clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The biggest reason Carmelo Anthony’s Trail Blazers tenure is working so far

Anthony’s mythology is still working in his favor in Portland.

Carmelo Anthony celebrates for the Blazers.
Melo has made a positive impact on the Trail Blazers since joining the team.

How good has Carmelo Anthony been since the Portland Trail Blazers ended his year-long NBA exile in mid-November? The answer is complicated.

It’d be convenient if he was actually a star again. Who doesn’t appreciate a redemption arc where our once-famous protagonist, fueled by determination, willingness to change, and the perfect opportunity at the right time, gets back to his old self after hitting rock bottom? This narrative trope is as seductive as sport itself, as is the idea of proving doubters wrong.

Enough has happened in Melo’s first eight games to buy into the hype. He is averaging 17 points a game and has seared multiple hot-shooting performances into our collective memories. He is the reigning Player of the Week (ignore the — ahem — questionable criteria used to bestow him this honor). Portland has won four of five after a terrible start.

The more dispassionate perspective is we’re getting too swept up in the narrative. Melo’s efficiency numbers are decent, but hardly spectacular. His shot diet hasn’t changed much, and his defense is about the same despite more visible effort. The Blazers are winning more with him, but six of their eight opponents have sub-.500 records, and they’ve lost the only two against good teams. Those breakout moments are merely hot shooting nights against terrible defenses, blown up to the masses because of Anthony’s name recognition. In this view, the only thing Melo has really done is not be Mario Hezonja or Anthony Tolliver.

In a vacuum, the dispassionate view is more correct. But in the real world, it’s impossible for even the most cynical human to ignore the romanticism of the moment. Because he’s Carmelo Anthony, his story carries a lot more weight than a more complex analysis of his performance.

So much weight that I think it’s affected his opponents in a way that’s made the rest of the Blazers thrive — on offense at least.

Nobody benefits more from Melo mythology than the rest of the Portland Trail Blazers. It’s only been eight games against largely poor opposition, but defenses address Melo like he’s still CARMELO ANTHONY. They stick closer to him on the perimeter than other players with his skill set, which creates more space for his teammates. They divert more attention to a diverse Portland offensive pallet that now includes mid-post isolations against switches and even the occasional inverted pick-and-roll, which means they spend less brain power on Portland’s bread-and-butter.

Melo has a shadow impact that goes beyond his individual performance, one that’s fueled by name recognition and the ubiquity of his redemption story. Because of this, Anthony has actually become quite valuable to the Blazers.

The numbers prove it, at least so far. Portland has scored 116.5 points per 100 possessions with Anthony in the game and just 104.7 points with him on the bench. The new starting lineup of Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Rodney Hood, Anthony, and Hassan Whiteside is blitzing teams by more than 10 points per 100 possessions, largely because they’re scoring at a ridiculous rate. The Blazers get similar shots when Anthony plays as they did before he signed, but they’ve made more of them while turning the ball over significantly less often. The sample size is small and opponents have been weak, but these numbers aren’t happening by accident.

Melo certainly looks more spry than he did in his last couple stints. He stayed ready physically, and it shows. (Check out Matt Ellentuck’s interview with trainer Alex Bazzell to learn more about how Melo stayed in shape). We haven’t seen these quick mid-post moves in years.

His old-school isolations have looked ugly against like-sized defenders, but he has done well against smaller players after they switch pick-and-rolls involving Lillard or McCollum. You wouldn’t build an entire offense around these kinds of plays, but they’re a nice change-of-pace for a team that becomes predictable otherwise.

And Melo certainly has displayed better playmaking and ball-handling than anyone the Blazers have deployed at power forward in the past. He slips nicely into open space when opponents trap McCollum or Lillard, and can make plays in the ensuing four-on-three situation.

He can also handle the ball passably enough for Portland’s guards to screen for him from time to time.

All of that gives Portland’s offense more variety than it has with, say, Nasir Little playing in Anthony’s sport.

But Melo’s biggest contributions to Portland’s success come when he doesn’t have the ball. Because he’s CARMELO ANTHONY, opponents have stayed one step closer to him than they would for a less famous player. Notice the difference in these two similar alignments.

Those steps make a big difference. In the first clip, Lillard got a layup driving to the basket. In the second, Anfernee Simons turned the ball over because Lou Williams was plugging the drive and the big man’s roll.

The attention that Melo’s mere presence sucks away from the rest of the Blazers has also created lanes for Lillard, McCollum, and Whiteside that didn’t exist before.

And it’s created more open shots for Melo’s teammates.

Lillard, McCollum, and Whiteside have all scored more efficiently with Melo in the game than on the bench, and the latter two have done so with significantly different shot profiles. Whiteside’s taken six percent more of his shots at the rim with Anthony in, while McCollum has launched 11 percent more of his shots from the rim or the three-point line. Since Anthony arrived, Portland’s entire team has taken three percent more of its shots after zero dribbles and nearly nine percent fewer after three or more.

Whether Melo merits the extra attention defenses give him is besides the point. In the aggregate, he probably doesn’t. At the same time, he has occasionally made teams pay that leave him, and those buckets have more staying power because they’re all over social media and various highlight shows. You’ve seen this clip far more than a run-of-the-mill spot-up three-pointer in the second quarter from any other player because it came at the pinnacle of Melo’s redemption tour. If you have, so have NBA players.

Perhaps the better teams Portland eventually must face will guard Melo based on his merits rather than getting swept up in the story. Perhaps those sterling on-off numbers are random and will stabilize over a larger sample. Perhaps Melo himself will cool off or fatigue. Maybe the novelty of Anthony’s return will fade, thereby lessening the feel-good factor that powers his shadow impact.

But a redemption story is hard for anyone to overcome, and especially tough for elite athletes who view Melo as basketball royalty. If you’re a Blazers fan, keep pushing the MELO BACK! narrative. It helps your team if the public doesn’t let certain facts get in the way of a great story.