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Carmelo Anthony’s Real Impact for the Trail Blazers

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The ‘Melo experiment matters in Portland, just not the way you think.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Los Angeles Clippers Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Portland Trail Blazers forward Carmelo Anthony just won NBA Western Conference Player of the week. The Blazers have gone on a modest winning streak as Carmelo has ascended. This confluence is causing buzz in Blazers Land, which leads to today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag question, indicative of a half-dozen or so we received this week.

Dave,

Pinch me! Melo as player of the week and scoring big? The Blazers winning? Have we finally turned it around and does Melo make this star studded lineup back into a real force now? Spin me something good about Carmelo!

Avery

The Western Conference Player of the Week thing was pure WWE theater...a great moment in an otherwise nondescript season so far. Anthony has been a hot national story for the past two weeks. The award milks more out of it, much like Vince McMahon giving Ted Dibiase the (ultimately pretty meaningless) Million Dollar Belt to extend his run back in 1989. James Harden scored his usual 50 per game during the week; Luka Doncic nearly averaged a triple-double. Still, ‘Melo won. Ahem.

As for a team turn-around, the Blazers haven’t earned that distinction yet. They won three straight for the first time all season*. They’ve lost four straight twice. A stretch against the Chicago Bulls, Oklahoma City Thunder, and then the Bulls again (combined record 15-25, 22-39 if you count Chicago twice) is less a sign of revival than a disaster avoided. Had the Blazers lost one of those games—and they tried the second time versus the Bulls—they would have gone 2-2 in one of the easiest stretches of the season imaginable instead of 3-1. They’re going to need some quality wins before they can claim to be on the right track, with or without Anthony.

The Carmelo experiment has taught us a couple important things about the Blazers and their needs, though.

First, the Blazers do have room for another scorer, though there might be an asterisk. In the four games in which Anthony, Damian Lillard, and CJ McCollum have played together, Portland has averaged 116 points. That’s over their season average of 113.6. Conclusions should be muted by small sample size and relatively bad defense on the part of all four opponents, but still, it doesn’t look as if Anthony is hurting Portland’s offense any so far. He may well be helping.

Here’s the asterisk. During those same four games, Lillard has averaged 15.75 field goal attempts per game against 19.0 for the season, while McCollum has averaged 16.25 against 20.1 for the seaosn. As Anthony has ascended, the starting guards have gotten fewer looks.

Part of this is design, or natural consequence. The Blazers want a third scorer so they don’t have to rely on Lillard and McCollum quite so much. Long-term, is Anthony good enough to rely upon when those shots matter? Assuming the Blazers plan to make the playoffs and win there, will they need to retract some of those attempts from Carmelo in order to advance through the starting guards? If so, does Anthony probably doesn’t bring enough other attributes to make his floor time useful.

Second, Anthony owns a Usage Percentage of 25.1, meaning he uses about a quarter of the team’s plays when he’s on the court. That’s nowhere near his career high of 35.2% with the Knicks back in 2012-13. For comparison, James Harden uses an astonishing 39.3% of his team’s possessions right now. It’s still a hefty amount for ‘Melo; only Lillard and McCollum use more for the Blazers, and them barely. As much as anybody does in Portland, he’s dominating the offense when he’s on the floor.

In addition, 56% of Anthony’s shots are coming after at least one dribble, with a full third of them coming after two or more dribbles.

Combine usage and dribbles and you begin to see the potential shape for a power forward in Portland’s offense. Whether Anthony ends up filling that spot over the long haul is less indicative than the space he’s carving out.

Up until now, anyone wistfully longing for Blake Griffin, Draymond Green, LaMarcus Aldridge, or (retroactively) Jimmy Butler to join the Blazers has been faced a hard reality: those players succeed not just because they score, but because the ball passes through their hands on multiple possessions and they have freedom to work within the offense. This has run counter to conventional wisdom in Portland. The prototype of a Trail Blazers power forward to this point has been, “Stand at the arc and wait for an open shot”.

Anthony is demonstrating that the Blazers can evolve, absorbing a player who uses more dribbles, shots, and court space than his predecessors. That bodes well for any bona fide star the Blazers might bring in via trade or free agency.

For that alone, the Anthony acquisition has proven valuable, no matter what he brings or doesn’t as the weeks progress. Especially in a shaky season, this experiment was worth trying. The Blazers can start to explore more ball-intensive options with confidence about fit and production, legitimately salivating over the potential of getting a true third star instead of praying and hoping.

In the meantime, though, Portland’s real third option still sits on the bench in street clothes. Jusuf Nurkic will ultimately make a greater impact than Anthony could dream of. Nurkic getting healthy could make Anthony’s offensive style more of a liability than it is currently. Until then, the Blazers will enjoy Carmelo’s scoring, hopefully pondering future possibilities that extend beyond him.

*Note: All stats and assumptions in the article come from the time it was written, prior to last night’s game against the Los Angeles Clippers.

Thanks, as always, for the Mailbag question! You can send yours to blazersub@gmail.com!

Don’t forget to help us send a couple thousand kids to see the Blazers play the Minnesota Timberwolves in March (and maybe pick up a cool pair of socks besides)!

—Dave / @davedeckard / @blazersedge / blazersub@gmail.com