The Carmelo Anthony-Portland Trail Blazers era began in New Orleans on Tuesday night, and like most Melo things the past five years, it was occasionally great, often bad, and very watchable. Portland’s injury-plagued front court and Melo’s year of joblessness brought the two together, a fit that makes sense culturally if not basketball-wise. What other city besides Portland loves hats and strip clubs as much as Melo, after all? And while it’s unlikely that this move is going to save Portland’s season, it’s also hard not to root for Melo and the Blazers.
Melo always has been been a little different. He was part of the transcendent 2003 draft class, along with future Heatles LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, but he never had his own super team. When they signed three-year contract extensions in 2006, Melo went for five years with an opt-out clause, so he was a free agent in 2011 instead. He has never been a ring chaser: In 2014, he re-upped with the Knicks rather than hook on with a contender. He has never played in the NBA Finals, but he’s the greatest Olympic basketball player of all time, proving his patriotism. He was part of the Banana Boat crew with James, Wade and Chris Paul, but Melo is the only one not in the famous photo.
Melo also feels like he’s out of his time. He’d have been an MVP if his career started 10 years earlier. But in the pace-and-space era, he’s not nearly as effective. While he’s known as a great shooter, most of his shots are from mid-range; Melo’s career three-point percentage is pedestrian 34.7. He’s one of the best isolation scorers in NBA history, but he’s never been much of a passer.
In 2012-13, knee injuries to Amar’e Stoudemire forced the Knicks to play Anthony as a stretch power forward, and he thrived, dominating slower big men and holding up on defense. The team won 54 games, easily their best record since the Patrick Ewing era, and Melo finished third in the MVP vote. But he saw himself as a three, so for the rest of his Knicks tenure, he was back at small forward.
And Melo, now 35, has never shown a willingness or ability to adjust his game to his teammates and situation. The real end of the Linsanity era in New York was Melo’s demand that the Knicks run the offense through him and not their young point guard –- a few months later, Lin was gone, along with head coach Mike D’Antoni. Could Melo have helped OKC more in the 2017-18 season by coming off the bench? Probably, but he made it clear that wasn’t going to happen.
Why do we root for Melo? He was a truly great player in his prime, a no-doubt Hall of Famer. His debut on the national scene was magical at Syracuse, where he averaged 22 points and 10 rebounds and led the Orange to a national championship. He’s just cool -– there’s something compelling about a single-minded, top-shelf bucket-getter. He’s Bernard King without the knee injuries and cocaine problems.
Melo is without question an extremely cool player, but that’s not the same as saying he’s an effective player. It often means the opposite. Things that are good for you are rarely cool, whereas terrible, self-destructive things like smoking cigarettes are, unfortunately, extremely cool. (Kids, don’t smoke. And pass the ball.)
For most of his career, Anthony was an unstoppable one-on-one scorer. That is very cool. He was in a video telling people not to snitch -– socially irresponsible, but snitching is very uncool, so Melo came out of the controversy still cool. Playing basketball while wearing a hoodie doesn’t make any sense, but it’s pretty cool. While it’s admirable that Vince Carter sublimated his superstar game and became a role player to extend his career into his 40s, an unwillingness to compromise or change your essential nature is actually cooler; that’s what kept Carmelo Anthony out of the NBA for almost a full year. Melo would not be so beloved if he’d turned into just a spot-up three- point shooter three years ago. Yes, his efficiency suffered, but efficiency is for nerds!
Anthony wants to play basketball and do Melo things. He’s still not coming off the bench, for example. In his first Portland game, he had 10 points, 14 shots, five fouls and zero assists in 24 minutes. Extremely Melo, and a clear signal of what his Blazers career is going to be like.
Melo is unique among aging, ringless players in that his legacy is essentially set. No one is going to view his career differently if he picks up a Mitch Richmond-style championship as the 13th man on a title team, which is the best-case ring scenario for him. Which is another reason to be pessimistic about Portland.
The Lakers’ Dwight Howard lost a ton of weight and became a role player, but only after hitting rock bottom in his personal and professional life last season. He was desperate to remake himself and rehabilitate his reputation. Melo? Not so much. Sure, the OKC experience didn’t go well, but some of that was on Russell Westbrook, and it wasn’t a real championship contender anyway. The Rockets released him in 2018, but he was a scapegoat for their early season struggles, which happened mostly due to injuries and a bad defensive scheme. Of course, dumping Anthony is a great way to improve your defense.
Look, Melo in Portland is not going to work! But neither was playing Mario Hezonja at center. Or playing Nassir Little, a 19-year-old rookie who didn’t start in college last year. Or relying on the lumbering shell of a body that once was Anthony Tolliver. The Blazers were screwed once they lost all their depth during the summer, and doubly screwed when Zach Collins went out with an injury.
Is Melo going to solve their issues on defense? Is he still a legitimate NBA player in 2019? Not really, but he’s a lot more fun than finding a G Leaguer who also can’t really play at an NBA level. At least with Melo, it’s fun for the fans, and they’ll sell a lot of 00 jerseys. (R.I.P., Kevin Duckworth.)
Even with Melo, the Blazers desperately need help at forward, and seven-time All-Star and 2019 BIG3 MVP Joe Johnson is available. He may not be able to guard anyone, but it’s not like the guys he’d be replacing can do that either. Plus, the Blazers are 5-10 and trending downward, which should reassure Iso Joe that he can still go on his annual vacation in early May.
And why stop there? Joakim Noah’s defense and rebounding would be welcome in Rip City, and his man buns have already inspired the hairstyles of a generation of baristas there. If Noah ever plays in the NBA again, it’s going to be in a state where recreational marijuana is legal. And if Jusuf Nurkic, who’s recovering from leg fractures, has another setback and Portland needs a big man, why not go with the biggest man possible: Mr. Andrew Bynum, who was working out at the Lakers facility as recently as last September? What, Portland’s going to shy away from a big man with bad knees now?
It’s probably a lost season in Portland, especially with superstar Damian Lillard sidelined with back spasms, a classic symptom of overuse. But if the Blazers are truly interested in redemption stories and players who haven’t been useful in five years, there’s one obvious name they should call. He made a comeback in the BIG3, he’s been to the NBA Finals, and he’s a Portland legend. We’re talking about Greg Oden. It’s time to bring him home. Because how much worse could things really get?