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Evaluating Carmelo Anthony’s Performance in the Bubble So Far

Anthony’s impact has been felt in the heightened environment.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Dallas Mavericks Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Carmelo Anthony of the Portland Trail Blazers surpassed a special milestone on Sunday. In what was admittedly an ugly win over a junior varsity version of the 76ers, Anthony passed John Havlicek and Paul Pierce for the 15th spot on the All-Time NBA scoring list.

It’s a wonderful accomplishment for a player who’s taken a strange road to his current team. Melo went from a scoring legend with the Nuggets and Knicks to an analytically maligned former superstar with the Thunder and Rockets. Even this year, in his return after over a year away from the league, the forward has faced criticism for his defense and his affinity for the contested jumpers and post ups that made his career.

But the Blazer has earned praise from people all around the league since the restart in Orlando, hitting big shot after big shot and inciting the creation of several Carmelo Anthony apology forms. But has anything really changed with Melo? Has he really played all that differently? Let’s dive into it.

As noted earlier, Melo loves to pull up from mid-range or back a guy down in the post. They’re not always the most effective shots, but it’s something that’s been the bread and butter of Melo’s game for years. That hasn’t actually changed that much; his shot profile for the past seven games is very similar to the rest of the season. And while that can be frustrating to watch when it isn’t working, it’s perfect against a team like Dallas who kept matching him up with weaker defenders like Justin Jackson. He scored 26 points on Tuesday, his third straight 20-point outing, and a lot of those points were generated out of the post.

What’s really taken Melo over the top has been his three-point shooting. While his three-point attempt average is only 0.1 higher in the bubble than during the regular season, he’s making 50% of his shots from outside and 56% of his threes in catch-and-shoot situations. Being a three-point threat has always been his ideal role (just ask Nate Mann), and we’re seeing the actualization of that role.

It’s not just about how often he’s taking and making these shots: it’s also about when he’s making them. Anthony’s ability to hit threes late in games has been vital to Portland’s success. The veteran had two big threes against Memphis that helped get them to OT, hit another big three against Boston to keep comeback hopes alive, and hit the game-sealing shot against Houston. He hit some more clutch threes against Dallas on Tuesday, arguably Portland’s best bubble win. He’s been Portland’s second-best clutch scorer in Orlando, and his veteran poise has been vital to the bubble success.

But he hasn’t fully transformed into a spot-up guy. Anthony has posted up an average of 5.7 times per game in the bubble, good for eighth among bubble players. And on the season it still doesn’t seem to be an effective shot; he’s scoring just 0.9 points per possession on post ups, ranking in the 42nd percentile. That’s not great, especially since it’s the shot Anthony loves the most. And while there’s a good argument that he’s taking those shots more within the flow of the offense — like in the Dallas game — there’s an analytically stronger argument that those shots shouldn’t be as frequent as they are.

It also doesn’t change the fact that he’s still struggling as a defender. Portland’s defense is flat-out bad, and Melo’s defensive rating of 115.4 shows that he doesn’t help it. He’s had big plays here and there in the bubble — including a series of defensive stops against Houston and early forced turnovers against Dallas — but that doesn’t change the fact that when he’s out there, Portland is liable to give up 120 points a game. That’s not all on Anthony. Portland’s just a bad defensive team overall. But the occasional hustle play from Anthony doesn’t negate all deficiencies on that end.

So what do we make of Bubble Melo? Truthfully, there’s little statistical data that supports that he’s “changed.” He’s still a subpar defender and he loves his mid-range jumpers. However, he’s making the right shots at the right time, with his improved accuracy from deep making a significant difference, especially late in games. He’s provided a veteran presence that other Blazers just don’t have, and while not too much has actually changed about his game, the way we value what he brings has.

What might have to change is who’s starting out there with him. He’s played well enough to keep a starting spot for sure, but the emergence of Gary Trent Jr. presents Portland with some interesting lineup questions. It might be worthwhile to move Anthony to the power forward slot and Gary Trent to small forward. It’s something they tried out at the beginning of the second half against Dallas and it has been their ideal closing lineup in Orlando, so it might be worth a shot to test it out against Brooklyn and then go from there.

The defense could use Trent as the primary defender on the best player while theoretically helping alleviate the fouling problem Zach Collins has by having him come off the bench. It’ll be a downgrade defensively at the 4, but Trent’s shooting will be a big boost offensively. It’s the most effective offensive lineup for Portland, and considering how porous this defense is no matter who’s out there, it might be the best strategy moving forward.

Whatever Portland chooses to do, Anthony will play a significant role. The numbers don’t suggest that he’s changed significantly, but he’s shown up when the Blazers have needed him. He’s shown that there’s value in trying to “Stay Melo.”