After unsuccessful stints with the Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets, Carmelo Anthony found himself without an NBA job for an entire year. He wanted another chance, his peers echoed that sentiment, yet one of the league’s most prolific scorers ever couldn’t find a home. Finally, on Thursday, Anthony called his trainer, Alex Bazzell, about the NBA opportunity he’d been waiting for.
After an ugly 5-9 start to their season, the Portland Trail Blazers decided to give Anthony another chance, and it was exactly what he’d hoped for. The Blazers wanted to feature him with a big role in their offense. With both Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins injured down low, and lackluster wings underperforming in expanded roles, Portland believes it can turn Melo into the third scoring piece it needs next to Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.
Anthony didn’t immediately report to the team after he inked a non-guaranteed deal that won’t assure him a roster spot until January. After signing, he wanted a few more days to work himself into game mode. He went through five workouts with Bazzell in New York on Saturday, Sunday and Monday before his debut, incorporating drills specific to his fit with the Blazers into their routine. Then he left Monday night for the team’s game in New Orleans.
Tuesday night was Anthony’s Trail Blazers debut. He had his moments, including when he drained a three-point shot and did his classic “three to the dome” celebration, but the rust was, understandably, there. He finished with 10 points on 4-of-14 shooting with five fouls and five turnovers.
Getting back into game shape isn’t easy for players in their prime from one summer to the next season, better yet one year to the next in their mid-30s. I spoke to Bazzell, who also trains Trae Young, Kyrie Irving, and Caris LeVert, among others, about how he prepared Anthony to return to the court 376 days after he last left it.
SB NATION: When did you start working with Melo?
ALEX BAZZELL: We started back in June. He came up to LA. He was there pretty much — aside from going back for like Fashion Week or a family event here and there — in LA with me through the end of August.
SB: How’d you structure Melo’s workouts from the time he knew he was going to the Blazers until his debut?
AB: It was different because it was the first time we worked out with an actual structured gameplan of an offensive system and how I knew he was going to be used. It was a different mentality before, we would go three times and take off a day, but this last Saturday through Monday we had five workouts in three days, which we’d never done before.
[The Blazers] run a double-drag ball-sceen primary offense, it was more about spacing and where I thought he might catch the ball once Dame or C.J. come off a ball screen where they might throw it back, and the angles he might catch it at. Then it was veering out. He might get some mid-post touches if he gets hot. It was mixing all that up.
We worked on a lot of defense over the summer. [With the Blazers] it was seeing how they liked to guard ball-screens, tendency-wise. I’d come off and he’d guard me on ball-screens. I’d switch up between attacking and shooting and try to really challenge him and get his hips turning. We jam-packed everything in in the last three days, but it’s stuff we’d worked on.
SB: Did he wear the hoodie this weekend?
AB: No! Not this entire weekend. I was giving him crap about it over the summer. I said ‘Hey man, I don’t want to see a hoodie until you start producing.’ I don’t want hoodie Melo blamed on me.
SB: Did he at least scream “Get the f— outta here” on rebounds?
AB: He actually talks a lot of shit when we play one-on-one. He says “get the f— outta here you ain’t making that shot.” When the mic catches him sometimes [on live TV], that’s 100 percent him.
SB: Did Carmelo come to you with things that he wanted to work on?
AB: We had a conversation because he’d talked to Terry Stotts on Thursday about their offense. They were going to keep a lot of it the same, but they were also going to add stuff primarily for Melo within the offense. They didn’t really have a guy like that that was capable of just rolling the ball to from 17 feet and getting out of the way. It was exciting for him, because they wanted him as badly as he wanted them. They were going to use him with how his skillset is.
Terry sent over the playbook, so I got a chance to pick Melo’s brain on that and see what spots he might get the ball in. It’s like anything else, you’re going to need to gain game experience, nothing’s going to be flawless. It’s hard. He hasn’t played for a year. That’s what people might not understand. These dudes are human beings, too. Everyone’s going to be like ‘Oh he needs to score 20 every time he comes out.’
That was another conversation, the human element of everyone wanting him to play the Rockets on Monday. From a fan standpoint, that would’ve been awesome. From a personal standpoint, he’s got to ease his way in. He’s got to get time to get comfortable, get acclimated. He’s not a guy who’s going to go half speed in that game with it being the Rockets. He’s going to try and send a message. That’s just who he is. It was just trying to protect him in that sense. They get to play again, so there’s no real rush to it.
SB: What conditioning workouts did you do over the past couple of days just to get him back in game shape?
AB: The first day was just trying to beat on his body a little bit. Have him attack, push him and bump him around, getting him used to that contact again. Then skills obviously, getting up and down shooting. I wanted to see how his body reacted to that first on Saturday. He said he felt great.
Sunday morning we did strictly shooting, came back that night. I put 20 minutes on the clock, because I knew that’s how many minutes they’d play him at right away. We did five minute increments of what their subbing patterns might be. We would go up-and-down where he’d go on offense and there were two options. It was two-on-two. Every time offensively, he could set pick-and-pop, and make quick decisions from there where he’s going to catch-and-shoot or catch-and-go ... Or mid-post touches, and isolation touches on the wing. Defensively, he’d have to guard a ball screen or isolation on the way down.
SB: How receptive was Melo to working on the defensive end of his game?
AB: It was the first thing we talked about when we met. We watched through film about how he’s guarding off ball-screen switches, because that’s what teams are going to do to get the mismatch. We worked on that a lot.
Me, not being too far removed from playing, I could give him decent looks in terms of having him break my rhythm. He played with low hands a lot, so we worked on, when a guy drives, when to have your off-hand up or keep it down; knowing angles of when to turn and run, and when to slide. Early on in his career, he wasn’t guarding a lot of ball-screens because the game wasn’t that way, he was playing the three early in his career for New York so he was guarding wings. Now he’s guarding fours and fives even. It’s different.
SB: Did you guys review film from the Thunder and Rockets? Those were the worst two years of his career
AB: Yep. We went through everything. I went through when he was at his best with the Knicks, and obviously when you’re 26 or 27 you’re going to look a lot fresher. But just his technique and footwork and showing that he still has all that in him, it’s just knowing when to pull it out, when to attack, when to try to get to the line, when to shoot in the mid-range.
In Houston, he just didn’t fit. It was one of the worst fits for him from a scheme standpoint. We talked about it a little bit, just about the situation. For a lot of players, if you’re not one of the top 15, you have to be in the right situation to succeed. That’s just how it is. He thought [Portland] was a great opportunity, and I agreed with him.
SB: What expectations did you and Melo set out for his first few games?
AB: There are no expectations. I told him to go out there and enjoy it. You never know when your time might be up. By no means does he plan on this being his last year. He’s going to play through it, take it one day at a time, and hopefully he can play for another year or two after this. But it was more about getting back in a groove, not putting too much pressure on himself to score 20. Just try get the rhythm back into it and enjoy playing again, because he’s missed it.
When you have something you feel is taken away from you and you might not get it back, when you do get it back, it changes your perspective and your mindset towards everything.