How James Harden, Chris Paul Can Maximize Carmelo Anthony in Championship Chase

Maurice Bobb@@ReeseReportFeatured ColumnistOctober 17, 2018

SAN ANTONIO, TX - OCTOBER 7: Carmelo Anthony #7 of the Houston Rockets talks with teammate Chris Paul #3 during a preseason against the San Antonio Spurs game on October 7, 2018 at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas.  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 Edward A. Ornelas/Getty Images)
Edward A. Ornelas/Getty Images

The most important thing to happen since Carmelo Anthony began his tenure with his new team, the Houston Rockets, transpired during his preseason debut against the Memphis Grizzlies.

With Houston up 74-71 with 8:37 left in the third quarter, Anthony received a pass on the wing from Chris Paul and, without thinking, he pump-faked, got his defender to leave his feet and then stepped into a long two-point shot.

Nothing but net.

Almost immediately, the artist formerly known as Hoodie Melo realized the error of his ways and looked over to the Rockets bench and offered an apology to his new head coach, Mike D'Antoni, and the rest of his teammates for taking such an ill-advised shot.

"My bad," he said as he got back on defense.

It was a genuine, impromptu moment of levity for the 14-year veteran looking to change the seemingly unshakable narrative that he's incapable of adjusting his game for the betterment of the team.

"Melo, he always got a smile on his face for the most part," Chris Paul told Rachel Nichols on ESPN's The Jump. "You saw ... he was like, 'My bad.' But we told him, 'You don't have to apologize as long as it goes in.'"

Paul and everyone else laughed it off, but that moment signaled something important as the Rockets look to integrate Anthony into the team's schematics: Carmelo Anthony is buying in.

With all of the new additions and changes to the roster, Houston's lineup will be in flux throughout the year, but at the outset, Anthony will be asked to come off the bench, something the 10-time All-Star has never had to do in his career.

"It's an adjustment, more so a mental adjustment than a physical adjustment," Anthony told the Houston Chronicle's Jonathan Feigen. "That would be the most ... challenging part, shifting your mindset, shifting the way you approach the beginning of the game. The approach to the game is pretty much the same, but you're three, four minutes behind now.

"It is a physical adjustment, but I think I'm in pretty decent shape to be able to handle that. It's something we've been working towards in this offseason and this preseason—playing that way. It is an adjustment for me mentally. For everybody, it's an adjustment. It's something new. For the most part, I think we will all enjoy it."

Anthony's willingness to accept his role coming off the bench is a stark departure from last season with the Oklahoma City Thunder, when he took offense to the idea.

Perhaps it was that hubris that led to the failed experiment in OKC. The man renowned for being a high-volume scorer couldn't hit the outside of a barn with the basketball, sure, but not being able to acquiesce to the role that the team needed him to take on was the biggest factor in his career-worst year.

With stops on the Denver Nuggets and the New York Knicks, Anthony grew from an offensive prodigy to a superstar talent based on his otherworldy mid-range game and ability to score the ball with defenders nearly hanging on his jersey.

Unfortunately for Anthony, the league's analytics experts began to move the goalpost, shunning isolation basketball as inefficient in favor of layups and three-pointers.

Anthony did increase his three-point attempts per 36 minutes to a career high (9.4), and he slotted in at the 4 for 90 percent of his minutes after a career average of 22 percent in his first 13 years, per Basketball Reference, but it just didn't work.

In 78 games, Anthony averaged a career-low 16.2 points while shooting a horrid 40.4 percent from the floor. Worse, his style of play was validated as grossly inefficient by the lowest PER of his career (12.7). His average PER over his first `3 seasons was 20.9, and his previous career low was 16.7 in his second year in the league. NBA average is 15.0.

To put it mildly, Anthony's days in OKC were an overwhelming disappointment, and the criticisms about his decline as a player came in fast and furious. He missed the cut of this year's Bleacher Report Top 100 NBA Players list.

"Obviously I'm a little biased, that's one of my closest friends, but the disrespect that comes at him at times is unbelievable," Paul told Nichols. "So for us, having one of the best players to ever play the game on our team, that's a no-brainer. I think that's up to all of us, some of the smartest guys to play the game, to figure out how to make it work."

In Anthony's defense, OKC may not have been the right system for his evolution as a catch-and-shoot threat.

Although the Thunder led the league in volume of open shots, where the closest defender was four to six feet away, they ranked 22nd in wide-open shots, where the closest defender was more than six feet away. As he's making the transition to spot-up shooter from deep, perhaps Anthony is better suited to having more time to launch. After all, in such situations last year, he shot 42.8 percent from three, which was better than the team mark of 38.7 percent, per NBA.com. 

With the Rockets, he'll get that chance. Harden and Paul combined for 16.7 assists per contest last season, which was one of the biggest reasons Houston had the top-ranked offense, and why they were fourth in the league in frequency of wide-open shots.

"Obviously, we all know what Melo can do once he gets going, especially if he's put in his right positions," James Harden said during Houston's media day. "There's going to be a lot of opportunities for him, catch-and-shoot opportunities. A lot of open shots where he probably hasn't had in a long time that he gotta get comfortable with, and I know he will."

Harden and Paul's abilities in the pick-and-roll, pick-and-pop and unstoppable dribble penetration will put Anthony in situations where his play would be reminiscent of his days as Olympic Melo.

Eric Gay/Associated Press

In D'Antoni's system, he'll get the same abundance of clean looks on the perimeter that helped him win three gold medals and stand out as the leading scorer in the history of USA men's basketball with 336 points.

It will be Harden and Paul's jobs to get the ball to Anthony in his spots so he can pull up from three or, when it's necessary, even from midrange. But those will be rare. Last year, Anthony took 4.2 shots per 48 minutes from 15-19 feet out. The entire Rockets team took 3.6 per game. Expect Anthony to shift that number up a bit.

But the onus will be on Anthony to play extended minutes as a stretch 4, shooting quickly instead of holding the ball and spacing the floor so Harden and Paul have room to operate.

"That's the adjustment," Anthony told Nichols. "Playing faster, shooting more threes, shooting quicker. Just understanding the personnel that's out there and the system and what we're trying to do, what we're trying to accomplish."

Coach D'Antoni's famed Seven Seconds or Less system has been criticized for its lack of success in the playoffs, but with Harden, Paul and now Anthony, his system has evolved with an overabundance of creators capable of scoring in isolation. D'Antoni's offense slowed to 13th in pace last year, but with record-setting three-point shooting and a triumvirate of athletes who thrive in clutch situations, the Rockets, who finished 1st in offensive rating in 2017-18, will continue its league-leading efficiency, according to Daryl Morey.

The Rockets' reliance on isolations last season (they led the league in frequency) was definitely out of character for D'Antoni, but it was an extra weapon in the team's offensive system that allowed the Rockets to take advantage on switches when a play dissolved.

"Carmelo has been elite at being a one-on-one scorer, and a lot of that is being able to score in those situations, so we'll take talent wherever we get it," Morey told Feigen. "I understand that fit-wise, there are question marks, but there were question marks about Chris, and Mike makes it work."

That's where Anthony can make the biggest impact. He's not the player he was 10 years ago, but in controlled bursts, he can employ the efficient small-ball play that made him an Olympic icon. Maybe he can take his past and use it to cultivate a new and improved Melo.

"I mean, it went from love Syracuse Melo to love Denver Melo ... to Olympic Melo, now Hoodie Melo," Anthony told Nichols. "So, hopefully, Rocket Melo."

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