills of Harden or Paul--or as a spot up sniper. Unless Anthony has had a major leap in self-understanding this summer, he apparently pictures himself as a starting player who should get a significant number of touches. Anthony is replacing Trevor Ariza (who left Houston to sign with Phoenix as a free agent), a career role player who nevertheless is also a legit two way performer who made a significant contribution to the Lakers' 2009 championship team and who had an impact at both ends of the court during Houston's two Western Conference Finals runs during the Harden era (2015, 2018). The Rockets needed Ariza to play tenacious defense, hit open three pointers and quickly move the ball to a teammate if he was not open. Ariza did very well in all three areas but it would be surprising to see Anthony (1) accept such a role and (2) be successful in such a role.

Team chemistry can be difficult to predict. Prior to last season, I underestimated the positive impact that Chris Paul would have on the Rockets--the Rockets improved defensively in no small part due to Paul's play and the example he set--but I was right to predict that Paul would either not be available or not be effective deep in the playoffs when the team would need him most; that is a consistent pattern in Paul's career and it was true again last season, as an injury kept him out of games six and seven of the Western Conference Finals while the Rockets squandered a 3-2 lead over the eventual champion Golden State Warriors.

Anthony's consistent pattern is that he scores a lot but does not have much impact on team success, at least at the championship level--and last season provided indications that Anthony is not quite the potent scorer that he used to be, though he would undoubtedly claim that this was because of the role he played for the Thunder and that he can still be effective if placed in a different role.

Maybe I will be proven wrong about Anthony. Maybe Anthony will accept being a stretch four in D'Antoni's system. Maybe D'Antoni will figure out a way to give Anthony an expanded role without compromising what Harden and Paul do best, and maybe D'Antoni will even manage to effectively hide Anthony's defensive weaknesses.

I will be surprised but not shocked if Anthony has a decent regular season, particularly if Paul persuades Anthony to accept a lesser role--but I will be shocked if Anthony is effective in meaningful minutes during the playoffs, particularly after the first round. That just would not fit Anthony's pattern and it is very unlikely that he will create a new pattern at this stage of his career; it is much more likely that even if Anthony is somewhat effective as a scorer he will give up more on defense  than he provides on offense.

Daryl Morey has gone all-in with D'Antoni, Harden and Paul, which should prove interesting. D'Antoni has never taken a team to the NBA Finals. Harden consistently disappears in the clutch and has been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons this offseason (instead of adding something new to his game--which he has not done for several years--in recent photos he looks out of shape and he has been accused of being involved in an altercation at an Arizona nightclub, which has become an unfortunate pattern of behavior for Harden). Paul often gets hurt (or disappears) when his team needs him most. Anthony can be a one year rental at a bargain basement price (in terms of NBA dollars) if he does not fit in but the clock is ticking in terms of how long Paul can continue to perform at a high level; the Rockets will be paying Paul $40 million per season when Paul is in his late 30s, which could end up being the worst contract given to a point guard since Gilbert Arenas was collecting NBA checks long after his career had ended.

I predict that Houston will not return to the Western Conference Finals and that Anthony will not be re-signed by the Rockets. Based on his raw career numbers, Anthony will likely be inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame eventually but it would be fair to say that he has not maximized his potential, at least in terms of becoming a complete player and someone who could lead a team to an NBA title.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:12 AM

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