The potential addition of Carmelo Anthony to the Houston Rockets in 2017, which tantalized the fan base for months after the late-June blockbuster trade for Chris Paul, has finally materialized. The big name, Hall of Fame stature and general nostalgia seems to have reignited a Rockets fan base, one that is still reeling from the brutal Western Conference Finals loss to the Golden State Warriors after possessing a 3-2 lead – but is it warranted?
Carmelo’s adjusted role
Anthony comes to Houston with his fair share of baggage. His last four seasons with the New York Knicks saw them fail to make the playoffs each year in the lowly Eastern Conference. Anthony’s points per game and field goal percentage generally trended downwards. His reputation for selfishness and defensive apathy reached their peaks. Also, his previous season with the Oklahoma City Thunder didn’t do him many favors. He recorded career lows in field goal percentage at 40 percent and points per game with 16.2. That was more than 4 points lower than his next lowest average which was in 2004-05.
Then, there’s the circus regarding the idea of him embracing a new and adjusted role with this loaded Rockets squad. This footage is particularly concerning for Rockets fans that are hopeful of this seemingly simple request.
Carmelo Anthony was asked about the possibility of coming off the bench and his reaction was hilarious. 😂 pic.twitter.com/NG3Hvv7s64— Alex Kennedy (@AlexKennedyNBA) September 25, 2017
Sure, this occurred a full year ago. Of course, he averaged 22.4 points per game the previous year. He was still riding the galvanizing reputation of ‘Olympic Melo’ that was freshly renewed in the summer of 2016. That withstanding, many still believed he would be most effectively utilized as a sixth man in OKC partly due to his presumed ability to provide an offensive spark and leadership to the Thunder’s second unit. Also, it was clear his talent and energy were beginning to fade. He ended up playing in 80 games last season, including the playoffs, and all of them were starts.
His thoughts on this inevitable question in Houston have shown more flexibility. He’s gone from “I’m not sacrificing no bench role” in April, to “Whenever I feel like I’m ready…” in July, to “Whatever I have to do to help this team win…” in late September. The evolution here is surely encouraging.
Defense a primary concern
If presumptions are correct that his connection and friendships with James Harden and CP3 will be better in Houston than they were in Oklahoma City, then I do have confidence that he can integrate to a degree that keeps the machine humming. Houston could even win multiple playoff series.
Where the concerns rise are largely with his defensive struggles. Concerns are also how a starting role and potential crunch-time minutes could make things far more difficult this season. The illusion potentially created in the regular season of an assimilating and effective Anthony could come crashing down in the playoffs.
First off, and fundamentally, he has been highly suspect on defense for many years, and has a troubling lack of agility to guard athletic wings. Think of Ryan Anderson’s dreadful minutes in Game 7 of the WCF (in which the Rockets were -12 in his 8 minutes), but over more prolonged periods.
Anthony’s most recent playoff performance, against the Utah Jazz last season, was also dismal. He averaged 11.8 points per game while shooting 38 percent from the field and 21 percent from three. He was also absolutely torched defensively.
The Jazz had one primary athletic threat at their guard/forward positions, Donovan Mitchell, so there was the chance that Anthony could hide on defense. However, even with Anthony initially guarding lesser offensive threats at the beginning of possessions, the Jazz frequently ran screens until they got the matchup they wanted. The Jazz got what they wanted which was Mitchell attacking Anthony. This strategy was commonplace in the 2018 playoffs. The Jazz and Warriors each utilized this tactic against the Rockets, typically to go at Harden, and normally to great effect. The more defensive liabilities the Rockets have on the floor in crucial playoff minutes, the more challenging it will be for them to replicate last year’s success.
Matching up with the Warriors
The Warriors are the king of the hill, the team the Rockets openly aspired to specifically beat last year. As a team that jumped to 6th-best in the league last season in points allowed from 26th the season prior, defense was clearly a catalyst in the Rockets’ significant improvement and true contention against Golden State. Carmelo will not provide that against the Warriors and likely not any other top contender that Houston could face – like the Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers or Los Angeles Lakers.
Players that Houston need for rounding out their roster and replacing key departures like Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute are defensive pests like PJ Tucker, who was a sensation in the 2018 WCF. Or, guys like James Ennis, a low-profile Rockets addition, who have proven defensive vigor. Last season, in two early-season matchups against the Grizzlies, Ennis guarded Harden for the majority of each game, both wins for the Grizzlies, and held Harden to an extremely impressive combined 36% from the field and 24% from three. Ennis’ nickname, Ennis the Menace, derives from his defensive intensity displayed at his first professional team in Perth, Australia.
Carmelo probably won’t cause one of the most impressive teams of last season to implode. The Rockets could even potentially cut the player mid-season if things go sour given his 1 year deal and low-value contract. However, reliance on him against the supreme contenders in the Warriors could prove fatal, and lead to a much less competitive version of last season’s WCF classic.
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