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Sunday, November 18, 2018

Houston Rockets Abort Ill-Conceived Carmelo Anthony Experiment

Who could have imagined that Carmelo Anthony would not be a good fit for the Houston Rockets? Only anyone who understands basketball via skill set analysis and informed observation, as opposed to relying on "advanced basketball statistics" or reputation or hype or the endorsements of some of Anthony's NBA buddies (including Chris Paul, who has recently said that Anthony is not just a teammate but rather he is "family").

Carmelo Anthony has demonstrated throughout his NBA career that he is a poor leader--he has enjoyed his best individual and team success when paired with one or more stronger personalities who ran the locker room--and that he has a limited skill set: at his best, he was a very potent one on one scorer from certain areas of the court, but he has always been a poor defender, a reluctant passer and an inconsistent rebounder who is more interested in offensive rebounding than defensive rebounding. None of the above factors suggests that Anthony in his prime could be the best player on  an NBA championship team, and those issues have been compounded in recent seasons by the undeniable fact that Anthony retains unrealistic beliefs about his current capabilities even as his one dimensional skill set displays continuous, significant decline.

The above paragraph is what an "old school" scouting report summary of Anthony's game would look like. In my 2018-19 Western Conference Preview, I wrote, "Anthony has a career-long pattern of rarely advancing very far in the playoffs; he is a shoot-first (and second and third) player whose efficiency is declining and whose willingness/ability to contribute in other areas decreases each year. Even if they had stood pat, the Rockets would probably not have won 65 games again; that was an aberration and they are due to regress to the mean. Adding Anthony, though, will probably subtract about 10 wins, while also making this team a less potent playoff force."

The Rockets started the season 4-6 as Anthony averaged career-lows in scoring (13.4 ppg), free throw percentage (.682), assists (.5 apg) and steals (.4 spg) while shooting just a bit above his career low field goal percentage of .404 from last season (.405 this season). The supposed immense challenge of playing alongside Russell Westbrook was the excuse widely provided for the failure of the Carmelo Anthony experiment in Oklahoma City last season, even though last season just continued the steady downward statistical progression that Anthony has suffered for several seasons. This season in Houston would be different, we were sagely informed, because James Harden and Chris Paul would be willing and able to get the ball to Anthony where he can be most effective. Left out of that "analysis," however, was an answer to the obvious question: Where, exactly, is an over the hill, step slow, one dimensional gunner "most effective"?

This is just one illustration of the difference between Real Basketball Analytics and what often is portrayed as basketball analytics. If you have watched Anthony play throughout his career and if you understand basketball then you can see that even Anthony in his prime probably would not have been a great fit for Mike D'Antoni's offense that is predicated on the point guard monopolizing the ball and everyone else being ready to shoot when/if the point guard passes the ball; prime Anthony was at his best when he could go one on one but that is not an option for forwards in D'Antoni's offense.

What the Rockets need alongside Harden and Paul are rugged individual defenders who can make spot up three pointers and who are satisfied with Harden and Paul getting most of the shots, money and glory (Harden and Paul also need a big man who will set screens, rebound and be content to score 10-15 ppg on lob passes, a role more than ably filled by Clint Capela).

The Rockets have parted ways with Anthony but have not cut or traded him. Anthony is in some kind of humiliating basketball limbo as he and the Rockets try to find a way out of this mess that salvages his dignity and marketability. This reminds me of the story that Kenny Smith tells about his rookie year with the Sacramento Kings. Smith recalls that Coach Bill Russell said to sit next to him on the bus and not alongside some of the team's veterans because the veterans are losers. Smith asked Russell why he did not trade those players and Russell stated--loudly enough for the players to hear--that he had tried to trade them but no one wanted them. The Rockets would surely trade Anthony for a bag of potato chips and a copy of an "advanced basketball statistics" book by some "stat guru" but no one wants to give up anything for Anthony. It is not clear what, if any, market exists for Anthony as a free agent if the Rockets just waive him, which they probably will have to do at some point when they need that roster spot.

Anthony's minutes are now going to Gary Clark, a rookie free agent who is on a two-way contract. Yes, Anthony has been replaced by a minor league player--and the Rockets have gone 3-1 with Clark/sans Anthony, with double-digit wins against Indiana, Denver and Golden State. Anthony was not the only problem for Houston during the first 10 games--Chris Paul got suspended, James Harden missed three games due to injury and the Rockets' defense suffered as a result of the loss of free agents Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute--but he was, predictably, a major problem and it was equally predictable that subtracting him from the lineup would add wins to the team's record.

In the NBA, skill set analysis matters, chemistry matters and coaching matters. Championship teams understand those factors and make decisions accordingly. Teams that do not take those factors into account may have some regular season success but will not advance to the NBA Finals, let alone win a championship.

Getting rid of Anthony was a necessary move for the Rockets but their organizational mindset and decision making process is not conducive to building a championship team. What was the point of the Rockets signing Anthony despite his flaws and limitations, then denying that they were going to cut him after just 10 games only to then issue a press release stating that they were going to "part ways" with Anthony and that the two sides are "working toward a resolution"? The Rockets do not look or act like a franchise poised to contend for a title.

It is also telling that the Rockets act as if the only reason that they did not win it all last year was Chris Paul's injury. The problems with that way of thinking are (1) it is predictable that Paul will get injured during the playoffs, (2) injuries are part of the game for all teams and (3) even without Paul the Rockets had halftime leads against Golden State in games six and seven only to fall apart and lose both times--which was also predictable given Houston's high variance style of play. On the rare occasions that the New England Patriots lose, Coach Bill Belichick does not offer excuses. He says that the team must do better in every area, starting with coaching. That kind of realistic self-assessment is never heard from the Rockets.

To cite just one more example of Houston's organizational miscues, Chris Paul is overpaid now relative to his size, frequent injuries and skill set but his contract is going to be an absolute disaster for the Rockets as he ages, gets injured more frequently and loses skills (particularly speed and quickness) for which he is not going to be able to compensate in other areas.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:11 AM

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