Carmelo Anthony Has Always Stood Out—Now He's Playing to Fit In

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistNovember 15, 2019

Former NBA player Carmelo Anthony gestures as he and Houston Rockets guard Chris Paul watch Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, April 10, 2019, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Kathy Willens/Associated Press

Carmelo Anthony is really, actually a member of the Portland Trail Blazers. What exactly that means is a matter of course.

The news, first reported by ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, hit with a certain randomness, even as Anthony was "2,000 percent" sure he would be back this season. Portland is desperate for reinforcement at power forward, sure. General manager Neil Olshey has remained in contact with Anthony's agent, Leon Rose, since the preseason, according to Woj. And franchise lifeblood Damian Lillard has been on board with the move for some time, per Yahoo Sports' Chris Haynes.

At the most basic level, this marriage makes sense. A team in need of bodies at the 4 signed one. But Anthony is 35 and hasn't played in over a year. To what end he helps the Blazers, if at all, is unknown.

This uncertainty is mutual. Portland is a haven for Anthony in association only. Maybe that's enough. He ached for an opportunity, seemingly any opportunity, during his August conversation with ESPN's Stephen A. Smith on First Take.

"I want to play and I want to go and win a championship, but I also want to play," he said. "I want to get back out there on the court. I miss the game. I was away from the game for damn near a whole season. I got the opportunity to step back and grow as a person, and I deserve another shot."

Beyond having a home, on a non-guaranteed contract, Anthony is assured of nothing. Dubbing this his last chance to prove something risks overstating the chance at hand. And even if he's given a meaningful shot to contribute, the stakes are not what they were with the New York Knicks, Oklahoma City Thunder or Houston Rockets.

In New York, Anthony was tasked with advancing and legitimizing his stardom. In Oklahoma City and Houston, he was clinging to what was left of it.

In Portland, he will try to fit in, a forfeiture of total control.

The stakes are different for Melo in Portland.
The stakes are different for Melo in Portland.Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

That is the progression Anthony's career has taken. He stayed with and left the Knicks on his own terms. He felt empowered enough with the Thunder to reject a bench role. He was more so at the mercy of the Rockets but didn't embrace reserve duty without a stand against it and was blindsided when they ended the experiment he believed to be a necessity.

As he told Smith:

"I was surprised by it big time. It went from, 'Oh, this is the piece we want, this is the piece we need'—mind you, for three years, four years, they were trying to get me to come to the Houston Rockets. And I finally went there. They finally said 'OK, this is the piece that we need.'

"So I get there, and I'm thinking everything is good. I'm doing everything I gotta do. I never missed a practice. I'm doing all my work. I was real professional with everybody there. I don't think there's one person there that could say that I wasn't a professional there. I did what I had to do, did my work. And then the 10th game comes, and I just didn't understand where [the change in direction came] from."

There is no such cachet for Anthony to lean on or preserve with the Blazers. Nor is he in position to rewrite the book on his career—and he doesn't need to be.

Sixteen-year resumes are not capsulized by their endings, no matter how pleasing or painful or fresh. As time goes on, Anthony's body of work will be viewed in its entirety. He is 19th on the all-time scoring list. He made six All-NBA teams. Only 14 other players have averaged 24 points per game for their career while matching Anthony's true shooting.

Nothing in Oklahoma City or Houston changed any of this. Portland won't be any different. No matter your view of Anthony, both then and now, his is a first-ballot Hall of Fame career.

What comes next isn't about reinvention. It isn't even necessarily farewell. It is about easing perception— proving not that he can still play, but that he can age out more gracefully than we've seen.

If Portland has the stomach for the attention Anthony will draw, he'll have the chance to find some sort of redemption.
If Portland has the stomach for the attention Anthony will draw, he'll have the chance to find some sort of redemption.Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

To Anthony's credit, his free fall isn't solely on him. He's a victim of his own popularity.

Some saw his First Take appearance this summer as a deflection. Perhaps it was. Still, he was coming off the bench for Houston. He may have even played good solider on the outskirts of the rotation just to remain part of the team.

We'll never know. His brand has become his baggage. The Rockets could not have reduced his role without it becoming a story. The Blazers could be in a similar boat if this goes sideways. That they're signing him at all, after what happened in Houston, suggests they have the stomach for it.

This alone bodes well for Anthony if he can improve upon the adjustments he made in Oklahoma City and Houston. Nearly 35 percent of his total looks in 2017-18 and 2018-19 came as catch-and-shoot threes, a far cry from the 19.6 percent share he tallied during his final season with the Knicks. But he never excelled in this capacity, especially on the Rockets, and he didn't so much accept change as endure it.

The Blazers will task Anthony with a similar role, if not a starker version of it. They work in isolation more than any team except the Rockets and are seventh in mid-range frequency, but they're not signing him to first and foremost be an alternative to Lillard and CJ McCollum.

Anthony is instead, and again, saddled with trying to blend in. Only this time, he doesn't have the runway or, seemingly, the urge to fight it. And with these specific circumstances comes a type of flexibility: adjusted expectations.

He's not playing to save the Blazers season. They're not bringing him in for that.

He's playing for the right to finish it.

              

Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference or Cleaning the Glass. Salary and cap-hold information via Basketball InsidersRealGM and Spotrac.

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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