Every year at this time, I look around the NBA to see which Syracuse Alums are ready to make a splash in the NBA Playoffs. And every year I am disappointed in what I find.
There are only 10 Cuse Alum on NBA rosters, which is being generous since four of those players spent most of the season in the G League. Anyway, out of those 10, only half are on playoff teams. Dion Waiter is out with an injury, Malachi Richardson was one of those G League players and is unlikely to be added to the Toronto Raptors post-season roster, and Chris McCollough was also in the G-League all of March and April. It’s unclear if he will be on the postseason roster, but even if he is, he won’t see the court.
All that makes it easy if you are an Orange fan. The only team you need to follow is the Oklahoma City Thunder. Carmelo Anthony and Jerami Grant both feature prominently for the #4 seed in the Western Conference.
Grant, a key reserve in his 4th year, is playing 20 minutes per night and averaging 8.4 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 1 block per outing. Grant’s job is to raise hell as an athletic freak on both the offensive and defensive end. He will have his chance to come up big in certain spots and will be fun to watch, but as usual, all Orange eyes will be on Carmelo Anthony, the greatest NBA player in Syracuse basketball history.
Despite wearing that title, this might be Carmelo’s last chance to re-write his negative legacy. Now in his 15th season, Carmelo put up career lows in minutes, scoring, assists and shooting percentage. Some of that is due to becoming the third, or perhaps even fourth best player, on a team after consistently being top dog for his first 14 years. The other part is undoubtedly Father Time starting to beat down the once potent scorer, no longer capable of dropping 35 points on anyone on any given night.
As I’ve written before, as of last season Carmelo’s legacy was a gifted offensive talent who dominated the ball way too much, was difficult to play alongside, and despite making it to the playoffs in each of his first ten seasons, only made it out of the first round twice. After four consecutive seasons finishing out of the playoffs, his fate seemed sealed.
But then a trade rescued Carmelo and gave his career new hope. No longer the flag-bearer for a losing franchise in the largest media-market in the country, he was able to relax and fly under the radar in a smaller market. Despite underachieving this regular season, OKC has the talent to make waves in the postseason. We saw it in glimpses, now they must string it together for a series.
It won’t be easy. First up will be Utah, a tough, overachieving team. But the NBA is a talent-driven league and I find it hard to imagine Utah beating Russell Westbrook and Paul George 4 out of 7 times.
Next up, Houston. Uh-oh. The Rockets were the best team in the regular season and besides being an offensive juggernaut, inexplicably became a top defensive team this year as well. Odds say the Rockets win, but there is some hope. An injury to key reserve Luc Mbah a Moute could hurt the team, even if he does return in the second round as expected. The Rockets also have their own postseason skeletons to overcome.
If OKC pulls off that upset, a bigger one looms in the defending champion Golden State Warriors. Look, it’s not going to happen. I am not saying it is. But, IF, and there is always a sliver of hope, then at that point you might as well crown OKC Champions. No one from the East can beat them if they are playing on a level that takes down Houston and Golden State.
So, if, again a gigantic IF, OKC somehow manages to win a championship, Carmelo will have redefined his entire career. Once a star who couldn’t win, he could become the perfect complement on a championship team. The confident scorer every team needs when its top two players can’t get it going or need someone to take the reigns for a quarter.
This might be Carmelo’s last season to make a big impact. Who knows what will happen in the offseason, but with this team as currently constructed, Carmelo could be a part of something special. So while we don’t have a lot of players to watch in this year’s NBA playoffs, none could possibly be more important than old #15.