1. Melo, Requiem for a Chucker?: One of the bigger stories of the last few weeks was the return of Carmelo Anthony to the NBA. Melo’s ending with the Rockets last season was tough. He played poorly (as did the team) during his stint and he was put on hiatus by the team by early November 2018 (after a game that they lost to OKC by 18 and Melo shot 1-11 from the field) before being cut. The Rockets’ treatment was seemingly designed to make let him go softly but actually had the opposite effect of treating him like they had to quarantine him from the NBA. It didn’t help that the Rockets played markedly better after Anthony was jettisoned and he sat out the remainder of the season. It was not clear if Anthony had no offers or he was just being choosy. The answer was the probably more the latter, as Portland found use for Anthony after injuries this year. Melo’s return raises a number of questions. Let’s address them….
-How big a story is Melo’s return?
Anthony is a clear Hall of Famer (albeit not the inner circle group) but the story isn’t actually that big a deal from a basketball impact perspective. Anthony is 35 and hasn’t been a great offensive player since 2013-14 and hasn’t even been a good one since he left the Knicks. The story of the aging star trying to re-capture former glory, however, definitely is engaging. In that respect, Anthony’s shot at redemption is interesting (though the outsized discussions online seem excessive).
-Is Melo toxic to a good team?
That is the question that some have raised based upon: (a) Melo’s lack of overall team success in New York, (b) his mediocre season in OKC, and (c) the disastrous stay in Houston. This article argued that Melo’s refusal to adapt a role commensurate with his skills was Anthony’s downfall. The argument was not totally fair. We have a 20-year history showing that the Knicks are screwed up in many ways that any problems Anthony may have made were a drop in the bucket to the larger issue (ahem Dolan ahem). As for OKC, Anthony readily accepted a third-scorer role. The same can be said in Houston, where Anthony agreed to a bench role.
Anthony’s ego is well-developed but the real problem with Anthony is most of his value came from creating shots with a modicum of efficiency and he can’t do that anymore. His OBPM went negative after he left the Knicks (in a likely related note, he stopped getting to the line since then too). His defense was never great (-1.3 for his career) but he is slower now on that end too. Anthony’s DBPM since 2016-17 has been -2.1. It’s not that Anthony is not trying, he’s just not aging as gracefully. After Houston cut Melo, we compared Anthony to his rival Paul Pierce, who had a nice little second career as a role player. The difference was that Pierce was still a star player at an age when Melo had already regressed. It’s not Melo’s fault that his body is giving out more quickly than Pierce’s did but that is the reality. So, Anthony is not toxic, he’s just not good anymore and hasn’t been for a while.
-Does Melo have any use now?
Melo can still score a bit and can fill that niche as a bench player on a team that needs a decent scorer or he can be a bad scorer on a bad team desperate for scoring (think Bernard King on the Washington Bullets). Melo’s sample size is too small to really assess so far but he is basically the same player he was on OKC two years ago (slightly above-average scorer). There is probably a better fit for the Blazers than Melo but he makes definitely more sense than Anthony Tolliver and Mario Hezonja.
2. When Rapid Scorers Age: Melo’s story is compelling but what happens when one-dimensional small forwards can’t score as well? Let’s compare Melo with some other past scoring small forward scoring stars and see where he stands. As a preliminary note, we do not include Paul Pierce in this group, because he was always a much more multi-faceted player. Basketball-Reference.com’s list of comps doesn’t quite do the trick (they have some decent comps but others, like Buck Williams or P.J. Brown don’t pass the straight face test). The players who most remind of Melo are the 1980s scoring machines at small forward: Dominique Wilkins, Adrian Dantley, Bernard King, Alex English, and Mark Aguirre. Melo was taller and scores in more diverse ways but he has elements of each of their games (except Nique’s hops) and they fit the bill best. Here’s a rundown on their career endings:
-Dominique Wilkins: Nique is the best of the group and, arguably, better than Melo. Wilkins was still a star player at age-34 for the Hawks in 1993-94. He was traded in the middle of the season for Danny Manning when he couldn’t come to a contract extension agreement. After the season, Wilkins strangely signed with a bad Boston team. At age-35 in Boston, Wilkins’ numbers fell precipitously to a then career-low 16.3 PER and -0.5 BPM. After the season, the Celtics bought him out and he played 1995-96 in Greece. Wilkins returned to the Spurs for 1996-97 and was slightly better than he was in Boston (19.6 PER but BPM and VORP were the same). Wilkins was expected to be a scorer off-the-bench for the Spurs but David Robinson and Sean Elliott got hurt and Wilkins had to toil as the main scorer on a terrible team (which was actually a good role for Nique at that point). He returned to Italy for 1997-98, before playing out the string on the Magic at age-39 for the lockout 1998-99 season with his brother Gerald. Dominique put up at 15.4 PER in about 10 mpg (he could still score a little but couldn’t shoot anymore).
-Adrian Dantley: Dantley was famously traded from the Pistons to the Mavs midway through the 1988-89 season for Aguirre. At the time, AD was 32 and scoring 18.4 ppg with his usual efficiency. He played the rest of the year with Dallas and his stats fell a bit (PER fell from 18.2 with Detroit to 16.4 for Dallas and his BPM went from 1.7 to -1.7). Dantley returned to Dallas for the 1989-90 season and his play continued to decline (15.4 PER, -1.2 BPM and his scoring dropped from 20.3 ppg to 14.7 ppg). On top of that, Dantley convinced the Mavs to let him opt out of his contract after the season (given his declining production, this was probably not a hard sell to management). Shortly thereafter, Dantley broke his leg and was waived now that his contract was not guaranteed. At age-34, that off-season, Dantley couldn’t get an NBA contract. He stayed ready and worked out all season but no one signed him. Dantley even suggested to the Chicago Tribune that he was being blackballed. The Bucks finally signed him late in the 1990-91 season after Dale Ellis got hurt and they needed another bench scorer for the playoffs. Dantley struggled in that stint (he shot .380% in 12.6 mpg) and he finally retired.
-Bernard King: King was a remarkable scorer for the Knicks who overcame a devastating knee injury in 1984-85 to return as an effective player for the Bullets. From 1987-88 to 1990-91 (ages 31-34), King put up 22 ppg. His advanced stats were okay (17.8 PER, .083 WS/48, 0.0 BPM, and 4.9 VORP) but he filled a role. In late 1990-91, King re-injured his knee. The Bullets put him on the DL for the next season and a half. By mid-1992-93, King insisted he was ready to play and demanded he be reactivated and got into a screaming match with coach Wes Unseld. King was suspended and then released. Though he was 36 and hadn’t played in nearly two full seasons, King hooked up with the Nets in hopes of helping their bench for the playoffs. King scored 7 ppg in 13 mpg for the Nets. King’s offense wasn’t quite good enough to offset his defense (0.0 OBPM, -1.9 DBPM) and he didn’t play much in the playoffs before retiring.
-Alex English: English averaged over 25 ppg for nearly a decade in Denver as a slasher and a deadly jumper from the corner. In 1989-90, English was 36 and his productivity fell (from 26.5 PPG the year before to 17.9 PPG). After the season, the Mavs signed English to replace the aforementioned Dantley as small forward scorer. Could he help Dallas? Well, The 1991 Pro Basketball Handbook quoted Dan Issel as saying that if English didn’t score over 26 ppg, “his deficiencies are exposed.” Both age and leaving Denver’s high scoring offensive system were not good for English. He scored only 9.7 ppg on .439 FG% (12.2 PER) and left the NBA for one more season in Italy.
-Mark Aguirre: Aguirre replaced Dantley as the Pistons’ low-post scoring specialist. Aguierre was only 29 when he came to Detroit but they used him more as a role player. He never played more than 26 mpg for Detroit, despite that fact that he logged major minutes in Dallas. Aguirre quietly scored double figures for a two title team in Detroit. By 1991-92 (at age-32), his scoring in OBPM went negative, and he was no longer an asset. After his Pistons’ contract expired in 1992-93, Aguirre signed with the Clippers for the 1993-94 season. Aguirre was roughly the same player as the two seasons before offensively (actually, a little bit better) but his defense was worse. He retired after the season.
So what did we learn for this review? First, Melo is not the first scoring forward to struggle with the transition to role player or to get really angry with management. Second, Melo’s post-prime play is actually better than most of the players on the list. Dantley was most similar to Melo in circumstance (until he suffered a major injury) but Wilkins’ path is the path Anthony will have to take to continue to play.