Carmelo Anthony caught the advance pass from Corey Brewer right at mid-court, with seconds left in the game and nothing but daylight ahead. The Oklahoma City Thunder were down three points, and this shot — of course he was going to shoot it — was poised to be redemptive.
Anthony had substituted into Sunday’s matchup against the Portland Trail Blazers with 6:25 left in the fourth quarter, and he closed out the game. Thunder head coach Billy Donovan swapped him in for Jerami Grant, despite Grant’s superb play that game — 17 points on just five shots. Anthony responded by missing three triples, including two on the same possession, and turning the ball over on the game’s second-to-last play.
Still, most of that could have been glossed over as Anthony dribbled into the potentially game-tying jump shot. The early pass gave the shot weird rhythm as he hurried to the line before Portland’s defense recovered, but Anthony’s jumper is his business. After all, “Carmelo is a proven scorer in this league and has made big shots a large portion of his career,” Donovan told reporters after the game.
But, in the 108-105 Thunder loss, he did not make this one. The shot clanked off the far back iron. It was, at least, befitting of his season.
Hopes were high when Anthony first joined the Thunder. It was his first time ceding the top scoring option in an offense — his usage rate this season is 23.5, by far a career-low — and it brought back memories of an Anthony who wowed on Team USA. If he could take on a tertiary option behind Russell Westbrook and Paul George, it seemed likely tAnthony could revive his career away from New York.
Anthony eventually accepted that role as a third option, but his numbers haven’t experienced a rosy reawakening. His ability to draw fouls has cratered, as his free-throw rate (0.168 attempts for each field goal attempt) is a career low, almost half what it was just two years ago. Anthony’s bread-and-butter shot — the long 16-to-23 foot two-pointer — has deserted him, too. He had actually shot 45 percent from that part of the floor over the past five season, but that number has fallen to just 38 percent in Oklahoma City.
All this has led to the least efficient season of Anthony’s career, and his 50.6 True Shooting Percentage is nearly four full points worse than his career average. (This was a sharp decline, too — it’s about three points worse than last year in New York.) We thought Westbrook creating, George drawing attention, and Anthony leading a second-unit assault might bring about a rejuvenated Melo. We imagined how Anthony could exploit mismatches and smartly fill open spaces. That has all been for naught.
Sunday’s loss was another low point for Anthony, and it comes in a season with plenty of them. He has hit big shots in clutch moments this year, and he has had great games. His three-point shooting has more prolific than any other point in his career, a silver lining in this frustrating season. But too many times, Anthony has nights like he did against Portland: six points on 3-of-13 shooting. His well-known defensive flaws only amplify the problem.
We thought Anthony might embrace the pick-and-roll, popping for jumpers and crashing for layups as a screen setter when teams overload against Westbrook. But he only averages about one shooting possession like that per game, and he hits just 38 percent in those situations. (The Thunder’s mediocre spacing may be somewhat to blame for this.) Anthony’s effectiveness with his back to the basket has faded, too — his post-ups only average 0.83 points per possession. It increasingly seems like his skills are eroding too fast for him to adjust properly.
This certainly isn’t said lightly, or with any glee, but the 33-year-old finally looks every bit his age.
Thunder general manager Sam Presti had good reasons for trading for Anthony last offseason. Like any new-age executive, Presti doesn’t predict certainty from his roster moves. Transactions come with a set of probable outcomes, and the general manager’s job is simply determining which ones are most likely to succeed and hoping they work out as planned.
Oklahoma City gave up Enes Kanter and Doug McDermott to acquire Anthony, and both players would have helped the Thunder this year. But the Thunder had seen Kanter reduced to a near non-factor in a series against the Golden State Warriors, and knew McDermott’s defense might cause him to be played off the court, too. Presti wasn’t the only general manager who felt like Anthony’s star upside might be worth gambling on. Reportedly, the Houston Rockets and Daryl Morey attempted to trade for Anthony throughout the summer, although they could never land on an appropriate deal.
Presti’s rationale for the move made sense, and still does, even if Anthony’s chance to emerge as a playoff difference maker seems so much smaller now that we’ve seen him struggle all year. It’s still possible that Anthony finding “it” for a few games in a series could swing one in Oklahoma City’s direction, depending on the opponent. Stephen Curry’s recent injury that will likely keep him out for the first round is a reminder that nothing is certain, but the Thunder almost certainly won’t be the challenger to a healthy Warriors squad — or Houston, for that matter — like they once hoped.
After Anthony spent so many years wallowing in New York, we would love to see a successful final act for Anthony, who is undoubtedly a future Hall of Famer. Oklahoma City seemed like a golden opportunity to step back and blend in to a team that still needed him in a smaller, more manageable role. It’s sad it hasn’t yet worked out that way.