On the opposite end of the Kevin Durant-Draymond Green quarrel, the NBA is witnessing a very gentle breakup between the Houston Rockets and Carmelo Anthony. The Rockets are almost apologizing for being on the verge of cutting Anthony loose after just 10 games. If they tried to let him down any easier, they would have to prepare a video tribute of the 49 field goals he made in their uniform.
“He’s been great with us,” Houston General Manager Daryl Morey said of Anthony.
“Melo’s been great here,” point guard Chris Paul said.
“He’s been super in whatever we’ve asked,” Coach Mike D’Antoni said. “Winning, losing, it’s definitely not his fault.”
It’s not you, Melo. It’s us. The timing is just bad. Hope you meet someone as great and super as you truly are. Let’s hug it out and forget these 10 games ever happened, okay?
Anthony — future Hall of Famer, No. 19 all-time scorer with 25,551 points — is getting dumped before dessert and being asked not to make a scene.
The hot takes are everywhere, and the consensus viewpoint paints Anthony as a victim of his selfishness. After struggling as a role player in Oklahoma City and Houston, he has been branded a failing, me-oriented player who can’t adjust to the new NBA style of pace and space, ball movement and the elimination of midrange shots. It’s the end that he deserves, many figure. But it’s not that simple.
The sad part is that Anthony wants to conform, but the game doesn’t know what to do with him anymore. It’s easy to compare Anthony with Allen Iverson, who resisted change and suffered a rapid descent. Like Iverson, Anthony was an all-star still scoring more than 20 points per game at age 32. By 34, Iverson was out of the league. The 34-year-old Anthony is now reportedly searching for another team, and it may be his last chance to reinvent himself. But the difference is that Iverson was defiant until the end. Anthony has accepted that change is necessary. Problem is, the sport is growing intolerant of diverse styles.
There’s something troubling about that. For certain, Anthony deserves blame for not tweaking his game when he was younger and still capable of carrying a franchise. For certain, he wasted some years by not being in exquisite shape like his good friend LeBron James. But Anthony still can be effective, and as he has aged, he has taken good care of his body. After the Oklahoma City debacle last season, he came to Houston with a humble approach and a desire simply to fit in on a championship contender. But he doesn’t fit. He can still play basketball, just not perfect 2018 NBA basketball.
It speaks to how committed every NBA team is to playing a specific way. It’s fun to watch; some indications are that offense has never been this far ahead of defense in league history. It’s fun to analyze because, with all the statistical data available, there’s no more assuming and guessing about anything. But it is worrisome that the game has become all about shooting three-pointers and attacking the rim, with little respect for anything in between. While the game won’t be worse off because a 16-year veteran is succumbing to Father Time, there should be some concern about the extinction of a great midrange scorer.
The analytics have shown that this is a low-percentage shot for most of today’s players. But basketball is an evolving game, and defenses will adjust, the same as football teams have learned to defend spread concepts much better. It may take 10 years to see the effect, but you should be wondering what happens when defensive innovation thwarts pace and space, and the league is full of players who have been taught their entire lives to care only about deep jumpers and getting to the rim. It seems foolish, long term, to send the message that shots taken between 10 and 20 feet from the basket don’t matter.
Current NBA players grew up taking a lot of midrange shots, and they have changed, increased their range and learned to be selective. The next generation will take that as permission to abandon a huge chunk of space in the half court. The fear is that many players won’t have a key shooting skill that they can use as foundation. The fear is they will be chuck-or-dunk players and very little else. What’s cool and free-flowing now could be detrimental down the road, depending on how well the game is taught at all levels.
A deep and stat-driven understanding of shot selection is fine. But in a game that shifts from era to era as with rule changes and the physical evolution of athletes, fundamental skills need to be timeless. The Golden State Warriors are a good example. While they shoot and make a lot of three-pointers, you also see Durant, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson showcase their all-around abilities when teams chase them off the three-point line. Those stars are capable of making shots from anywhere on the floor, and when defenses run at them to limit the deep jumpers, they make a comfortable move and hit midrange shots that feel like layups to them.
It’s hard to argue with the Rockets’ recent success, especially during their 65-win campaign last season. But they died by the three-pointer in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals a year ago. Their insistence on playing the percentages and refusing to adjust may have cost them a championship.
And now the Rockets are expected to move on from Anthony within the season’s first month, even though they say it wasn’t his fault, even though Anthony was determined to make it work. He’s an easy scapegoat for the Rockets’ slow start. James and Dwyane Wade have used their social media platforms to make strong points about that. They still believe their friend can contribute to a winner. Anthony figures to get one more good chance, perhaps with Wade in Miami or with Philadelphia or with another decent team that could use an extra scorer.
This time, both Anthony and interested teams will have to choose wisely. He’s struggling to transition. He needs consistent touches. He needs to shoot off the dribble and get into a rhythm. He needs to be able to post up, which is another highly inefficient play in today’s game. And while it’s easy to scoff and say Anthony needs to retire, there’s still value for that kind of talent on a well-rounded team that isn’t as married to its system as it is making the most of the players it has.
Anthony knows the challenge. He has articulated it quite well in recent months. But he doesn’t have a fossilized game just yet, not if the desire to change is there.
The aging scorer is trying to catch up, and if the game isn’t able to reach back for him, you have to wonder whether this new and exciting NBA is actually more rigid than we realize.