Over the past few years, as Carmelo Anthony bounced from team to team while fighting a two-front battle against physical decline and an analytical movement that frowned at his high-risk, low-reward shot selection, arguments about his fit in the modern NBA started to grow. But this season, Anthony has found a starting role on the Portland Trail Blazers that’s become even more important in the bubble.
This has led to various claims that Melo has “proven the haters wrong.” But while it’s true that Melo has found vindication with the Blazers, he hasn’t entirely shed his old identity—instead, he’s hit on a blend between the iso monster he used to be, and the more selfless player many wished he’d become.
That latter version has always been known as “Olympic Melo,” so-called because Anthony is Team USA’s career leader in points and rebounds, and once needed just 14 minutes to score 37 points. This Melo is about efficiency and sacrifice: Anthony would primarily look to melt defenses behind the three-point line, cure himself of all urges to go one-on-one, and give consistent effort on defense. It’s what the Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets both hoped to get when they brought Anthony in, and why they ditched him so fast when it never came.
What the Thunder and Rockets got was Hoodie Melo, a costumed alter ego who manifested at the end of his run in New York. J.R. Smith once said Hoodie Melo “doesn’t play with a conscience,” which sums it up nicely: As one of the greatest scorers who ever lived, all criticism of his style was rendered meaningless in the face of Anthony’s own self-belief. Hoodie Melo was the clear-out, jab-step, mid-range maven whose old-school MJ/Kobe game is out of step with basketball’s data-driven present.
In contrast to the more open-minded Olympic Melo, Hoodie Melo was also the stubborn player who infamously scoffed at coming off the bench or turning into a full-time stretch four. But in November, the Blazers tossed him a life raft, and then he showed up at the NBA’s restart looking svelte enough to man the small forward position. Now, Melo is a fixture in the starting and closing lineups for the league’s most likable team, averaging 35 minutes a night, drilling over half of his spot-up threes and hitting clutch shots.
This is “Skinny Melo”—but that nickname doesn’t encapsulate exactly what it is we’re seeing.The Blazers have fostered a healthy balance between his beloved hero-ball possessions—he isolated more than Jimmy Butler and Paul George this season, and tied Anthony Davis—and plays that ask him to either stand in the corner and watch Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum go full cookout mode on their own, or drill a catch-and-shoot three after his own man leaves to help.
This is a reminder that NBA games aren’t a computer simulation, and personalities matter too. Sure, theoretically Anthony could just hang out in the corners, where he’s shot 55 percent this year, and be Portland’s PJ Tucker. But if you’ve spent your life as the leading man, it’s hard to be the fourth option, and the Blazers need Anthony to stay engaged. In ten bubble games so far, he has been, in part because Portland has continued to live with the occasional tough looks he can’t quit. Anthony has attacked mismatches and hit his fair share of vintage, gorgeous baseline turnarounds that summon crows from his diehard supporters.
But in reality, these shots are low percentage and pretty much never end with him passing the ball, regardless of how the defense is playing it. Look at these two shots from Game 1. Melo holds the ball, waits for the double team to come, and then shoots anyway. He’s a black hole that’s about to consume another black hole.
One of those was admittedly launched near the end of the shot clock, but generally speaking there’s an opportunity cost tied to these decisions. A contested long two from Anthony could otherwise be a crafty runner by McCollum, a 32-foot bomb by Lillard, a Nurkic dunk, or even a spot-up trey by Gary Trent Jr. Melo doesn’t force the entire defense to rotate when he’s generating offense for himself. In other words, the opposition gets to exhale. Portland has been perfectly fine in the bubble with Melo on the floor, but when he sits they scorch Earth, averaging a spicy 127.9 points per 100 possessions (which unsurprisingly coincides with a much higher assist rate). And on the other end, lineups that pit him at small forward are a predictable abomination on defense.