When I was watching the Warriors rout the Spurs in the third game of the Western Conference FInals this Spring, I saw something that temporarily deconstructed my reality. At the start of the fourth quarter, a big man made a dunk. His name was Anthony. He was big and wide and bald. For a second, I wondered, “Huh, who is that?”
I looked closer. It was Joel. Joel Anthony. You know, from the Heat.
I was broken. Not only was Joel still in the league, he was on a team in the conference finals, and I just… I had no idea. I knew he signed a contract a few years back with the Pistons or something, but I figured that the league had washed him out at some point or another, the way it does to outmoded big men who have vague skillsets and seem to be getting fewer and fewer minutes. But, here he was, still in the league, on the Spurs, thirty-four years old, riding the pine, and eating garbage minutes in the conference finals.
He even got himself a highlight package on NBA.com that year.
Joel was signed after Pau Gasol fractured his hand, two ten-days and a rest of the season type situation. He played in the Spurs training camp and was, apparently, the “first guy” they called when Gasol ran into injury malfeasance.
“He’s a real pro,” said Pop, “The guys respect him.”
This got me more than a little curious about Joel and his career. So I pulled up his Basketball Reference page and discovered something that truly confounded me.
The totals are: 1,064 points, 819 personal fouls, 1,353 rebounds, 99 (NINETY-NINE!!!) assists, 227 turnovers, 531 blocks, and 127 steals. Throughout his nine-year NBA career, Joel managed to acquire more steals than assists while also posting a 2.27:1 turnover-to-assist ratio, the kind of numbers that suggest that Joel was built by the ancients themselves to create only chaos – useful or detrimental – when a ball was thrown to another person.
Joel snagged more boards than points, which is understandable on a certain level, but managing a nearly 2:1 ratio on points to blocks? That’s just plain absurd. Joel had some dunks in his life, but his hands are truly some of the most bizarre contraptions ever built by the NBA, almost totally unsuited to catching and dunking balls. His assists are, of course, even stranger, only managing to come by 0.2 assists per game in his whole career, which is to say: he managed to accidentally pick one up every … five or so games he played in.
And he played in the NBA for NINE YEARS and was on the Bucks Summer League team this year. He has not shot a single three-pointer in his whole career. Not one. Didn’t even bother trying.
Joel’s story gets stranger and stranger, the deeper you dig. Tom Haberstroh wrote a profile of Anthony in April 2011, at the peak of his playing career in the NBA and on the verge of his playing 27 minutes a game with Miami in the playoffs. In it, we learn that Joel who got into the NBA when he was 26, taught himself to play basketball when he grew to around 6’6 at the age of 16. Someone in a Big and Tall store told him he should try basketball, and since there were no coaches Joel could find in Montreal, he bought a book and did all the drills in it.
Then, he went to a small college, spent two years fighting for minutes, transferred to UNLV, got some minutes, and signed with the Heat at the ripe old age of TWENTY-SIX, where he mostly sat the bench and flashed a spectacular work ethic. He was the epitome of a great practice player. Until…
You may or may not recall that Lebron’s first few months in Miami were a decisively mixed time, quality-of-basketball wise. The fact of the matter was, or seemed, that the pieces that Heat had managed to bring together – James and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh – were not naturally suited to playing with each other, and the team was known, at first, for its stagnant offense and its tendency towards drama.
They never quite managed to fix the offense all the way that year, the talent they had only managed a third-place finish in offensive rating, somewhat obscene, considering the players and the inferior conference they played in, relying too much on isolation play and mid rangers jumpers while the league at large started to employ spread attacks.
And so, after a rough start, they did what every talented squad that can’t lose but also can’t quite produce enough on offense did: they doubled down on defense. And so, Zydrunas Ilgauskas was sent to the bench in favor of Anthony, 29 years old with hands made of rocks but the kind of work ethic and defensive aptitude that made Pat Riley giggle in his dreams, and was an important part of that effort.
For a hot second, as the Heat destroyed the Bulls, Joel Anthony seemed like the missing piece on a superteam, a defensive big man who couldn’t seem to catch the ball quite right but was more than happy to flatten anyone and anything in his way on the defensive end. All the superstars in the world, and yet, a guy who taught himself to ball by reading a book was the solution.
Read that Haberstroh feature above, where he gushed about Joel’s Plus/minus and implies that he’s the missing piece for a title team. It was a wild world, man. The Heat, the most hyped team in the history of the league, found themselves creating wins with a grind it out defensive mentality. It was truly wild to watch.
But it didn’t last forever. After getting lit up by the spread offense Mavs, arguably the first tactically modern spread offense/pick and roll-type NBA team to break through and win a title, the Heat went into the lockout offseason and restructured. Bosh, who had resisted it his entire career, found himself playing at center and expanding his range. LeBron doubled down on wing defense.
The team acquired shooters like Shane Battier and Mike Miller and began to employ a spread offense-type attack. Joel was sidelined again in the playoffs, where the Heat assaulted anyone they came across with a barrage of three-pointers and takes at the rim, no longer finding usefulness in the production of a lumbering big-man.
Joel would make a few more stops, always noted as a great teammate and a swell guy, and managed to create a lucrative career, that if we’re being real, might not be over quite yet. But, realistically, his skillset and his frame of mind were outmoded by the NBA in a mere year’s time.
This makes him The Last Big Man We Needed To Bring It All Together. For decades, this was the kind of player wing-talented teams needed to compete at the highest level, a mythical lumbering dude who cleans the boards and protects the rim, the kind of guy the NBA teams and coaches had coveted since the advent of Mikan. Sure, the Thunder tried it with Perk, but that just plain didn’t work. Joel had the last bit of utility remaining in the position, the last dream of a big man slaughterer before Lebron and Kawhi and Draymond shifted the defensive priorities of the league forever outward.
Even if he never plays again, he should be celebrated for this, for being the last of his kind. Even if the game he played doesn’t exist anymore, he should be celebrated for being amazing at it in his own way.