For the first time in his 17-year NBA career, Carmelo Anthony will come off the bench.
In Oklahoma City, Melo scoffed at the suggestion that he could have a reserve role with the Thunder.
“Who me?” Anthony laughed off during a 2017 press conference. “I don’t know where that started, where that came from.”
He didn’t sound over the moon about the possibility in Houston, either.
"All the questions of coming off the bench, I don't want to answer those questions at the end of the day,” Melo said in September 2018 after his first media day with the Rockets. “Whatever I have to do to help this team win a championship, that's what's going to be done."
In his short tenure with the Rockets, Anthony played just 10 games with two starts. Reports circulated that the team felt pressured to take him out of the rotation, but Houston dropped him instead.
While contemplating hanging up his sneakers for good during his year of purgatory, Portland, in dire need of frontcourt help, took a shot on the 10x NBA All-Star in 2019. Melo averaged 15.4 points and 6.3 rebounds in the Trail Blazers starting lineup while shooting beyond the arc in nearly four attempts per game.
He had finally found a place in today’s NBA with the Trail Blazers, and despite rumors that the Knicks might seek a reunion, he agreed to return to Portland on a veteran minimum deal in 2020… but with a different role than ever before.
“Melo understands right now, he’ll probably come off the bench,” President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey said. “I think he can be featured more with the second unit. Depending who starts at three, we assume it’s Cov and Derrick, there may not be as many shots there for him. So being able to feature him with the second group, getting him some post ups, have him be more of a target for plays with that second group, probably gives him a higher usage.”
Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts echoed Olshey’s sentiments, expressing that newcomers Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr. will “probably be the starters,” at the forward spots, but that shouldn’t deter Melo from being one of the last players standing at the game’s conclusion.
“Melo is great, whether he starts or doesn’t start, whether there’s a good chance he finishes games,” Stotts said. “We’ve said this before, it’s not who starts, it’s who finishes...
Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard said he stayed in close contact with Melo over the offseason and was “realistic about the situation,” coming into the 2020-21 season.
“He wanted to come back, I wanted him to come back,” Lillard said Tuesday. “We wanted it to get done.”
For Dame, having a vested veteran on the roster like Melo brings so much more than experience and a reliable presence. There’s also a “respect factor.”
“When you play against teams and they size your teams up, some teams look at us and they look at our starting lineup and say ‘ok, we’ve got to figure out how to stop Dame, we got to figure out CJ, and then Nurk,’ but a lot of times when you play against these teams it’s like do they respect you? Or who’s out there to respect?” Lillard said. “I think when you have Carmelo Anthony out there, regardless of the age, or whatever people say, it’s a respect factor. People respect you different, and I think that’s a big key for us, having that respect. People looking at us with just a little more respect.”
There’s also a mountain of evidence to support his value as a versatile playmaker, as evidenced by Bubble Melo in Orlando.
“In terms of his play, I think he’s shown what he can do historically, how he fits in with our team, his ability to spread the floor, knock down shots, score in isolation situations,” guard CJ McCollum said. “He’s smart, he’s heady, and based on how the league has kind of shifted, he can play some 3-4 and 5 for us at some points, as we’ve done in the Bubble.”
Lillard added, “You see in the Bubble that he’s a big shot maker. He’s a future Hall of Famer, and it’s that belief, that veteran voice, and having that in the locker room, that’s really good for our team. Somebody we can also throw the ball too in big moments, or ISO, and trust his instincts and have him on the floor to finish games whatever the case may be...
2019 was a season in which Melo called “a revival” of his career.
2020 could very well be the season of “evolution” for the Trail Blazers forward as he aims to help a talented and versatile Portland squad set their sights on the ultimate prize: bringing a championship back to Rip City.