How Carmelo could unlock the Thunder's very best

September 29, 2017

 

 

 

Carmelo Anthony is, famously, a known member of the Banana Boat Crew. But strangely, if you go back and look at the ceaselessly amusing picture that inspired the group's name, Melo's not actually in it. It's Gabrielle Union, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, and LeBron.

 

Melo was on the vacation, but he wasn't on the banana boat. He's always kinda stood apart that way in the NBA, partly through his own machinations and partly through forces outside his control, among the greats but always discomfitingly removed, incongruous.

 

LeBron has had Wade and Chris Bosh, and then Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Wade once had Shaq, and then LeBron and Bosh. Chris Paul had Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. For seven seasons, Melo was basically the Knicks and the Knicks were basically Melo. 

 

Where others joined forces, Melo has always kind of just gone solo. For better and, unfortunately more often, worse.

 

Now though Anthony will finally be part of a superteam, in Oklahoma City. And we will see if he can bring himself to be a third banana. 

 

If he can, he could be very good at it.

 

The Thunder are apparently planning on putting Melo at power forward, which is the right place for him in 2017. Think of him not as the guy you feed to hit shots and attack the blocks, the combo-forward scorer he's been and that is best embodied by, say, an Andrew Wiggins now. Think of his role in Oklahoma City as being a smaller, more agile LaMarcus Aldridge or Dirk Nowitzki. 

 

At 33, there's a lot Melo can still do offensively. Obviously. He scored over 22 a game last year.

 

The idea in OKC though shouldn't be to squeeze as many points as possible out of Anthony, not with Russell Westbrook and Paul George around. Melo can be an efficient complementary weapon deployed the right way, a release valve for the Thunder offense, an option to bail things out or a constant threat drawing attention off-ball.

 

His skills are still many - he needs only a fraction of space to get his shot off, he can hit threes well enough to require attention and he can still twirl his way to the basket off a single dribble from outside the key from time to time. Post him up, and he's bulky enough to back down many defenders or, if need be, quick and practiced enough to put up a good turnaround jumper.

 

Melo continues to excel in a variety of ways. He scored 221 points from the elbows last season, from just 347 touches, second-most in the league on a percentage (63.7) better than anyone with 100 points from those spots on the floor - notably including Klay Thompson (63.5). (Russ Westbrook, meanwhile, scored 99 points from 155 touches for a 63.9 rate.)

 

He remains an excellent spot-up shooter. He scored 1.23 points per possession in 257 spot-up attempts last season, a rate that put him near the 94th percentile in basketball while in the top-30 in volume. On pull-ups, Anthony took the third-most per game (7.0) and converted them at a better rate (45.9%) than anyone else in the top-6, including DeMar DeRozan, Westbrook, Wiggins and John Wall. (CJ McCollum, seventh, shot 47.3 percent and Kawhi Leonard, eighth, 46.0).

 

As always, he is dangerous in isolation, scoring the fourth-most such points in basketball last season (386) at a 0.99 points per possession efficiency that rates around the 78th percentile, better than LeBron, Westbrook and James Harden.

 

Having probably belabored the point, the idea here is Carmelo Anthony can fit into just about any offense. He is among the best options the game knows from the mid-range, an incredibly difficult to defend shooter from multiple areas of the floor, a self-contained scoring instrument.

 

The problem with Melo, or rather the problem with the recent-vintage Knicks, is when that is not an element of your offense, but your offense in whole. This won't be the case in Oklahoma City.

 

The key question is what the case will be.

 

The offense of the future - the offense of now, really - is showcased in Golden State. The Warriors run an array of movements, off-ball screens and pick-actions to create space, scramble defenses and rack up points. Last season Golden State led the league by over 500 points in points off screens (1224 to second-placed Dallas' 702) and did so efficiently, at a 1.04 points per possession rate putting them in the 93rd percentile. They led the league in points from cuts overwhelmingly, too, with 1485 (second-placed Denver: 1129) again in the 93rd percentile in efficiency with 1.33 points per such possession. 

 

The Warriors made the fifth-most passes per game, 317.2, and led the league in assist per game by over 5, with 30.4. It resulted in the league's best offensive rating, 113.2 points per 100 possessions.

 

In numbers, this is what a hyper-fluid offense looks like. This is what much of the league, from Houston to Boston, is emulating.

 

This is, however, not the only way to do things.

 

Where Westbrook and Melo had the second and fourth-most points in the league in isolation last year, in Cleveland Kyrie Irving ranked third for the Cavs and LeBron was fifth. As a team the Cavs led the league in ISO points, in fact, with 1040. Their 0.99 points per possession in isolation was best in the league. 

 

In contrast to Golden State, the Cavs were in the bottom third in the league in cut points (though they scored them efficiently, at 1.32 points per poss.) and middling (13th) in points off screens (though, again, they scored them efficiently, at 1.02 points per poss.)

 

For their efforts Cleveland owned the third-best rated offense in the league last season, scoring 110.9 points per 100. 

 

It's easy to envision how this goes for Oklahoma City.

 

George, Westbrook, and Anthony command attention on the wings, even though Melo and Russ aren't necessarily excellent three-point shooters. Add Patrick Patterson, a genuine three-point threat, and it would be very, very easy to play a clear-out, ISO-driven drive-and-kick offense. This is what Westbrook in particular is familiar running, and what George and Anthony would be more than comfortable sliding into. The only issue is that the spreading of touches comes to the fore in a take-your-turn kind of offense like this.

 

And, of course, while Cleveland's offense torched the Eastern Conference playoffs to the tune of 120.7 points per 100, it dropped off dramatically to 111.6 per 100 in the Finals against Golden State. If the idea is to beat the Warriors, more will likely be required of Oklahoma City.

 

And if Billy Donovan can envision and demand more of the Thunder, Melo might be the key to unlocking things.

 

This is where Anthony, in the twilight of his career, could alter his narrative some. He could conceivably be a souped-up Draymond Green-like utility tool, at least offensively, for the Thunder. He could initiate sets as a ballhandler, do the dirty work of setting screens off ball, moving around to force switches, or executing picks as either the ballhandler or the roll man. 

 

It's fun to envision some unorthodox things, like Anthony running a pick as the ball-handler with Westbrook, the game's most hellacious attacker of the basket, as the roll man. You can imagine him doing some two-man game work with either Westbrook or George.

 

The Thunder will be good, no matter what. Defensively they could really be among the best in the league, with Andre Roberson's and Patterson's versatility on that end, Steven Adams a stout presence inside, and George a suffocating wing defender. If Westbrook and Anthony step up even a little in their new situations, the Thunder, already a top-10 defense last season, could rank among the few best in the league.

 

What will set them apart ultimately though is how they figure out how to use the vast array of attacking talents at their disposal. They can run a straightforward offense that will put them among the league's best, or they can try to go higher with some different things to give them a puncher's chance at Golden State. They have intelligent players, capable of instinctively executing spacing and motion concepts. They have players with passing skills, even Melo, even if it's never quite been demanded of him that he use them (he's done a decent enough job in a more movement-influenced offense as 'Olympic Melo').

 

They might not light it up from three, the way the Cavs did last year, which helped drag their offense so far up the charts (Cleveland made the second-most threes, behind Houston), but with George and Patterson and even Melo they ought to improve on their bottom-five three-point shooting (26th in total threes, dead last in percentage).

 

The only thing stopping the Thunder is, conceivably, the Thunder. It's difficult to put three ISO-alphas together like this. But if Carmelo Anthony wants to be, if he can accept it as a role, he could be the league's best third bannana, and unleash Oklahoma City's full potential in the process. 

 

It might be the most compelling thing to watch in the NBA next season.

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