Why Things Will Be Different for Carmelo Anthony Under Mike D'Antoni in Houston

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistAugust 7, 2018

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 18: Head Coach Mike D'Antoni and Carmelo Anthony #7 of the New York Knicks during the New York Knicks open practice on December 18, 2011 at Madison Square Garden in New York City.  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. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2011 NBAE  (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

Carmelo Anthony and Mike D'Antoni are together again, as first reported by Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports. And this time, unlike last time, their partnership won't end with one running the other out of town.

D'Antoni resigned as head coach of the New York Knicks in March 2012 after Anthony gave the team a him-or-me ultimatum. Their styles clashed. D'Antoni's offensive constructs called for more ball movement, pick-and-roll initiation and quick-fire decisions. Melo has always tilted toward jab-step graduality.

Reuniting these two outside the bubble of Olympics basketball, where the stakes are high but the risk is low, could be a combustible gamble. Grudges are a staple of the NBA, even when the "We're good" cards get played. Bad blood can fester well beneath the surface with a history like the one shared between Anthony and D'Antoni. 

The Houston Rockets do not care. They haven't for some time. Anthony verges on an archetypal necessity following the departures of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute; the Rockets need wings. And yet, their interest is not borne entirely from the lack of supply to meet their demand. They circled Anthony during 2014 free agency and then came calling again last summer, with D'Antoni fresh off a Coach of the Year campaign.

This doesn't guarantee their do-over will be an uncomplicated success. The Rockets are rolling the dice in so many ways. But the coach-player dynamic is not among their most urgent issues. 

D'Antoni has been on board with Anthony's arrival for a while, and Anthony is not coming to Houston against his wishes. This isn't even him settling for the Oklahoma City Thunder amid an unnavigable trade market. He is making an active decision to play for D'Antoni again.

Both are also entering this mulligan with a more unambiguous pecking order. D'Antoni is not at the mercy of Melo's superstar leverage. The Rockets are James Harden's team. Chris Paul is a close and obvious second in command. Neither Anthony nor D'Antoni has the cachet in this situation to double-cross the other if they want to. And, well, they clearly don't want to.

Anthony's fit in Houston is more of a tactical problem than emotional one—which is good.
Anthony's fit in Houston is more of a tactical problem than emotional one—which is good.Tim Warner/Getty Images

Houston's risk here is more functional than sentimental. Anthony is not a plug-and-play accessory. He'll need off-the-dribble touches. Fitting another ball-handler into a rotation that already features Harden, Paul and Eric Gordon will be a chore.

Convincing Anthony to churn through more spot-up situations has been the suggestive antidote to this dilemma both in New York and Oklahoma City—so much so that it suffers from rampant invalidation. It shouldn't.

Remember: Anthony mostly bought into his role with the Thunder. Acceptance won't be a problem in Houston. He adapted for Paul George and Russell Westbrook, albeit imperfectly. He will do the same for Harden, the league's reigning MVP, and Paul, a good friend and near-consensus top-10 player when healthy. 

Tweaking Anthony's offensive style is a matter of shot quality more than anything else. His exit interview with the Thunder likely unfolds in rosier terms if he spent the season not only remodeling his approach but gorging on a diet of wide-open looks.

Oklahoma City didn't have the spacing to promise Anthony high-volume gimmes. Only three everyday rotation players cleared a league-average clip from deep (36.2 percent): George, Alex Abrines and Patrick Patterson. Westbrook, owner of the NBA's second-highest usage rate, canned under 30 percent of his threes.

Uncontested looks will come easier with the Rockets. They never run lineups with fewer than four above-average or better shooters, and they have access to five-out arrangements whenever PJ Tucker plays the 5. Harden, who shot 36.7 percent on threes last season, and Paul (38.0 percent) are monumental spacing upgrades to Westbrook.

Nearly 27 percent of the Rockets' field-goal attempts last season came with defenders six or more feet away—the Association's fourth-highest share. No team generated wide-open threes more frequently. The Thunder placed 22nd and 20th, respectively, in those departments.

For his part, Anthony is not the deadliest outside marksman. He has shot better than 38 percent from downtown only once (2013-14), and he canned a so-so 35.1 percent of his triples over the past four seasons.

Account for the Rockets' quality, though, and the outlook changes. Check out Anthony's success rates on wide-open threes during this span:

Only once in this time has Anthony enjoyed uncontested breathing room on more than 10 percent of his three-point attempts. He has never come close to sniffing the Rockets' collective wide-open-trey rate from last season (23.5 percent).

Playing alongside Harden and Paul will make it that much easier for Anthony to feast. They're more autonomous passers than George or Westbrook—more naturally crafty than just resourceful. They didn't attempt nearly as many uncontested threes as their teammates, but that's by unforced design. Their handles and footwork act as magnetic pulls, which their on-target passes then turn into catch-and-fire bombs.

As Chris Herring wrote for FiveThirtyEight:

"Westbrook commits more bad-pass turnovers (4.1 per 100 passes) than any NBA player, according to Second Spectrum. Then again, Harden (3.5) ranks No. 2 in the same metric, raising the obvious question of whether things would be any better for Anthony with the Rockets. But Harden and Paul—neither of whom is wildly athletic or reliant on speed—throw much different types of passes, and both are known for hitting teammates in the hands when they spot up."

Harden and Paul are going to make Anthony's life so much easier than it was in OKC.
Harden and Paul are going to make Anthony's life so much easier than it was in OKC.Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Adjusting to Houston's offensive food chain will require concessions similar to those Anthony accepted in Oklahoma City. But the payoff for this stylistic redress will be greater, which invites a cleaner fit and better experience.

The Rockets cannot expect a total reinvention from Anthony. They are not adding him under the guise he will become a spot-up specialist like OG Anunoby or Danny Green.

Indulging Anthony's overarching identity is part and parcel of having him. He'll need the chance to go one-on-one. Houston risks deviant freelancing if he doesn't get it.

Incorporating that from-scratch grind once conflicted with everything D'Antoni preached. It doesn't anymore. The Rockets relied on isolations last year more than any other team. Both Harden and Paul finished in the top five of one-on-one possessions. D'Antoni is catering to the personnel at his disposal, and Anthony fundamentally fits Houston's defining trait.

The "one ball" argument isn't going away. Juggling reps for Anthony, Harden and Paul will be difficult. The Thunder struggled to strike that balance. The Rockets will, too. But they also showed a unique sense for staggering the minutes of their most ball-dominant players. Look at how much time Gordon, Harden and Paul averaged per game without the other two:

Baking Melo into that distribution will demand more coopts from Harden and Paul. The Rockets can make that commitment. They outscored opponents by 12.5 points per 100 possessions with both on the court, according to Cleaning The Glass, and neither one should need as much "me time" with a season's worth of built-up synergy.

Carving out solo minutes would be far easier if Anthony comes off the bench. But based on his recent comments to Jemele Hill of The Undefeated, he's unlikely to agree to a reserve role.

Giving him a quick hook after the opening tip offsets some of the logistical gymnastics. He could spend three or four minutes with the starters before being yanked and redeployed as the primary focal point during a dual-breather for Harden and Paul.

Houston's four- and five-out combinations will help augment Anthony's creative license during his stints with Harden and/or Paul. He shot 51.2 percent on drives last year and should have even more room to attack overaggressive closeouts with only one teammate (at most) taking up oxygen inside the paint.

Staggered rotations and better spacing will only go so far. D'Antoni and his staff must explore alien territory to entirely debug the awkwardness. That could mean trying out any number of things.

Anthony isn't a premier screener or point-blank finisher. He ranked inside the eighth percentile of efficiency at the rim last year and hasn't rated higher than the 33rd percentile since 2010-11, per Cleaning The Glass. But at 6'8" and 240 pounds, he does have the build of a small-ball roll man. He's more PJ Tucker than LeBron James. Houston could use him to screen in pick-and-pops with Harden or Paul and hope its pristine floor balance takes care of the rest when the defensive reaction calls for him to dive. 

Asking Anthony to initiate pick-and-rolls is the more seamless experiment. Harden and Paul must be game for extra spot-up duty when implemented outside bench-heavy units, but Anthony has the handle and vision to run two-man actions with Tucker or Clint Capela.

HOUSTON, TX - APRIL 07:  PJ Tucker #4 of the Houston Rockets defends Carmelo Anthony #7 of the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first half at Toyota Center on April 7, 2018 in Houston, Texas.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by down
Tim Warner/Getty Images

At the risk of oversimplifying the Rockets' balancing act, let's not rule out a wrinkle-free transition, either. They deserve the benefit of the doubt.

Hiring D'Antoni wasn't immediately embraced. Nor was dubbing Harden the de facto point guard. Many used the "one ball" trope to question Paul's arrival. Every one of those moves has since worked out.

Anthony's addition might represent overkill to the normal team, but the Rockets have turned their stylistic overlap into a weapon. They played Gordon, Harden and Paul together for close to 300 possessions, during which time they notched an offensive rating north of 132, according to Cleaning The Glass.

Really, then,  risk involved with Anthony is neither functional nor sentimental. It's political.

Specifically, the Rockets must decide how they'll tackle his defensive limitations. He can handle the occasional rotation or assignment on an island, but he isn't Ariza or Mbah a Moute. He will not help replicate a switch-heavy scheme that propped up a top-six defense, as Herring explained:

"In fact, Utah—in an effort to punish the Thunder for playing Anthony such heavy minutes—ran pick-and-rolls over and over during the teams' first-round series, seeking to force Anthony into switches onto ball-handlers. The Jazz found success with that approach, scoring 1.22 points per direct screen when getting Anthony to switch onto a pick-and-roll ball-handler, per Second Spectrum. For context, Kevin Durant—who led the league in efficiency when handling the ball in pick-and-roll situations—averaged 1.15 points per direct screen set for him during the season."

What will the Rockets do in crunch time? Can they cover up for Harden and Anthony at the same time? What will they do when they play the Warriors? James Ennis is by far the better defensive fit for that matchup, but how will Anthony react to not closing games?

Melo's fit on the Rockets may not be perfect, but it's not going to be any better elsewhere.
Melo's fit on the Rockets may not be perfect, but it's not going to be any better elsewhere.Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

There's no easy answer. Houston's response will vary by matchup and situation. There might even be nights when Anthony closes the game with Ennis and Tucker while Capela watches from the bench. Joining Paul on a Western Conference superpower may pump Anthony up in a way that transcends playing-time bureaucracy. No one can be sure.

But this isn't specific to the Rockets. These same questions would have persisted anywhere. Anthony warrants indiscriminate uncertainty. The 34-year-old is working through a phase of his career in which there's a clear divide between how he's always played and how his team now needs him to play. That's fine. These things happen as superstars age.

Roles need to be altered, and Anthony's resistance to change is officially overstated. He leaned further into supporting performances with the Thunder.

The Rockets will ask him to do the same, but the precedents set last season by D'Antoni, Harden and Paul suggest they're built to get so much more.

                 

Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference. Salary and cap-hold information via Basketball Insiders and RealGM.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R's Andrew Bailey.

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