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Why Carmelo Anthony’s Comeback Has Been Smoother Than Expected

Carmelo Anthony has made the most out of his opportunity with the Blazers, earning a fully-guaranteed deal through the rest of the 2019-20 NBA season.
Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

How much of an apology do we owe Carmelo Anthony? The 10-time All-Star deserves at least a modicum of contrition, averaging 16.9 points per game for the Blazers entering Friday while shooting 38.7% from three. Anthony’s return to the NBA was met with a collective shrug by much of the basketball intelligentsia, with many dismissing his final chance before he even stepped on the floor in 2019-20. Anthony’s defensive shortcomings were thought to be too glaring. His shot selection was seen as a Scarlet Letter. After a rough exit in OKC and a disastrous stint in Houston, Anthony was preemptively written off before his season debut on Nov. 19. With skeptics at every turn, this brief stretch in Portland may be one of the most satisfying periods of Anthony’s career.

The Blazers slogged through Anthony’s first three contests with his new franchise, going 0–3 with losses to the Pelicans and Cavs. Anthony went 15-44 from the field and 5-16 from three–including an 0-8 effort in Cleveland–briefly allowing his critics to take a preliminary victory lap. The past 10 days have reversed the narrative. Anthony is drilling triples and running second units, helping guide the Blazers to four wins in their last five outings. Portland is clawing back into the Western Conference playoff race. Anthony took home Western Conference Player of the Week honors on Monday. What’s been the key to his career revival? It appears as though Anthony has found himself a ideal offensive home.

Anthony’s role in the starting lineup is not dissimilar to his job alongside Russell Westbrook and Paul George in his brief tenure in Oklahoma City. He’ll engage in the occasional screen-and-roll, but by-and-large, Anthony is content to serve as a release valve in the corner, ready to let it fly. He’s shooting 44.4% on catch-and-shoot threes with the Blazers, and he has a 61.3% effective field goal percentage on all catch-and-shoot attempts, per NBA data. Anthony has already been a major upgrade over Kent Bazemore and Mario Hezonja in that regard.

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Anthony appears to be a natural third banana next to Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Both are dynamic outside shooters and slicing playmakers inside the lane, albeit below the rim. They’re willing to engage Anthony more than the Rockets were with James Harden (not that you can blame them), and Oklahoma City ran into spacing issues when Anthony played next to Russell Westbrook. Portland’s slash-and-kick style has benefitted Anthony, and the metrics bear that out. Portland is outscoring teams by 10.9 points per 100 possessions with Anthony, Lillard and McCollum on the floor. The trio’s 120.1 offensive rating would be the league’s best team mark, nearly four points better than Luka Doncic and the Mavericks. Anthony looks right at home in Portland, even with merely solid shooting numbers.

Watching Anthony serve as a quality spacer in starting lineups is a nice treat for the league’s Melo stans. Seeing him take over bench units can be downright thrilling. Portland’s gives the keys to Anthony in lineups that don’t feature Lillard and McCollum, often pairing him with Rodney Hood and Hassan Whiteside. These units feature the Anthony of old, at least stylistically. Anthony works his way to the elbow at will, and he remains a dangerous isolation scorer in the corner. His jab step is perhaps his move that’s held up best. Anthony plants his foot into the ground with authority, forcing a reactive step back from a defender despite Anthony’s lack of speed. He’s still creating quality separation, and Anthony has long sported one of the league’s quicker releases. His offensive arsenal projected to age well as his athleticism wilted, and there was proof in spurts throughout his year with the Thunder. There’s been further evidence that Anthony can still be a useful player through eight games with Portland.

Anthony is quick to go to the post when presiding over bench lineups. He’s engaging in post-ups at 26.4% of possessions, the fifth-highest share in the league behind a quartet of bruising centers. The frequency is sensible. Anthony isn’t close to the leaper he once was. He’s not blowing by anyone. But Anthony is still a load to defend down low, armed with a deep arsenal of dips and fakes. The results have been shaky thus far (0.87 points per post-up) but in lineups desperate for offensive firepower, dumping it down to Anthony isn’t the worst option. He remains a professional scorer in Year 17.

The former Nuggets and Knicks star has made the most of his final chance, earning a fully-guaranteed deal through the rest of 2019-20 on Thursday night. Portland made the move to sign Anthony largely out of desperation, and the decision has paid off. Anthony remains a legitimate scoring threat. He’s been by all accounts a valuable teammate. He’s far from infallible, still a relative defensive liability (despite a manageable 109.4 defensive rating) and a shaky option on poor shooting nights. But Anthony only asked for an opportunity to be useful, and he’s kept his promise thus far. Portland’s creaky rotation added a quality piece, one who can take over a game on a hot night. The NBA is better with Anthony on the floor. So are the Blazers. Portland’s ceiling remains limited, but the playoffs are now in play with Anthony on its roster.