I can’t decide what’s weirder: the realization that Carmelo Anthony’s NBA career is likely all the way over, or remembering that Carmelo Anthony played in an NBA game as recently as this past season. He bombed out of the rotation in Houston after 10 games, was dumped in a trade with Chicago, and then was waived by the Bulls on February 1. He’s been out of work ever since, and it feels like a million years since he was last a relevant NBA player.
There are probably worse basketball players loaded into rotation roles on NBA teams this very moment, but Melo comes with a bunch of baggage. Things soured badly with the Knicks, then he publicly bristled about taking a bench role in Oklahoma City, and then the Rockets were a flaming clown car to start last season—10.5 points better by net rating, and better by points per possession on both offense and defense, with Melo off the court. It was a relatively small sample size, but for a team with legitimate championship aspirations, waiting around any longer to see if Melo could become just a break-even kind of player was not in the cards.
Melo went on ESPN’s First Take Friday and talked with Stephen A. Smith about how that all went down. A couple of things stood out from their conversation: First, that Anthony was apparently quite surprised when Rockets general manager Daryl Morey told him he’d be dropped altogether from Houston’s rotation; and that he believes his relatively abrupt exits from Oklahoma City and Houston were about more than basketball.
“It went from ‘Oh, this is a piece that we want, this is the that piece we need’—mind you we’d been talking for three years, for years they was trying to get me to come to the Houston Rockets. And I finally went there, they finally said, ‘Okay, this is the piece that we need.’ So I get there and I’m thinking everything is good, like I’m doing everything I’ve gotta do, I’ve ever missed a practice, did all my work, I was real professional with everybody there, I don’t think there’s one person there that can say that I wasn’t a professional there, I did what I had to do, did my work.”
“And then the 10th game come, I just didn’t understand where that come from. Right, I was reaching out to, I actually reached out to Daryl first, and said ‘Can we talk about, how can we make this better, what can we do to fix this, what can I do to fix this?’ But then he had in mind that he wanted to come talk to me too, about releasing me and letting me go. So I didn’t like how that went down.”
The disconnect, I suppose, is over what is meant by “everything is good.” I’m sure the Rockets were pleased by Melo’s professionalism, just as I’m sure that what bounced him all the way out of the rotation was his lousy 40 percent shooting and the fact that whenever he took the court the defensive lane became a conveyor belt to the front of the rim. Anyone who was paying much attention to the Rockets during Melo’s brief time there could plainly observe that the mix was a total mess. The reason to yank him from the rotation was because the team stunk with him on the floor! The reason to boot him all the way off the roster is because he has a definition of “everything is good” that somehow includes how things were going at the exact moment of his dismissal.
This feels like a silly thing to put in a basketblog in 2019, but succeeding in an NBA lineup isn’t entirely about raw basketball skills. A lineup built around James Harden and Chris Paul doesn’t really benefit much from having a big wing who can cook mismatched defenders in the mid-post—much more valuable to that lineup will be things like floor-spacing, the ability to pump fake and blow by a hasty closeout, and, crucially, the ability to switch across multiple positions defensively without requiring a ton of help. Melo’s pure basketball skills dwarf those of, say, P.J. Tucker, but P.J. Tucker—an energetic defensive bulldog who never needs the ball and can reliably bang home a corner three-pointer—is roughly a bazillion times better suited to sharing a lineup with Harden, to say nothing of Harden and Paul (or Harden and Russell Westbrook, for that matter). Melo is a lousy defender who tends to go into isolation mode when the ball swings his way, and the proof of whether that was a formula for success in Houston is right there in the numbers, in the analytics, and on video.
It’s almost a little too on-the-nose for Melo to have been stunned to learn that he’d fallen out of the Rockets’ rotation at that exact moment, under those exact circumstances, and for him to still be reaching for non-basketball reasons in order to explain it. Tragically, it’s the failure to understand the basketball reasons why he lost his last basketball job that will probably account for his inability to land another one. Well, that plus the horrible defense.