The Portland Trail Blazers are one of this year’s biggest early-season disappointments, in large part because of their injury-ravaged frontcourt.
They’re now banking on Carmelo Anthony to help them turn their season around, but the early returns weren’t great.
The Blazers officially signed Anthony on Tuesday, days after ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski first reported they planned to sign him to a non-guaranteed contract. He made his season debut Tuesday night, finishing with 10 points on 4-of-14 shooting, four rebounds, two triples and one block in 24 minutes during a 115-104 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans.
Blazers star point guard Damian Lillard missed Tuesday’s game with back spasms, so it would be a mistake to rush to judgment after Anthony’s debut. Once Lillard returns, he will restore the Blazers’ offensive pecking order and seize his role as the No. 1 option again.
However, Anthony’s first performance as a Blazer will give skeptics plenty of I-told-you-so fodder to chew on for the next few days.
From the outset of Tuesday’s game, it was clear that the Blazers prioritized getting Anthony going. On their first offensive possession, center Hassan Whiteside caught the ball at the elbow and attempted to feed a cutting Anthony. However, Anthony allowed Pelicans forward Kenrich Williams to stay in front of him and easily intercept the pass.
On their next trip down the floor, Whiteside fed the ball to Rodney Hood at the top of the three-point arc. Anthony came flying around a (half-hearted) Whiteside screen and immediately fired an errant 19-foot jump shot upon receiving the pass from Hood.
Two possessions later, Anthony took advantage of the Pelicans double-teaming CJ McCollum. After setting two screens for McCollum—which caused Williams to lose track of him defensively—Anthony slid to the left, caught an easy pass and drilled a wide-open rhythm three-pointer.
In other words, the Blazers got nearly the full Carmelo Anthony experience on offense during his first 90 seconds of action.
The rest of the game was mostly a slog for the 10-time All-Star. He got called for two offensive fouls and finished with five turnovers. He also got blocked at the rim on three separate occasions. He airballed a 16-foot turnaround jumper midway through the first quarter:
Rust was to be expected and shouldn’t be taken too far out of context.
Nor should it have been overlooked, either. Surprisingly, Anthony finished with a sky-high usage rate of 36.5 percent in Lillard’s absence. As Micah Adams of DAZN noted, that’s higher than any single-season mark of his career. (WHAT?!?)
Anthony’s usage is bound to drop once Lillard returns. And Coach Terry Stotts may have simply figured one game to shake the rust off hard was worth punting on the rest of his team’s schemes, hierarchy, etc. With Lillard sidelined Tuesday, the Blazers likely realized they had little chance of winning, so they might have intentionally decided to run their offense through Anthony to get him acclimated more quickly.
The faster he can contribute for real, the more value he actually gives them. That’s fair.
But prior to Tuesday, Anthony hadn’t played a regular-season game in more than a year. After his 10-game stint with the Houston Rockets quickly petered out last season, they held him out until late January before trading him to the Chicago Bulls. The Bulls waived him a week-and-a-half later without ever letting him suit up for them.
It was an inglorious downfall for the 10-time All-Star, who once reigned among the league’s leading scorers.
“What happened before is the past,” Anthony said in a YouTube video posted Monday. “I can’t dwell on that. I learned from that. [The opportunity with Portland] happened at a point and time in my life where I do have a lot of clarity and understanding of different situations and life, and my approach is totally different.”
Critics would likely beg to differ with that last point after seeing Anthony’s Blazers debut, as he quieted none of the concerns about how his style of play would fit with the team (or any modern NBA team). Combine his low-efficiency, high-usage offense with his lack of defensive awareness and foot speed, and you have the recipe for a net minus on both ends of the court.
The Blazers didn’t see it that way after Tuesday’s game, though.
“To be honest, I thought he looked good,” Blazers head coach Terry Stotts told reporters after the game. “I thought offensively he got looks, he got good looks at the basket. I thought he got fouled at least two or three times taking it strong to the basket. He then came away empty, so that kind of affected his [stat] line. But I thought, for having a morning shootaround, I thought it was pretty good.”
As Anthony gets more acclimated with his new teammates, he figures to work out some of the sloppy mistakes that plagued him against the Pelicans. But if the Blazers are counting on him to play a major offensive role even upon Lillard’s return, they’re asking for trouble.
Anthony is no longer the elite scorer he once was. Even in his prime, efficiency was never his selling point. He hasn’t shot above 45 percent from the field since the 2013-14 season. That isn’t someone you should run your offense through, especially given his affinity for isolation mid- and long-range jumpers.
The Blazers are currently second in the league in percentage of isolation possessions, so Anthony will occasionally get a chance to cook in his preferred setting. But he’d be far more valuable as a spot-up three-point shooter, a direction in which he has trended over recent years.
With Zach Collins sidelined until at least March because of a shoulder injury, Anthony’s bar to clear on offense isn’t very high. He needs to outperform Mario Hezonja, who’s shooting a “scorching” (scorched earth?) 35.4 percent overall this year, and rookie wing Nassir Little, who isn’t much better at 39.5 percent.
Prior to Anthony’s arrival, those two were splitting minutes at the 4 with 34-year-old Anthony Tolliver, who’s knocking down a team-low 24.4 percent of his shot attempts. As a result, FiveThirtyEight projects Anthony to be Portland’s second-best healthy frontcourt player until either Collins or Jusuf Nurkic return.
The Blazers' frontcourt is so bad/injured that Carmelo Anthony, although he has a below-league-average projection, is their second-best healthy frontcourt player after Whiteside. https://t.co/mW3SZJn5It pic.twitter.com/xCmC4zcdTS
— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) November 19, 2019
He will be of little help to the Blazers’ 21st-ranked defense, but Portland knew that when it signed him. A team sorely lacking complementary scoring behind Lillard and McCollum needed another offensive release valve, damage to the defense be damned.
The Blazers aren’t likely to get conclusive evidence about whether the Anthony experiment can reap long-term success any time soon. They have until 5 p.m. ET on Jan. 7 before his $2.2 million salary becomes fully guaranteed, according to ESPN’s Bobby Marks, so they have a month-and-a-half before they need to make a definitive decision one way or the other.
Anthony’s debut doesn’t lend much hope that he can help the Blazers turn their season around. But if he slides into more of a complementary role upon Lillard’s return, he might not look as hopeless as he did for much of Tuesday night.