Postmortem thoughts on Carmelo Anthony

By Matthew Cardenas on January 17, 2018
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The Houston Rockets are slowly but surely beginning to hit their stride, winning six of their last eight games after a dreadful 1-5 start to reach .500. Two of the five wins have come against the Indiana Pacers, Golden State Warriors and Denver Nuggets, teams we expect to have high seeding in their respective conferences. James Harden and Chris Paul’s injuries seem to be behind them as both are back to being the dominant backcourt everyone knows. Mike D’Antoni is figuring out what rotations and lineups are best for this team going forward. In no way, shape or form are the Rockets back to their 65-win ways from last season.

The last seven games for the Rockets have been significantly different from the first. A 5-2 record in their last seven has featured an offensive rating of 109.7 and a defensive rating of 104.7, both improvements from the first six games.

While the Rockets were beginning to find a rhythm, there was an elephant in the room that has somewhat been addressed: the absence of Carmelo Anthony. The 10-time All-Star had been away from the Rockets while dealing with illness. Reports surfaced that during his absence, Anthony and Rockets management had discussed his role with the team going forward. All of this had been confirmed after the Rockets and Anthony officially agreed to part ways Thursday afternoon. He will remain on the roster but not rejoin the team.
It is difficult to describe Anthony’s situation with the Rockets. This all came out of nowhere. There were no recent reports or signs that he was at a crossroads with the organization in terms of role. Anthony seemed accepting of his bench role with a team-first mentality. He was also headed in the right direction before illness struck. From October 24 to November 3 (a five game span), Anthony averaged 19.6 PPG while shooting 49.3 percent from the field. His best game in a Rockets uniform was against the Brooklyn Nets, where Anthony finished with 28 points and shot 6-9 from the perimeter.

With all of that being said, Anthony was just never a clear fit with the Rockets. His defensive ability has severely declined the last few seasons. Unfortunately, nothing changed with the Rockets. He had positive moments but it was never consistent enough. Anthony’s rotations were typically a second too late. His closeouts were weak. The weak-side help was not encouraging. It's not like Anthony wasn't trying, he just wasn't good.

Carmelo Anthony was thought to be a cheaper, more effective version of Ryan Anderson by many. Anthony has a far superior offensive game with the ability to post up and create for himself off the dribble. While Anthony loves to post up, that is not exactly part of the Rockets offense. It has always been focused on threes, free throws and layups. A need for Anthony’s improvement on perimeter shooting was needed if he was going to reach his full potential with the Rockets.

Anthony’s overall shooting was not encouraging. On three-point attempts, he shot 31.4 percent in catch-and-shoot opportunities, per Many long for Anthony to become the player he was with Team USA, where he was deadly from the perimeter on spot-up opportunities, but it hasn't happened in the association. There is a multitude of reasons for that.

First, Anthony is at a significant crossroads in his career. He has been accustomed to being the top option, going back to tenures with the Denver Nuggets and New York Knicks. It takes a lot of pride to swallow to accept a new role. Anthony also is nowhere near the player he once was, and that is okay. Most players aren’t the same in their 16th season and Anthony isn't an exception.

Accepting a lesser role is not easy for Anthony. He still longs to be a major contributor on a top-tier team but with the Rockets, that cannot be the case. The team revolves around Harden, Paul, Clint Capela and Eric Gordon. Those four having the highest usage rates are a recipe for success. It is not a diss on Anthony or his career whatsoever. He is simply not the player he once, nor should he try to capture that lightning in a bottle. The Rockets need their supporting players to play specific roles for the roster to reach its full potential and possibly return to the Western Conference Finals, where they were one game away from an NBA Finals appearance last season.

The difference in the team with and without is pretty staggering for the Rockets. They have been outscored by 63 points in the 294 minutes Anthony has been on the floor. It is quite the difference when he is on the bench as the Rockets have only been outscored teams by 7 points in 282 minutes. One player in particular who has seemed to take Anthony’s minutes is Gary Clark, the rookie from Cincinnati. While his shooting has not been consistent yet, Clark brings far more to this roster than Anthony. His defensive ability and awareness is just far better. His hustle plays have been difference makers for the Rockets.

Clark has logged at least 20 minutes in each of the last six games for the Rockets, which is shocking for a rookie under Mike D'Antoni. A lineup featuring Harden, Paul, Clark, Tucker and Capela has an impressive offensive rating of 117.6 and defensive rating of 73. One can argue Clark has not only outplayed Carmelo Anthony, but James Ennis. It is clear Mike D’Antoni seems locked in on giving Clark more minutes going forward, which likely left a bad taste in Anthony’s mouth.

Throughout this entire process, management spoke nothing but positively of Anthony. Daryl Morey surprised many and spoke to the media prior to a game against the Pacers. He immediately denied initial reporting of talks of waiving Anthony and said a lot of unfair criticism has been put on Anthony. Morey said the team had been struggling collectively and that nobody should be singled out. At the same time, he never gave a full indication that Anthony will return to the Rockets. He instead said the organization is evaluating every player on the roster the same.

Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni and Anthony are known to have had their differences in New York, but both put brushed it aside and focused on what is best for the Rockets. D'Antoni said Anthony had been great and done everything that had been asked of him. But it is now clear both sides were prepared to move on. 

Anthony's extremely short tenure with the Rockets had its ups and downs. Although his scoring was trending in the right direction, the emergence of Gary Clark and Anthony's defensive woes made the decision inevitable. Many Rockets players said they will miss Anthony, but understand the NBA is a business. Paul referred to Anthony as "family". There does not seem to be any bad blood on both sides. It was better for a decision to be made now rather than later in the season. It was simply a bad fit. Anthony only signed for the veteran's minimum, so it was not an issue financially for the Rockets.

Going forward, the Rockets have reasons to be optimistic. Positive strides are being made and the team is slowly getting back to playing well. Unfortunately, Anthony will not be part of this process going forward. 

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