Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum both lobbied hard to get Carmelo Anthony in a Blazers’ uniform back in 2017. A whole lot has happened since then, most notably that Melo’s last two gigs have ended in disappointment for everyone involved, leaving him looking for a place to play for more than a year despite vocal and ongoing support among his peers.
All of that changed on Thursday night when news broke that he was joining the Blazers on a non-guaranteed deal. With the injury-ravaged roster looking for a much-needed shot in the arm after a 4-8 start, Portland had to do…something. And adding Melo is, if nothing else, certainly something.
To be clear, nobody is under the impression that Melo is going to solve the Blazers’ myriad problems. Given his age, style of play, and productivity the last two seasons, the best they can hope for are modest returns. Under ideal circumstances, Melo would give the Blazers some scoring punch off the bench in a limited role and generally help add a dimension for an offense that has been inconsistent through the first three weeks of the season — Portland currently sits in 15th in the league in offensive rating.
But even with relatively low expectations, there are justifiable questions about whether whatever he offers on offense will be a positive considering the issues he has on the other end of the floor at this stage of his career. To complicate matters, he’s on a non-guaranteed deal and the team has until Jan. 7, 2020 to decide whether to keep him or waive him, so the pressure is on for Anthony to make an immediate impact.
And boy, could the Blazers ever use a jolt right about now. Despite once again boasting one of the top scoring backcourts in the NBA in Dame and CJ, Portland is last in the league in field goal percentage and near the bottom in both scoring and assists per game. They’ve also been one big turnstile on defense — Hassan Whiteside came aboard this summer as the type of hypothetical center they’ve long coveted to bolster their porous interior bulwarks, and if you glance at the box score, he’s putting up respectable numbers as a stop-gap measure until Jusuf Nurkic returns, whenever that will be. But that doesn’t tell the whole story.
Whiteside has struggled defensively in the pick-and-roll, and while that’s partially on Terry Stotts and his staff to try and avoid hanging Whiteside out to dry on the perimeter, the result has been a barrage of open jumpers, and even as Whiteside lays back to patrol the paint, he regularly finds himself in foul trouble as he’s contesting shots at the rim. More significantly, the Blazers have been gutted at the forward position, and Melo doesn’t offer them all that much defensive stability. They lost their most versatile two-way forwards in Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless in the offseason, while Zach Collins, who was poised to assume a much larger role this year, suffered a separated shoulder that will hold him out for several months.
The replacements —Mario Hezonja, Kent Bazemore, and Anthony Tolliver — have not fared well so far, and as a result, Melo’s theoretical production is looking more and more attractive, by comparison. As with the Rockets and Thunder before them, the best-case scenario is a low-toner facsimile of Olympic Melo, someone who can give them good, but limited, minutes off the bench and knock down open threes while avoiding contested mid-range jumpers altogether.
The problem is that we didn’t see that version of Melo in his last two stints with the Rockets and Thunder. What we saw was a player who balked at the very mention of a limited role in OKC and shot worse than 40 percent from the field in Houston while giving opponents an open lane to the basket on the other end.
Regardless, after a year of lobbying for himself, Melo is finally getting another chance, and it very well could be his last if he doesn’t prove that he has something left to offer, however scant the output. His peers around the league — with Dame offering plenty of support even before they became teammates — have regularly fielded questions about his possible return this season, and the response has been almost universally in favor of him earning another shot. There’s good reason for all of it — Melo is one of the most well-liked and well-respected superstars of his generation. Like Kobe Bryant, many of today’s superstars grew up idolizing him and modeling themselves after his once-elite offensive repertoire. And even through all the drama in New York and OKC and Houston, Melo has conducted himself like a professional.
Everything else aside, it’ll be great to see Melo back on an NBA court. Lillard advocated for him to get a “farewell season” this past summer, and if this ends up being it for the future Hall of Fame inductee, the Blazers’ All-Star point guard will get to watch as Melo’s last hurray happens in Portland. And who knows? For a team that needs forward help in the worst way, perhaps Melo will turn out to be just what Portland needs.