Portland Trail Blazers forward Carmelo Anthony went unsigned for more than a full calendar year, and he thinks that this had little to do with what he offers as a basketball player. In an interview with Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes, the 35-year-old said it was difficult and embarrassing to deal with being out of the league, even when his peers were praising him for how he played in open runs in New York, but came to the conclusion that adding him was simply too complicated for teams. His absence, in his mind, was about the baggage associated with his name:
“Honestly, I think it was more of, not intimidation, but it was more so teams not wanting to put themselves in that situation of having to deal with what role I was going to accept and questioning if I was going to accept my role and the media [attention] that’s behind it all,” Anthony told Yahoo Sports. “Just everything that comes along with bringing me in. Nobody knew where I was at, as far as what I was thinking. I think it was more so of everything else outside of basketball. I don’t think anybody thought, ‘Oh, he can’t play anymore. He can’t do this.’ It was everything that had to do with outside of basketball.”
Indeed, Anthony’s return has been a massive story. If Portland were to sign Joakim Noah to a non-guaranteed contract this afternoon, the coverage would be minimal nationally and only minor in Portland. If the theoretical Noah signing were to go poorly, the Blazers could quietly waive him and move on in a way that they cannot with Anthony. There is no use pretending that front offices don’t consider this kind of thing, and, specifically how the rest of the team will feel about the questions they will be asked.
“It’s about the right fit,” Wade said before the game. “The toughest part is — for GMs, presidents, owners and players — is how to handle an aging superstar in this game. It has to all work perfectly. Everyone has to make the right sacrifices, has to be the right group and coach. It has to work perfectly when it’s an aging star in this game. Unfortunately in Houston, it wasn’t the right fit. But Carmelo can play basketball.”
There is a way to view these two quotes as complementary. Wade’s was absolutely meant to be encouraging, and he stated the obvious back then by saying that he hoped Anthony would get another opportunity. But what he said about fit and the difficulty of integrating an aging superstar inadvertently hints at the problem with accepting Anthony’s premise in full. It is true that it can be tough to manage older stars or former stars. It is true that making it work can involve sacrifice. But the reasons why those things are true have much more to do with basketball than with media attention.
Older stars often struggle defensively without the lateral quickness they used to have. Everyone is familiar with the archetype of a past-his-prime scorer taking a dip in efficiency and being unable to understand that, in terms of shot attempts, minutes and playmaking responsibility, less is more. Aside from simply keeping him healthy enough to play, though, dealing with late-career Tim Duncan was not some kind of awkward, onerous challenge for the San Antonio Spurs because he remained an excellent defender and didn’t need the ball in his hands to be effective. Vince Carter was a better defender at 35 than he was at 25, and, because he turned himself into a low-usage floor-spacer, at a couple of months shy of 43 he is still in the league.
Anthony is not Duncan or Carter, and he made a category error by implying that role acceptance is not a basketball issue. He and Wade are both technically right that executives didn’t come to the conclusion that he simply can’t play basketball anymore, but there is a difference between being able to play basketball and being able to contribute to a winning team in the modern NBA. Based on Anthony’s recent stints with the Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets, two situations that seemed ideal for him on paper — he was playing a supporting role, at the proper position — there was abundant evidence that his defensive shortcomings outweigh what he brings to the table with his offensive repertoire, vast as it may be. The most damning stuff was the freshest: his 10-game stint with Houston and his six-game playoff run with Oklahoma City.
It might not even be accurate to say that teams questioned whether or not he’d accept an appropriate role. The question was whether or not he is qualified for one. Aging gracefully is about humility and self-awareness, sure, but it’s also about skill. Being an awesome role player requires different attributes than being an awesome go-to guy. Anthony was not an efficient stretch 4 in his last two stops, and he was absolutely not a versatile, reliable defender. Broadly, teams want uber-talented guys who can carry an offense, and they also want players who use the talent they have to support those guys on both ends. If you lie somewhere in between, without the upside of youth, there are not many places for you.
Anthony’s quote, by the way, comes from a story in which the 10-time All-Star expressed sympathy for Los Angeles Lakers forward Jared Dudley, whose continued presence on NBA rosters strangely and unfairly became a symbol of injustice among some of Anthony’s supporters. Dudley averaged 19 points as a senior at Boston College; like most players who have figured out how to stick around, he carved out a niche, paid attention to where the league was going, changed his game when he needed to and tried to add value on the margins. If the Anthony experiment in Portland becomes a redemption story, it will not be because the league was scared off by the extra stuff that “comes along with bringing me in,” as he put it. It will be because Anthony, like Dudley, finds a way to help the team more than he hurts it, in a pure basketball sense.