It has been an active free agency period for the Portland Trail Blazers, and I can finally say that’s a good thing. Last year’s team was flawed to say the least, and Neil Olshey has actually made an effort to address those flaws, bringing in a cadre of wings to hopefully fix Portland’s defensive deficiencies and some big men who either show flashes of promise or fit the system. This team isn’t perfect, but at least the front office is doing more than just moves around the margins, taking swings to try and maximize the Lillard era.
One of the big questions from this offseason was what would happen to Carmelo Anthony. We got our answer when he resigned with Portland on a one year contract worth the vet minimum. It was a move that obviously both sides wanted and in my opinion was the right move. Bringing back a veteran presence to help a team now clearly looking to contend always helps.
But the thing about veteran presences is that the veteran is rarely an NBA legend like Melo. And the reality is that Anthony’s minutes will not be easy to come by this year. At 36 years old, that’s something that he’s probably expecting, and while he supposedly understands he’ll be a bench guy, he also laughed at that idea not so long ago. So what should we expect from Carmelo next year?
We know the thing that he does well: he gets buckets. We might not always agree with how he gets those buckets, but he gets them. There’s a reason he’s 15th all time in NBA history in points scored, and in all likelihood he will only move up this year. It’s the thing that helped him make six All-NBA teams and 10 All-Star teams. Again, he’s just a bona fide bucket getter.
Scoring is the thing he does well, but there are still questions about how he’ll do it. Melo was always the third option offensively when on the floor, and we saw the best version of that arguably in the bubble. He averaged 16.4 points per game and shot 42% from three. At one point he was shooting 50% from three and making 56% of his catch and shoot threes. When he wasn’t doing that, he was finding the right times to post up as opposed to just forcing it every time. Oh, he also made big threes like this.
But while that was the best version of it, that wasn’t the only version. As I noted in that same article, his percentages changed more than his actual play style did. He wasn’t suddenly taking less turnaround post up jumpers; he was just making the threes that Portland needed him to make. Throughout the year he still ranked 11th among all players in post ups but finished in only the 42nd percentile for points scored.
Portland needs Anthony to be more like Bubble Melo, shooting and hitting threes at a high rate. He’s still arguably the third most talented Blazer offensively — at least until we see what Rodney Hood and Jusuf Nurkic look like in a full season — and Portland could use his scoring off the bench. But as many have said for what feels like ages, he needs to switch from turnaround jumpers to catch and shoot threes.
We all kind of know what the thing is he doesn’t do well: defense. It was the main thing holding back the Blazers last year and Anthony wasn’t exactly a boost. His defensive impact plus-minus was -0.49 and he had a defensive rating of 113. Defensive stats are always a little murky, but it’s clear that the numbers don’t like Anthony.
That being said, there are moments where the eye test suggested he was at least trying. Whether it was chasing after loose balls to make saves that jumpstart the offense or using his strength to deal with someone in the post, there were moments where Anthony was actually — dare I say — decent!
But in the end, there’s only so much defensively that a 36-year-old forward that has never been a particularly good defender can do to help a team. The reality is that even with his occasional hustle he hurt his team more than he helped on that end floor. These moments above are just instances where he is good. Sustained success was much more rare.
So where does that leave Anthony in regards to the rotation? While recent history suggests that he may not like the idea, Melo’s spot is likely on the bench, and I don’t mean as a sixth man. His ideal role with this iteration of the Trail Blazers is as someone in that 8-10 range, a guy comfortable with playing 20 minutes one night and probably way less on others. It’s a great thing that this roster got deeper; it’s just not necessarily a great thing for Anthony.
And this isn’t an indictment on Melo. Last year’s team was dead in the water without him. But let’s take a quick look at where the roster stands:
PG: Damian Lillard/Anfernee Simons
SG: CJ McCollum/Gary Trent Jr./CJ Elleby
SF: Carmelo Anthony/Rodney Hood/Derrick Jones Jr./Nassir Little
PF: Robert Covington/Zach Collins/Harry Giles III
C: Jusuf Nurkic/Enes Kanter
Robert Covington should be a starter on Day 1 (for good reason) and Rodney Hood will likely start at the three (at least eventually). Derrick Jones Jr. has a lot of promise and will also eat up time at the small forward spot. Zach Collins is likely out until January, so that opens up time at the 4, but when Collins comes back he’ll eat those minutes back up. Gary Trent Jr. is also a much better defender than Anthony and can slide to the 3 if needed.
If anything, this illustrates that it’s going to be an absolute dog fight for minutes in the frontcourt, and it’s hard to imagine it as a fight where Melo comes out on top. This is the most depth Portland has had in the frontcourt in years, and pragmatically what Melo brings to the Blazers isn’t as valuable as what other players bring.
Neil Olshey said on Monday that Anthony was probably the most important signing. From a basketball standpoint that’s just not true. Portland more than has the depth to make up for anything lost by letting Melo walk. But it’s undeniable that Portland has grown fond of the future Hall of Fame inductee, and it seems the feeling is mutual. Melo won’t produce like he did before. But maybe he doesn’t have to do that.