The Blazers have won three games in a row, and while those wins haven’t come against top-quality opponents, it’s probably the best the Blazers have looked all year. Damian Lillard returning after a brief injury has bolstered the Blazers significantly, but another addition has made an impact too: Carmelo Anthony. Melo, of course, was out of the NBA for around a year after being waived by the Rockets, and his return was much bandied about.
So far, Melo’s been helpful for the Blazers. At least, it seems like he’s been helpful, and he has had a couple nice scoring performances. But is he really making the Blazers better? And if so, is he likely to be able to maintain this level of play?
Prior to Friday’s result, Melo was averaging 16.6 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 1.8 assists per game in 29.2 minutes, while shooting 45.3% from the field, 37.5% from three (4.8 attempts), and 75% from the free throw line (1.6 attempts). Compared to his two most recent seasons in Houston and Oklahoma City, which are his closest comparisons both in years and role, his performance is improved, but not unreasonably so. He’s shooting better from the field and from three, but his scoring, rebounding, and passing are all in line with recent seasons. The key number is his three-point shooting: since he’s playing off-ball more, he needs to be able to sink threes off the catch, and he’s done well in this role thus far.
However, the issue in the past couple years regarding Melo has been somewhat misconstrued. While he’s wanted to start, and has problems coming off the bench, he mostly accepted his role in Houston and Oklahoma City. And, as Blazers fans have discovered, he’s widely beloved by other players and certainly seems to be popular in the Blazers’ locker room already. He’s an NBA icon, and the question marks about his being too prideful have been a bit overblown, I think.
No, what’s sunk Melo has not been his pride, or his ego, or even his ball-hogging, but his defense. In his prime, Melo was maybe a slightly below average defender who was never a strong point but could play comfortably in a good defense. In recent years, that defense has fallen to awful, with Melo’s slow feet making him unable to play defense out on the perimeter. Even prime Melo would not have been as useful a player with this defensive deficiency, and older Melo—less able to draw fouls, beat defenders, or explosively finish around the basket—with his reduced scoring efficiency has been downright unhelpful on the court.
This decline can be seen via catch-all advanced metrics like Win Shares per 48 minutes, BPM, and RPM. While never an advanced stats darling, Melo generally looked like a pretty good player by such metrics, if not the All-NBA player that his reputation suggested. The last couple seasons, he had negative ratings in RPM, an increasingly negative BPM, and below average ratings in WS/48 (0.100 is league average for that stat). Again, while his offense declined, it was his poor defense that made him a minus impact player on the court.
Unfortunately, while Melo seems to be fitting in well offensively, and has given the Blazers a spark, his defense is unlikely to improve at his age. So far, he’s posting negative numbers in both BPM and WS/48 and has looked as slow as ever defensively. The effort is largely there; the speed and instincts are not. Moreover, even with his improved shooting, Melo’s efficiency remains below average, as he has a TS% of 52.9. Not awful, but not very good either, and definitely not worth the high usage or the defense. The eye test says Melo has helped the Blazers, but the stats certainly suggest otherwise.
Now, advanced stats aren’t everything. Melo has legitimately helped the Blazers so far with his scoring skills and his ability to lighten the load on Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Morale, too, seems to be improved, as the team appears to be having a bit more fun (though two blowout wins help a ton there) and the bench rises up for every Melo three. Those kinds of things are intangible and can’t always be measured: there is real value that Melo brings to the Blazers that doesn’t add up in the stat sheet. However, while it is still early statistically, Melo seems to be as negative a presence as he has been the past couple years, and that’s even with relatively hot shooting. He’s providing a nice spark right now, but if the Blazers have to rely on him for big minutes throughout the season, it probably won’t end well.