Can Carmelo Anthony help salvage an offseason that has seen the forward depth of the Houston Rockets take a significant hit?
After completing a buyout with the Atlanta Hawks — who acquired him in a trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder for salary-cap purposes — Anthony plans to sign with the Rockets on Monday, according to a report by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. A year after being unable to complete a trade with the New York Knicks for Anthony, Houston will now get him at a much better price.
Having lost forwards Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute via free agency, the Rockets are in need of help at Anthony’s positions. But is he the right fit for a team that still aspires to dethrone the Golden State Warriors?
How Melo fits in terms of playing time
Ariza averaged 33.9 minutes last season, behind only James Harden among Houston regulars, and Mbah a Moute played an additional 25.6 minutes per game. So there are plenty of minutes available for Anthony and fellow newcomers Michael Carter-Williams and James Ennis III.
What’s interesting is most of those minutes came at small forward. According to an analysis of lineup data from NBA Advanced Stats, Ariza played only 181 of his 2,269 minutes at power forward during the 2017-18 regular season, and Mbah a Moute an additional 515 of his 1,564 minutes at the 4.
That’s troublesome because Anthony, 34, isn’t really a small forward at this stage of his career. Just 250 of his 2,501 minutes last season came at the 3, and the Thunder were outscored by 4.2 points per 100 possessions in that span. (With Anthony at the 4, they had a plus-5.0 net rating.)
We might see Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni adjust by giving more minutes to smaller lineups. That shift started late last season, when P.J. Tucker replaced Ryan Anderson in the starting lineup at power forward. During the playoffs, Anderson’s limited minutes often came as a backup center.
Taking Anderson out of the rotation at power forward would allow Anthony to play the minutes Tucker spends on the bench, opening up time at small forward for the likes of Ennis, Gerald Green and three-guard lineups with Eric Gordon alongside starters Harden and Chris Paul.
How Melo fits offensively
After last season, Anthony expressed frustration with his role in the Oklahoma City offense, helping set the stage for his willingness to be traded and waived.
“I don’t think I can be effective as that type of player,” Anthony told reporters. “I think I was willing to accept that challenge in that role, but I think I bring a little bit more to the game as far as being more knowledgeable and what I still can do as a basketball player.”
Assuming Anthony was talking about playing an off-ball role alongside Thunder stars Russell Westbrook and Paul George, it’s tough to see how the situation is going to be any better for him in Houston. Rockets guards Harden and Paul are, if anything, even more ball-dominant than Westbrook and George. According to Second Spectrum tracking, Ariza held the ball just 7.4 percent of the time he was on offense, barely half as often as Anthony with the Thunder (13.8 percent).
Perhaps the Rockets could involve Anthony by posting him up against switches, something they rarely did last season with Ariza and Mbah a Moute but attempted when they added Joe Johnson midseason. Per Second Spectrum, Anthony averaged 0.98 points per direct post-up when defended by a guard, which is less efficient than Harden and Paul isolations but might become more efficient with Houston’s spacing around him.
For the most part, however, I think the Rockets are hoping Anthony will be more effective in a catch-and-shoot role than he was in Oklahoma City. Anthony made 38 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s last season, per NBA Advanced Stats, down from 42 percent the season before in New York. That came despite a higher percentage of Melo’s 3-point attempts coming with no defender closer than 6 feet last season (40 percent of his tries) than 2016-17 (28 percent).
Anthony was also less accurate on long 2s, hitting shots from between 16 feet and the 3-point line at a 38 percent clip according to Basketball-Reference.com after making 45 percent of them the previous five seasons. If Anthony’s errant shooting was a fluke, and if Houston’s system can turn more of those long 2s into 3s as with Paul last season, his efficiency could potentially bounce back.
How Melo fits defensively
Replacing Ariza with Anthony will force Rockets assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik, who is in charge of the team’s defense, to get more creative than ever with matchups. Ariza typically guarded opponents’ best perimeter scorer, regardless of position. That role now presumably falls to a combination of Paul and Tucker, with Houston trying to hide Anthony and put Harden in a matchup that calls more on his strength than quickness.
Of course, given the Rockets’ game plan of switching most screens, initial matchups are mostly a suggestion. Melo will certainly be happy to switch, something he has preferred to do rather than fighting through screens over the course of his career. The question is whether Anthony can be effective in a switch-heavy defense at this stage.
During the 2017-18 regular season, Anthony was actually reasonably effective in this regard. The Thunder allowed 0.9 points per chance on picks where Anthony switched on the ball handler, according to Second Spectrum, a rate that ranked 11th best among the 28 players who did so at least 200 times.
Come the playoffs, the Utah Jazz were able to have more success targeting Anthony on switches against star guard Donovan Mitchell. In that series, the Jazz averaged an even point per chance when Anthony switched on the ball handler, 10th-worst of the 36 players who did so at least 25 times in the playoffs. And when Anthony matched up with Mitchell the majority of the possession, Utah’s offensive efficiency surged to a scorching 132 points per 100 possessions. (For comparison, the Jazz had a 106.1 offensive rating in the series overall.)
Given those results, the Warriors are probably excited about the opportunity to pick on Melo defensively in a possible playoff rematch against Houston. Getting Anthony matched up against Steph Curry seems like a way for Golden State to easily generate efficient offense against the Houston switches.
There’s reason to believe Anthony can help Houston fill the minutes lost with the departures of Ariza and Mbah a Moute during the regular season, and possibly the early rounds of the playoffs. But come the most important parts of Houston’s season, it’s unlikely Melo will be a big factor.