After an uninspiring 10-game stint with the Houston Rockets this past season, Carmelo Anthony could be facing the end of his NBA career.
Although Anthony is far more talented than some players currently on NBA rosters—hell, he would likely waltz into a starting gig on the Washington Wizards or the Charlotte Hornets—teams are rightfully skeptical about whether he’d provide positive value, even in a limited role.
Anthony is in the midst of one of the most difficult transitions in sports: going from a superstar to a role player. While some former stars like Vince Carter and Grant Hill have handled that change with aplomb, others such as Allen Iverson quickly fell out of the league because of their inability to do so.
For a while, it appeared as though Anthony was headed down the latter path.
Upon his arrival in Oklahoma City two years ago, he laughed off the notion that he’d have to come off the bench. After starting 78 games with the Thunder in 2017-18, he plainly stated during his exit interview: “I’m not sacrificing no bench role. So that’s out of the question.”
Before Anthony joined the Rockets last August, he told Jemele Hill of The Undefeated: “When I feel like I’m ready to take [a bench role], then I’ll take that role. Only I know when it’s best for me to take that role. I’m not going to do that in a situation where I still know my capabilities and what I can do.”
His brief stay in Houston—during which he started only two games—may have humbled him.
During an interview with ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith on Friday’s episode of First Take, Anthony said he’s willing to do whatever it takes to prolong his basketball career.
“Am I willing to accept a certain role on a basketball team? Yes, I got to a point in Houston where I had to accept that role.”
“… It was very hard to accept that role coming from New York where you’re averaging 22, 23 points, an All-Star, and you’re going to another team. You go to OKC, you gotta take a step back, and then you take the ultimate step back to come off the bench. That’s major, major ego hits. It was a whirlwind for me over that year-and-a-half. But I got to a point in Houston where I can accept that.”
To Anthony’s credit, he has begun to shift his offensive style over the past few years.
While prime Melo feasted on pull-up jumpers and isolations, he took more catch-and-shoot attempts than he did pull-ups in both OKC and Houston. With the Thunder, he shot 37.3 percent on 5.0 catch-and-shoot three-point attempts per game, compared to a dismal 29.3 percent on 1.0 pull-up triples.
Anthony shot a career-worst 40.4 percent in OKC and 40.5 percent in Houston, but that’s in part because he bombed away from deep more often than ever before.
Over the first 13 years of his career, he never took more than 27.8 percent of his shots from downtown. Over the past two years, his three-point attempt rate jumped to 40.6 percent and 52.9 percent, respectively.
However, former teammate Chauncey Billups is skeptical of whether Anthony has fully embraced the mentality of a role player.
“The reason why he’s not in the league—because he’s still worthy—is he hasn’t mentally taken that step back to say, ‘OK, I’ll come in and play against backups,'” Billups said during an interview on SiriusXM NBA Radio in mid-July. “‘I’ll try to help the team out. I know I might not be able to close, but I just want to help.’ He’s not there yet.”
Even if Anthony is willing to accept a lower-usage offensive role and largely morph into a catch-and-shoot threat from deep, that’s only part of the transition from superstar to role player. He’ll also need to do the little things—boxing out, setting screens, diving for loose balls, taking charges, etc.—that teams expect from their supporting cast.
There’s little evidence of his willingness to do so, which may keep him out of the NBA moving forward.
Of the 14 players who tallied at least 250 minutes in a Rockets uniform last season, Anthony was tied for 10th in screen assists per 48 minutes, 11th in deflections and 12th in loose balls recovered. Although he had the sixth-most boxouts per 48 minutes of any Rockets player, Houston had a team-low 70.0 rebounding percentage on his boxouts.
That was only a 10-game sample size, but his tenure with the Thunder—during which he averaged 32.1 minutes per game across 78 outings—wasn’t much better.
Of the 12 Thunder players with at least 250 minutes in 2017-18, Anthony ranked ninth in contested shots per 48 minutes, 10th in deflections and was dead last in loose balls recovered. He also finished with a 12.7 PER (the league average is 15).
To prolong his NBA career, Anthony not only needs to boost his shooting efficiency, he must reinvent his game.
Carter is the quintessential example of how a former star can age gracefully into a supporting role. He went from averaging 25-plus points per game in his prime to single digits during each of the past five seasons, but his transformation from a go-to option on offense to a dirty-work glue guy (who also made it a focus to mentor younger players) morphed him into an invaluable locker room presence.
Iverson, meanwhile, is the obvious example of a former star who couldn’t quite come to grips with how he’d have to change to stay in the NBA.
“I’d rather retire before I do this again,” he told reporters in reference to coming off the bench with the Detroit Pistons in 2008-09. “I can’t be effective playing this way. I’m not used to it. It’s tough for me both mentally and physically.”
Based on Anthony’s comments to Smith, it appears as though he’s more open to a bench role than Iverson ever was. But that doesn’t mean “Olympic Melo” will be making his return any time soon.
‘Olympic Melo’ was a guy who DID all the dirty work little stuff on both ends while making scoring (which he still did plenty of) a secondary preference—especially in 2008 and 2012, though it was there in 2004 and 2016.
“When you have 12 of the best players on one team in the world, it’s easier to be ‘Olympic Melo,'” he told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols in October 2018.
Anthony won’t find a Team USA equivalent in the NBA. If that caliber of talent is his prerequisite to embrace a smaller role, his time in the Association may be over.
Championship contenders likely have no interest in attempting to guide Anthony through that transition. He doesn’t make sense on rebuilding teams, either—unless they’re stealth tanking—since he’d take away minutes from young players who could fit into their long-term plans.
NBA stardom is a fickle thing.
One can only cash in on a hard-earned reputation while the production still matches it. Once that’s out of balance, plaudits and respect are all one can expect because the minutes and opportunities dry up fast.
Hypothetically, a middling playoff team like the Detroit Pistons or Miami Heat (hard-cap issues aside) might benefit from taking a low-risk flier on Anthony. If his time in Houston convinced him to follow in Carter’s footsteps, he could be a high-upside reserve on a minimum deal. If it doesn’t work out, they can cut him without much financial penalty.
It all comes down to how much Anthony is willing to sacrifice in order to recapture his NBA aspirations.