OKC Thunder's Carmelo Anthony Problem Is More Perception Than Reality

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 27, 2018

TORONTO, ON - MARCH 18:  Carmelo Anthony #7 of the Oklahoma City Thunder warms up prior to the first half of an NBA game against the Toronto Raptors at Air Canada Centre on March 18, 2018 in Toronto, Canada.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

The Carmelo Anthony situation is starting to feel like a situation.

And if you don't know the difference, the latter is what happens when, already mired in what many would term a disappointing year, a theoretical star shoots 3-of-13 from the field in a pivotal late-season loss to a conference rival...with playoff position at stake.

That's what happened when Melo went cold down the stretch against the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday. He clanked threes late in the game (including one at the buzzer that could have tied it), turned it over on OKC's second-to-last possession and generally fed the already engorged narrative that he's been a bad fit and a massive failure whose role must be minimized in the playoffs.

Except...has he really been all that disappointing? Because what should any of us have reasonably expected?

Given the conspicuousness of his shortcomings, on full display in Sunday's loss, it'll sound strange to hear that what Anthony's done this season lines up with what we should have seen coming. His 2017-18 exploits can only qualify as a failure if you thought he was, at 33 and coming off several seasons of pronounced decline, going to become something more than he'd been before.

Anthony has been slipping for five years, and the knee surgery that cost him half the 2014-15 season accelerated the slide. Effective field-goal percentage, free-throw rate, usage percentage, player efficiency rating—all trending downward since 2012-13.

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This is what happens to a guy getting deeper into his 30s with a bum knee. It's normal.

"But, Olympic Melo!," the believers shrieked.

You mean the guy who, in 16 games spread across the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, shot 41-of-91 from a shorter three-point line against competition weaker than in the NBA, with minute totals in the teens and alongside megastar teammates at every position?

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 21:  Carmelo Anthony #15 of the USA looks on during the Men's Gold medal game between Serbia and the USA on Day 16 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Carioca Arena 1 on August 21, 2016 in Rio de Janerio, Brazil.  (Photo by Va
Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

There's just not enough information there. And what is available depends on tiny samples.

Look, Anthony shot 18-of-38 from deep during a five-game stretch earlier this month. So even in the brief runs of play that matched what he did in the Olympics, we get an illustration of how meaningless those short stints can be.

There was hope that Anthony could slot into the Thunder's hierarchy as a No. 3 option and be something special, but none of it stood up to scrutiny.

Example: In addition to the Olympic Melo angle, you could point to Anthony's spot-up shooting numbers. Critics who lambasted his isolation game and low-percentage offensive preferences could still cite Anthony's standstill shooting stats and see something translatable to his situation in OKC.

He shot 34.7 percent on catch-and-shoot threes in 2014-15, 38 percent in 2015-16 and 42.3 percent last season. In all, he went 224-of-570 on such shots over a three-year span, which is 39.3 percent.

This year, he's at 37.1 percent based on 126 makes in 340 tries. The volume is way up, which is a good thing. Anthony, like the NBA as a whole, is taking more threes. But that's not the point. This is about what we should have expected from Anthony, and in this instance, he's giving it to us. Add eight makes (just one every three weeks or so since November) to his total, and he's right there, a hair above 39 percent.

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MARCH 23:  Carmelo Anthony #7 of the Oklahoma City Thunder shoots the ball against the Miami Heat on March 23, 2018 at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by do
Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

If you're the Thunder, Anthony is providing almost exactly what you should have expected. No reasonable forecast would have included him playing defense, facilitating or doing anything but score as a third option. That's what he's done. That's who he is.

If there's a real problem here, it may be that the Thunder bought into Anthony's capacity to be different—to be better than his last few seasons showed. But for all the outsized expectations Melo fans might have had, you'd like to think the Thunder were more level-headed. That they foresaw this version of Anthony coming.

Head coach Billy Donovan, speaking after the Portland loss, sort of sounds like he's caught up in who Melo used to be, per Fred Katz of the Norman Transcript: "Carmelo was obviously a proven scorer in this league and has made shots, big shots for a large portion of his career. And I've got confidence in him. So, we're gonna go with him in that situation."

Maybe this is just Donovan pumping up his player after a rough night. Or maybe Donovan's aware of the numbers that indicate Oklahoma City performs better overall (because of an offensive spike) with Anthony on the court than off.

Donovan isn't treating current Melo like 2010 Melo, which is encouraging. Based on OKC's clutch usage numbers, which show Anthony uses about half the possessions Russell Westbrook does in close-and-late situations, there's no question about team hierarchy.

So, as it turns out, there's really not much of a situation here at all, let alone a situation.

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

Anthony had a bad night, and he's had a predictably not-so-great year.

Critics may call for lineup changes and advance Jerami Grant as a late-game replacement, but most of that feels like an overreaction. Grant's on-off split isn't as positive as Anthony's, and the respect Melo still commands can warp a defense to the benefit of his teammates.

The Thunder have the guy they thought they were getting. Or, at least, the guy they should have expected to get if they didn't buy into the flawed premise that Anthony's Olympic track record or spot-up stats guaranteed an efficiency spike.

As the Thunder head toward a pivotal postseason (don't forget Paul George's future with the team might depend on how long the Thunder last in the playoffs), they'll do it with a version of Melo who is predictably flawed, not as earth-shatteringly terrible as his efforts against Portland suggest and, perhaps most important, their best option at power forward.

If OKC disappoints, it won't be because of Anthony. Appropriately, it'll be because fans and optimistic speculators, just as they did with Melo himself, are expecting more from the team than is reasonable.

      

Stats courtesy of Basketball ReferenceCleaning the Glass or NBA.com unless otherwise specified.