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The Blazers’ signing of Carmelo Anthony is a desperate act for a struggling team

Although Carmelo Anthony hasn't played in an NBA game in more than a year, the 35-year-old forward is joining the Portland Trail Blazers on a non-guaranteed contract. (Rich Barnes/Getty Images)
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Carmelo Anthony didn’t give up, even though much of the basketball world had given up on him.

The 35-year-old forward, who hasn’t appeared in a game in more than a year, spent the summer working out and making it clear that he still wanted to play, whether it was for USA Basketball at the FIBA World Cup or for an NBA team this season. There were no takers, with Team USA’s Jerry Colangelo worrying that Anthony “could be a distraction” and with no contract offers materializing, even though numerous all-stars, including LeBron James, publicly weighed in on his behalf.

Just as he appeared destined for a forced retirement, Anthony’s patience paid off Thursday when the Portland Trail Blazers agreed to sign him to a non-guaranteed contract, as first reported by ESPN. The Blazers will be the fifth NBA franchise that the 10-time all-star has played for and the first since an ill-fated 10-game stint with the Houston Rockets last season.

Harboring anything but modest expectations for Portland’s experiment would be a grave mistake. The current version of Anthony lives and works in the shadow of his own myth, and he simply wasn’t an effective contributor for the Rockets despite his best efforts to accept a bench role and reduced responsibilities.

While Anthony will be remembered by basketball history as a scintillating offensive talent, he is seven years removed from his only scoring title, and his game showed steep decline in his two most recent stops. With the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2018, he blanched at the idea of moving to the second unit and was played off the court during the playoffs. With the Rockets, he was sent home after a 1-for-11 shooting performance in a blowout road loss to the Thunder.

Portland’s interest in Anthony is motivated by a slow start, a host of injury issues and an offseason that saw a wholesale reworking of its frontcourt. Simply put, the Blazers are searching and desperate.

After reaching the Western Conference finals last May for the first time since 2000, they have the West’s third-worst record at 4-8 and have struggled to find consistent help for franchise guard Damian Lillard. The summer departures of starting forwards Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless have cost Portland on the defensive end and crimped its lineup versatility, and a shoulder injury to Zach Collins will sideline the promising forward for multiple months after surgery. Veteran center Pau Gasol has yet to take the court because of a foot injury, and forwards Rodney Hood and Skal Labissiere have both missed time.

The Blazers’ offseason plan relied heavily on Hassan Whiteside, a boxscore-stuffing center who was acquired in a trade with the Miami Heat, to provide an interior balance to the backcourt duo of Lillard and CJ McCollum and to buy time during Jusuf Nurkic’s recovery from a serious leg injury. But Whiteside’s effort level — long a point of contention in Miami — has been an issue, and his limited mobility has contributed to Portland’s subpar team defense.

With McCollum slumping and Whiteside failing to sustain a positive impact from game to game, Lillard has been left as a one-man band. The signature night of the Blazers’ season came on Nov. 8, when Lillard scored a career-high and franchise-record 60 points — outscoring all of his teammates combined — yet Portland still lost to the Brooklyn Nets at home.

Lillard posted multiple Twitter messages in support of Anthony this summer, remarking that he “should be playin’ ” in the NBA and hoping that he would get a “farewell season” like Dwyane Wade enjoyed in Miami. McCollum has also campaigned to sign Anthony, including during a 2017 recruiting effort. Even so, the days of casting Anthony as the third wheel in a “Big 3” are long gone. The benchmark for whether Anthony’s signing is successful will be whether he can buy minutes, not whether he changes games.

Anthony’s age really shows on the defensive end; he doesn’t move well, he can be easily targeted in pick-and-roll situations and he isn’t a presence around the basket. His offensive game isn’t what it used to be either. His efficiency slipped badly over the past two years, and opposing defenses will happily concede his pet contested turnaround jumpers.

In a best-case scenario, Blazers Coach Terry Stotts will hide Anthony as much as possible on the defensive end while utilizing him as a catch-and-shoot floor-spacer for his star guards and as an occasional isolation threat in bench-heavy units. It’s more likely, though, the Blazers discover they can only get useful minutes from Anthony at power forward in certain matchups.

There’s been plenty of discussion in recent years about Anthony’s perfect fit, and it’s indeed difficult to envision a situation in which he would truly thrive in the modern NBA. Anthony’s deliberate, isolation-heavy style was a far better fit in 2009 than it is in 2019, where pace, space and versatility drive the action. The more time that passed, the more the conversation around Anthony shifted from finding “ideal home” to “any home.”

If nothing else, the reeling Blazers qualify as “any home,” giving Anthony another chance to craft a more satisfying conclusion to his Hall of Fame career.

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