Will Carmelo and the Rockets Prove to Be a Doomed Marriage?

The Rockets didn’t sign Carmelo Anthony to round out a new-fangled Big 3. Will the former All-Star be OK taking a backseat in Houston? Recent history suggests otherwise.
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Carmelo Anthony’s game is fading fast, but his defiance is holding strong as ever.

The 10-time All-Star has spent the second half of his Hall of Fame career refusing to budge against the likes of Jeremy Lin, Mike D’Antoni, Jeff Hornacek and Phil Jackson in New York, not to mention the many observers who thought he should be benched or take a buyout in Oklahoma City. On the court, the defining image of Anthony’s one-year hiccup with the Thunder came during the 2018 playoffs, when coach Billy Donovan finally cut his minutes, prompting visible frustration from Anthony and much-improved play from the rest of the Thunder. Off the court, his OKC experience was best summed up by a June Instagram photo that showed him getting a wine top-off from a tuxedoed waiter alongside the not-cryptic-at-all caption: “All critics can duck sick.”

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As he has stumbled through his 30s, Anthony has recalled Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant, a pair of natural, intoxicating, machine-like scorers who didn’t know how to cope once they were no longer the best players on the court. Iverson burned bridges and traveled to Turkey chasing past stardom; Bryant staved off reality by cloaking himself, and his loyal fans, deep within the Mamba Mentality. Like Iverson, a late-career vagabond, Anthony is now set to play for his third team in three seasons as he is expected to agree to a one-year, minimum contract with the Rockets. Like Bryant, Anthony’s public response to his age-related decline has been to jut his jaw and jack jumpers. 

But Anthony’s golden years have been unsatisfying because he lacks Iverson’s underdog appeal and Bryant’s championship résumé. Iverson raged against the machine for so long—setting trends at every step—that tying a neat bow on his career was never the object. Bryant stacked so many rings that he received one of the greatest golden parachutes in NBA history and got two of his jerseys retired, yet his loyalists still feel the need to vandalize LeBron James murals in a misguided effort to defend his legacy.


While he has his believers—who rue New York’s persistent inability to build around him and coined alter-egos like Olympic Melo and Hoodie Melo—Anthony hasn’t provided them with much fodder to defend his honor since winning the 2013 scoring title. His scoring and Player Efficiency Rating have dropped year after year—reaching career-lows in 2018—and his defensive shortcomings have become impossible to ignore and excuse. Over the last nine years, his teams have won a single playoff series.

Rather than mold him into a more effective player, the Thunder enabled some of Anthony’s most damaging tendencies by teaming him with Russell Westbrook and Paul George in a misguided and slapdash Big 3. Despite shooting poorly all year and struggling to get to the free throw line, Anthony attempted more shots in clutch situations than George, shooting just 29% on them. Despite playing within an offense that desperately needed better spacing and more high-efficiency shots, Anthony couldn’t resist taking nearly a quarter of his shots from the long-twos range and hitting just 38% of them. And despite posting one of the worst net ratings in the 2018 playoffs, Anthony held on to his starting spot while Oklahoma City crashed out in the first round against Utah.

Worst Net Ratings in 2018 Playoffs (Min. 150 minutes played)
• Rodney Hood, Cavaliers: minus-18.3
• Andrew Wiggins, Timberwolves: minus-15.4
• Jeff Teague, Timberwolves: minus-14.8
• Carmelo Anthony, Thunder: minus-14.3  

By the time Donovan faced the facts on Anthony’s negative impact against the Jazz, it was too late. Anthony never faced them himself, telling reporters during his exit interview that he had no intention of moving to the bench and claiming that he couldn’t be “effective” as a complementary offensive option. Unwilling to negotiate a buyout with the Thunder, Anthony was dumped by to the Hawks, who swallowed his $27.9 million option for 2018-19, thereby paving the way for his Rockets signing.

The coming season in Houston will reveal whether Anthony’s defiance is full-fledged denial. The Rockets have two stars in James Harden and Chris Paul, but Anthony is hardly being asked to join another Big 3. In terms of what the Rockets need to get past the Warriors and reach the Finals, Anthony is a clear downgrade from Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute, two forwards who left Houston this summer. Unlike his predecessors, Anthony plays defense like someone who hasn’t been asked to and isn’t about to start now. He has no chance handling an elite small forward like Kevin Durant in one-on-one coverage, he struggles navigating through multiple switches, and he’s ripe for exploitation when trying to contain guards in space.

Perhaps most troubling of all, Anthony isn’t accustomed to playing with far superior players within a D’Antoni offensive system that has zero tolerance for tough twos, wasted possessions, or ball-stopping from its frontcourt players. As his Thunder experience proved, he’s not conditioned to watching Harden and Paul run the offense while being forced to subsist on catch-and-shoot jumpers and rare cuts. Donovan couldn’t make it work with Anthony and never dared to make it work without him. By contrast, D’Antoni knows exactly how to make it work without Anthony and has no reason—financial or otherwise—to placate the newcomer. Anthony might be close friends with Paul and he might still be a marquee name, but to a contending team with a clear vision he’s a situational player with significant weaknesses on a minimum contract. He will, quite often, be Houston’s weakest link.

How will Anthony react to the least central role of his career? Will playing for an elite team pull better defensive effort and awareness out of him? When will he realize that he’s expendable in a way that he never was in Denver, New York or even Oklahoma City?

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These are fundamental questions, and the right answers can be found in compromises from the heretofore uncompromising Anthony. He must be prepared to be pulled in crunch time of playoff games. He must be willing to take a demotion to the bench if necessary. He must be ready to watch Harden soak up the dribbles, shots and glory. And he must do his part to make things right with D’Antoni, as he’s highly unlikely to prevail in another power struggle with his former Knicks coach.

It’s worth noting that Anthony’s Banana Boat brethren have all endured serious compromises in recent years. Following back-to-back Finals losses to the Warriors, LeBron James had to flee his home state of Ohio in search of a narrative refresh and even greater fame with the Lakers. Facing the possibility of never achieving a playoff breakthrough, Paul had to leave the Clippers in 2017 for a subservient role behind Harden. When the Heat balked at giving him a Bryant-like late-career balloon contract, Wade had to sell himself on an ill-fated homecoming with the Bulls and an abridged shotgun ride with James and the Cavaliers.

All three stars approached their new circumstances with flexibility and practicality that has so far eluded Anthony. James knew that he was falling further behind Golden State and that it was time to eject for an organization with a younger roster and greater cap flexibility. Paul knew that he needed help after running out of gas in the playoffs. Wade knew that he would always be viewed as a beloved Heat lifer even if he made pit stops elsewhere.

It’s Anthony’s turn now to approach his coming concessions with an open mind and total commitment. Otherwise, he risks being remembered as an all-time bucket-getter who happened to be his own worst enemy.