Carmelo Anthony and the Trail Blazers are in a weird spot right now. Portland beat the Lakers last night in what was easily their most impressive performance of the season. In contrast to the first two games of the year, the bench looked solid, outscoring the Los Angeles reserves 45-23.
Correlation does not equal causation, but Melo also didn’t play last night. After two disappointing outings to start the season, followed by a victory over the reigning champs in his absence, fans are beginning to wonder where Anthony fits in the Blazers rotation.
What’s not working for Melo this year?
To put it bluntly, Melo has not looked great this season. He has the lowest net rating on the team — an abysmal -20.7 — third lowest effective field goal percentage, second lowest rebounding percentage among frontcourt players, and third lowest assist percentage.
The crux of the problem is that Melo is no longer effective enough as an isolation scorer to justify his total unwillingness to pass the ball. Most of his possessions feel like a throwback to the Zach Randolph days of pounding the air out of the ball with his back to the basket before before getting up a low-efficiency mid-range jumper as the offense stagnates around him.
The result is that in his first two games Melo has scored only 0.92 points per possession on post-ups on 42 percent shooting, but is also posting up more than almost any player in the league. Throw in his abysmal passing metrics, and it’s no surprise Anthony’s net rating has cratered so far.
Wait, didn’t he play well last season?
This all might be forgivable if Melo was a plus defender. But, he’s not. Anthony is probably the worst defender on the team at this point even after controlling for Enes Kanter’s presence and Damian Lillard’s offensive-centric mindset.
The Blazers could afford to tolerate Melo’s glaring weaknesses last year because they were a sub-.500 also-ran that went into the season expecting Kent Bazemore to fill major rotation minutes. Within that context, it didn’t really matter that Melo played more or less like the player who was run out of town by the Thunder and Rockets.
In other words, compared to Mario Hezonja and Hassan Whiteside, Melo was a solidly efficient scorer and average defender. Unfortunately for Melo, this year he’s being compared to Gary Trent Jr. and Derrick Jones Jr. — suddenly his post-ups look more like black holes and Whiteside’s not around to look even more indifferent on defense.
Do the Blazers have the depth to bench Melo?
As the Blazers rotation comes into focus, it’s becoming clearer that either Kanter or Jusuf Nurkic will almost always be on the floor at center and some combo of Lillard/CJ McCollum/Trent will be in the backcourt. With that kind of offensive punch at those three positions, it becomes difficult to justify playing Melo.
But, with all due respect to Kevin Pelton, it’s also an open question whether or not the Blazers have enough rotation players to bench Melo:
As important as depth is this season, Carmelo Anthony's absence has highlighted that the Blazers have too many players who expect rotation minutes. The distribution of playing time has made much more sense without him available tonight.— Kevin Pelton (@kpelton) December 29, 2020
Jones and Robert Covington played 37 and 38 minutes, respectively, last night. Coach Terry Stotts leaned hard on an eight man rotation that saw four of five starters play at least 36 minutes. That’s not ideal. Stotts will likely need to find a way to integrate Anthony or Harry Giles into the lineup, at least until Zach Collins returns, in order to prevent burnout among the starters.
How to do that, however, is less clear. It’s fairly obvious that Kanter and Anthony don’t fit well together but it’s also tough to justify squeezing Melo into the starting rotation given how well Jones and Covington are gelling with the other starters. The solution may be to create some hybrid lineups that mask Melo’s worst features — try to pair him with Trent and Nurkic, for example, rather than Kanter and Lillard.
Melo, unfortunately, finds himself in a similar predicament to Jamal Crawford. He’s still good enough to score points in an NBA game, but his skills have eroded to the point that they can’t cover for the deficiencies in his game. We saw Crawford struggle to find a team under similar circumstances last year and now we’re (probably) watching Anthony slowly slide out of the rotation. The Blazers still need a tenth player to soak up minutes, so Melo’s days aren’t numbered yet, but it’s going to take some creativity to find lineups that will fit for him.