Trail Blazers Must Give Carmelo Anthony Something He Never Had in Houston

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistNovember 20, 2019

NEW ORLEANS, LA - NOVEMBER 19: Carmelo Anthony #00 of the Portland Trail Blazers looks on during a game against the New Orleans Pelicans on November 19, 2019 at Smoothie King Center in New Orleans, Louisiana. 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 2019 NBAE (Photo by Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images)
Layne Murdoch Jr./Getty Images

Carmelo Anthony's debut with the Portland Trail Blazers on Tuesday night was a reminder of many things. The most important of these refreshers is less conclusive than many would prefer, ambiguous in a way bound to nauseate carriers of the disease of now.

Melo needs time, and the Blazers must have the stomach to offer it.

One game was never going to sway the Blazers for or against the Carmelo Anthony experience, no matter how beautiful or brutal. In this case, the latter is more accurate.

Through 23-plus minutes of action, Anthony scored 10 points on 4-of-14 shooting to go along with four rebounds, one block, five turnovers and five fouls. In a game the Damian Lillard-less Portland lost 115-104 to the New Orleans Pelicans, he was a team-worst minus-20. 

There's undeniable temptation to cull closure from Anthony's first NBA game in more than a year. Portland's decision to sign him to a non-guaranteed contract was hardly considered a slam dunk. For some, this game will act as confirmation that Anthony is done, and that he's only going to hurt the Blazers.

Maybe those rushing to judgment are right. Single-game point differentials are laden with noise, but Anthony's is more of a continuance than a caveat:

The Houston Rockets ended up 15 points per 100 possessions worse with him on the floor last season. Granted, that also came in a small sample size. Anthony played only 10 games in Houston, which had higher, more immediate expectations and the shortest fuse to match.

His case wasn't as damning with the Oklahoma City Thunder—at first. They were 5.8 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor, including 6.3 points better on offense, for the entire season. Then came the playoffs. Anthony devolved into unplayable by the end of the Thunder's first-round exit, during which they were 29.2 points per 100 possessions worse with him on the court.

Skeptics have grounds to write him off. His Blazers debut does nothing to dissuade it.

It may have been nice to see him hit his first basket—a mid-range jumper, fittingly—and splash in a couple of threes. But he got stuffed at the rim on multiple occasions, and the defense wasn't there, as usual:

He was a liability even when assigned to standstill shooters in the corners. The Pelicans didn't attack him directly—though Jrue Holiday certainly did—but paths to the basket were unimpeded on his side of the court. He instills no confidence as a helper, let alone as someone who can navigate ball screens...or even the threat of them.

As far as first impressions go, Anthony's didn't end well. The Blazers cannot leave this game feeling better about his fit or his potential staying power, or about how both will impact their tenuous playoff chances.

And if that matters even in the slightest, they never should've signed him in the first place. 

Patience and process are not synonymous with 35-year-old NBA players. Anthony is different. He is not only coming off a yearlong hiatus, but he is still juggling the reality of his twilight against how he can be most effective, if at all, in a game that has moved away from what he's always done best.

Working through all of that demands time. The Rockets didn't give it to Anthony. For all he's done to hasten his end, they turned him into a convenient scapegoat. His first game back reinforces just how easy it is to do that. His next game may, too. So might the one after that. And the one after that.

Portland has to be above that impulse, not just for the next few weeks, but right up until his contract guarantees on Jan. 7. That would allow them to explore every possible option, including moving Anthony to the bench if necessary: 

For their part, the Blazers can find a certain comfort knowing Anthony's first game was not a snapshot of how this partnership must unfold.

Lillard's return from back spasms will provide more offensive structure, an accessible path to leaning on Anthony less. Portland went out of its way to feature him early Tuesday, and his second-half possessions included plenty of post-up and off-the-dribble work:

This is not the role Anthony was brought in to play. The Blazers might have more room for him to freelance than the Rockets did; they are second in isolation frequency and, unlike Houston, aren't mid-range averse.

By and large, though, Anthony should be viewed as a complement to Lillard, CJ McCollum and the rest of the team—not the No. 3 option, but a role player. Asking or allowing him to operate as something more is a recipe for failure:

Relegating Anthony to an offensive accessory is not a knock against him. Nor does it imply that he'll be resistant to playing that way. He wasn't the most welcoming of change in Oklahoma City or Houston, but he did undergo it.

Almost 35 percent of his total looks in 2017-18 and 2018-19 were catch-and-shoot threes, a substantive increase from the 19.6 percent share he posted during his final season with the New York Knicks. Close to two-thirds of his attempts at both stops came while using no more than one dribble.

Whether Anthony can be effective in a niche role remains to be seen. He shot 37.3 percent from deep in Oklahoma City when using one dribble or less but only 33.3 percent on those same looks in Houston. Three of his four made baskets Tuesday came off assists.

That unknown is sort of the point for the Blazers. They're hoping the back end of his career remains a mystery, or a work in progress. Those question marks won't answer themselves in a game, or two games, or 10 games. Anthony is both new to Portland and out of practice. Even in the best-case scenario, he was never going to be an insta-fix.

He may never be part of the solution. The Blazers could be worse off with him. That's the risk they inherently agreed to when they signed Anthony after a full year of his failing to find another home. 

Giving up so soon, whether it's next week or a month from now, shouldn't be on the table. Both sides have an implied level of obligation to one another.

Anthony's is more straightforward. He didn't have other options. By accepting the Blazers' contract terms, he is submitting himself to whatever they ask.

And they must grant him what he didn't have in Houston: time to put it all together.

       

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


B/R writer Mirin Fader and B/R draft guru Jonathan Wasserman join “The Full 48 with Howard Beck,” to discuss LaMelo Ball! Mirin talks about LaMelo the person, his growth as a basketball player, his time in Australia, and his relationships with both his manager Jermaine Jackson and his father LaVar. Jonathan Wasserman weighs in on LaMelo’s NBA prospects and predicted draft number, and what’s caused him to become a Top 5 pick.

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