Carmelo Anthony is happy.
He is back in an NBA uniform after going a year and 11 days between playing in a game. Now a member of the Portland Trail Blazers (his fourth team in the last four seasons), Anthony is back in a role where he is comfortable, on a team where his scoring is needed.
For 15 seasons between Denver and New York, Anthony was the first option on offense. He was a go-to scorer who never averaged less than 20 points per game. Give him the ball and let him do his work.
In the 2017-18 season, he was sent to Oklahoma City to help form a Big Three with Russell Westbrook and Paul George. But, like in every Big Three, somebody is forced to sacrifice more than the others. With the Thunder, that was Anthony and his scoring average dipped to 16.2 points per game.
With Houston the next season, it was even more apparent that Anthony was third fiddle behind James Harden and Chris Paul. It took just 10 games (in which Anthony was not a starter for eight of them, the only eight times he has come off the bench in his career) for the Rockets to pull the plug on the experiment. Anthony’s 13.4 points per game average sinking lower than ever before, his NBA star shining less than ever before.
Anthony had been out of the league for over a year for the same reason his role diminished with the Thunder and the Rockets: Anthony still sees himself as a 20-point scorer. Spotting up in the corner waiting for another star who Anthony feels he is on the same level as felt like a knock, a bruise to his ego.
And in a league where positionless basketball and ball movement supersedes isolation play, Anthony’s 1-on-1 offensive attack (by far, his greatest skill and the reason he has built a Hall of Fame resume) has gone by the wayside, to an extent, in today’s game.
To a degree, Anthony has never been able to accept that and adapt his game. Several stars in their later years (in the NBA and other professional sports) have found a way to stay relevant by reinventing themselves. Anthony remains the same type of player he was when he first entered the league. Anthony has, for the most part, taken the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” outlook, knowing what worked for him and refusing to deviate from that formula.
But, with Jusuf Nurkic sidelined until around the All-Star break because of a broken leg and a 5-9 record to start the season, the Blazers needed some added punch. Insert Anthony, who can more or less be himself in Portland.
At almost 15 field goal attempts per game, he’s not shooting as much as Lillard and McCollum. But, he’s getting plenty of looks. And head coach Terry Stotts has allowed Anthony to work in the midrange, a comfort zone for Anthony but a relative no-man’s land in today’s NBA. To date, Anthony has averaged over 16 points per game.
The true test of how much Anthony has mature or accepted his current place in the NBA may be later this season. Nurkic, who had been a viable third option for the Blazers until he got hurt last season, will be back. The current starting center, Hassan Whiteside, has an expiring contract. And, rumors have circulated over the last year or two and have resurface again recently that Cleveland’s Kevin Love would fit nicely in Portland’s frontcourt. A starting five of Lillard, McCollum, Anthony, Love and Nurkic would be a formidable lineup in the West.
But, one could argue that Anthony might be the fifth option among the five starters. Would he be willing to accept a diminished role, if it meant having a chance at making a run at a championship, something missing from his resume? That may be when we find out how much Anthony has matured and evolved.
For now, though, Anthony is enjoying another chance in the NBA. While he isn’t at the level he once was, it’s clear he can still be a contributing member of an NBA team. His team is happy with him. He is happy with his team. That’s more than we’ve been able to say for a while now…