Will Carmelo Anthony Fare Better Without Russell Westbrook?

Carmelo Anthony will team up with James Harden and Chris Paul with hopes of competing for a title, but after last season there are doubts about how much he can contribute. Will Anthony perform better without Russell Westbrook?
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Carmelo Anthony is a member of the Rockets, and for the first time in his career there are no real expectations. After a year with the Thunder and a cup of coffee with the Hawks, Anthony will join James Harden, Chris Paul and Clint Capela as the fourth or fifth name on the marquee.

As Ben Golliver and Andrew Sharp discuss on the Open Floor podcast, whether Anthony embraces his new reality and defers to his superstar teammates could color his future in Houston.

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Andrew Sharp: We will begin with Carmelo Anthony. Our listener Joseph says, 'Everyone has been writing off Carmelo Anthony. They say he's a terrible player who can't adapt, he can't play defense and he's an inefficient scorer at best. However, it was only just a little over a year ago when everyone was up in arms saying Victor Oladipo was a terrible return for Paul George. We know what happened next. Do you think we could see a similar effect for Carmelo leaving Russell Westbrook and playing next to his good friend and point god CP3 along with a much better and more natural facilitator and MVP James Harden?"

So, Ben, we have had every opportunity to discuss Carmelo on the Rockets this summer because everyone knew things were headed this way. We got a couple questions each week asking us what we thought about Carmelo's fit in Houston, and each week we just kind of haven't gotten around to it, it's almost always on the rundown and we usually skip over it for one reason or another. There was also one podcast a couple weeks ago where we deleted an angry 5-10 minute digression I had yelling at Melo critics. That's a longer story. But, now that we're in the depths of August and the news is official, we can do it. Let's talk about Carmelo and the state of Carmelo, Carmelo's fit in Houston. We can take this in any direction you want. 

Ben Golliver: Well, to answer Joseph's idea, I think for Carmelo to become the next Victor Oladipo it's going to take two factors: One, a time machine, and two, a tummy tuck. It starts there, then he can get back on that career revitalization track. I understand people saying there's a Westbrook effect, but I don't think the criticism of Carmelo Anthony as a guy who doesn't play defense, doesn't really adapt and is an inefficient scorer at best started last season in Oklahoma City. Those storylines were already there for years during his New York tenure, and he even had his share of critics back in the Denver days, too, even when he was a much better player and a much more impactful player than he is right now.

For me, Houston is in a position where it's not an Oklahoma City calculation. Oklahoma City was tied to Carmelo, they had him on the big contract number, they were really trying to pitch this Big Three to kind of keep their franchise in this discussion as a destination and try to make Sam Presti's gambles pay off. They needed Melo a lot. When I look at Houston, they don't really need Carmelo. He doesn't do what Trevor Ariza or Mbah a Moute did, he's not earning the huge salary and I don't think they're going to be in a position where they're going to be strong-armed into having to start him and to having him close games next season.

I think the leverage calculation and balance has changed a little bit, and expectations should plummet for what he's going to give them, and that could be a situation where he actually does end up over delivering on what the critics expect. To me, Melo is not a positive player anymore, he's a net-minus when he's on the court, and I don't see him being able to play effective minutes against Golden State in a playoff series. But I do think, at the minimum, you do it. 

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Sharp: Why not is the operative sort of rationale here. They don't have any other alternatives, so see what you can get from Carmelo, at least through the regular season and early in the playoffs. I mean, it's really easy to look at Houston circling Golden State and say that Melo doesn't really change much once they get to the conference finals, if they get that far. But I like a lot of what you said because I think that's a much smarter way to look at what's possible for Carmelo, and to say that this could actually end up working out well for him. And it wouldn't necessarily be because Russell Westbrook holds everyone back. I think that's kind of just an easier way to explain it.

But I also would say that there's some element of that that's true. Melo was not really in the best situation for him. Throughout his career, he's best when he's forced to play in a context where everybody's moving the ball and everybody gets a touch, and OKC was not that team last year. And really a lot of Melo teams haven't been that situation in large part because of Melo. But when people talk about Olympic Melo, that's why it works. It's because the ball is kind of zipping all over the place, and part of that is possible in Houston although they're pretty iso heavy themselves. So I guess all of this is a little bit half-hearted, because the idea that Carmelo is going to change much at all is probably overblown. 


Golliver: I think it's really telling, though, Andrew, that last summer when he got traded to Oklahoma City I had to resurface from the forest and the rock gardens of Utah to have an emergency podcast, and this year it's like, 'Oh, cool, well he finally signed. It happened.' It's not really that big of a deal. His stock has definitely tumbled, and that's what I was getting at with the expectations point.

I think that doctor Carmelo, the guy that's trying to diagnose why the Oklahoma City situation didn't work should be essentially the medical version of disbarred. He should have his license taken away, because in his view he didn't have the ball enough, they didn't use his right, he was too much of a complementary piece and that's why he thought it didn't work. In my view, he still took way too many tough twos, he didn't commit to having the right kind of shot selection, he wasn't athletic or physical enough to play the defensive positions that they needed him to play, and he was just a very, very easy guy to pick on in the playoffs—and that had nothing to do with Russell Westbrook.

Now did Westbrook set him up perfectly all the time? No. Was the balance between their Big Three guys in Oklahoma City right? No, it was not, everyone would agree on those things. But there were other, more glaring issues, and I think in Houston it does help that they're going to just play a spread style all the time and he's going to be largely a catch and shoot three-point shooter. I think that's going to be the most effective way to use him right now and hopefully he buys in. 

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Andrew, you'll remember my very cutting dig about Carmelo a year or two ago, when I said he's been a bystander to his own reality. I think the Rockets are the opportunity for him to finally jump back into what's really happening, to kind of be shaken awake and reborn a little bit and realize, 'Look, you're not the guy you were six years ago. That ship has sailed, no matter how stubborn you are, no matter how defiant you are with the silly picture of the wine and the street and telling all of his critics to do unholy acts to him.'

I think that guy needs to take a backseat to the guy who's saying, 'Look, if you make the Finals in Houston all of the critics who have been on you for the last 10 years will have to rewrite those stories.' If you can work yourself in as a quality fourth or fifth option on offense, you can change these stories about guys who say you're selfish and you were only in it for the money, and you can get some redemption for the disappointment of that New York era. All of that is on the table for Carmelo Anthony. Let's see if those opportunities are enough to motivate him in the right direction. 

Sharp: But you don't think any of that's going to happen. We can be real about this. 

Golliver: Of course not. Obviously. 

Sharp: It's on the table, but it's at the far end of the table. He's going to have to stretch all the way and maybe get it, but let's be honest here about what's really possible for Carmelo and even the Rockets in general. I don't blame them for making this move, but I don't really think that Carmelo gets them that much closer.