The Houston Rockets were a team that, just six months ago, looked destined to win Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals and perhaps the NBA championship.
At 10:24 p.m. ET on May 28, the Rockets were up 58-47 on the Golden State Warriors with 8:49 left in the third quarter, with an 82 percent chance to reach the Finals. Then, came 27 consecutive missed 3-pointers. By 11:24 p.m. ET, Houston was down nine with seconds to go. All that was left was the final buzzer.
It took one hour for the Rockets’ season-long title quest to go up in flames. It might’ve taken one offseason for their championship window to burn up, too.
Life comes at you fast. And in today’s NBA, it seems faster than ever.
In July, the Rockets lost defensive stalwarts Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah A Moute through free agency and replaced them with journeyman James Ennis. They re-signed Chris Paul and Clint Capela to the tune of $250 million. To top it off, they signed Carmelo Anthony, who was dumped by two teams, and then traded away their best 3-point shooter last season in Ryan Anderson in a salary dump. And then they lost out on the Jimmy Butler sweepstakes.
At 5-7 with a bottom-10 point differential, this Rockets team is in disarray, with many pointing the finger at Anthony.
On the whole, Houston has hemorrhaged 111 points per 100 possessions to opposing teams with Anthony on the floor, according to NBA.com, which would rank 24th in the league as a whole. That’s a bad number, but it has improved to 100.5 in November. Anthony’s defense, as flat-footed and inattentive as it might be, is not the reason the Rockets are in trouble.
To blame this all on Anthony would mistake the NBA for a scripted drama with a clear antagonist and a tidy plotline. Reality isn’t so simple.
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At 34 years old and turning 35 in May, Anthony is already older than plenty of Hall of Famers when they hung it up for good -- names like Tracy McGrady, George Gervin, Isiah Thomas and James Worthy. Every Hall of Famer reaches a point in their career when they can’t hang anymore. We’ve just about reached that point with Anthony.
Melo showing his age is hardly a surprise considering the additional tread on his tires. He’s already logged more career minutes than guys who played into their 40’s such as Steve Nash, Dikembe Mutombo and Juwan Howard. Anthony in his current form is barely worth a roster spot. He’s become a caricature version of the high-volume shooter he was in his prime. Anthony has five assists in 294 minutes, or one out of every 59 minutes on the floor, giving him one of the lowest assist rates in NBA history for a non-center.
That kind of ball-stopping might be acceptable if he made winning contributions in other areas of the floor. But that’s never been Anthony’s game. For instance, Al-Farouq Aminu almost never collects an assist, but his rebound and steal numbers are almost double that of Anthony’s, not to mention he’s vastly more efficient from the floor. Anthony misses more shots per game (7.2) than Aminu actually takes (6.8).
A chorus of NBA players have tweeted in support of Anthony lately. It’s nice that players are sticking up for Anthony publicly, but their actions on the court speak volumes.
Consider the scene in Anthony’s return to Oklahoma City. After Melo bricked a 3-pointer, the Thunder, who were up 77-57 at the time, went out of their way to expose him. Dennis Schroder brought the ball up in transition as the TNT broadcast went to a split-screen, the game action in one window and the OKC bench in the other.
Russell Westbrook, who wasn’t in uniform, was shown repeatedly screaming “MOVE!” and maniacally motioning for everyone to clear out like a train conductor warning people on the tracks. Westbrook wanted Steven Adams to get Anthony on an island in the post.
The Thunder followed Westbrook’s command as Adams caught the pass from Schroder, backed down Anthony a few times and got a clear look at the basket. Adams missed, but the point was made. Westbrook was seen giggling in delight with the rest of the Thunder’s reserves as his former teammate was singled out over and over again in the post, in isolations and on pick-and-rolls.
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After a weekend of rumors that Anthony was about to be waived for the second time in four months, Houston GM Daryl Morey stood in front of reporters on Sunday and tried to jump on the grenade.
“One of the reasons I’m here, besides it’s 10 games in, about, is I think there’s just a lot of unfair-like rumors and everything going around about him,” Morey said of Anthony. “He’s been great with us. As Coach [Mike D’Antoni] said yesterday, his approach has been great. He’s accepted every role Coach has given him -- starting, off the bench, whatever it’s been.
“We’re struggling as a team, and it’s my job, it’s Coach’s job to figure this thing out. But from Guy 1 to Guy 15 -- and I’ll put myself in there; a lot of this is on me right now. -- we’re not playing well.”
Morey has a point. And so do all the NBA players -- LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Damian Lillard, just to name a few -- who have tweeted in solidarity with Anthony, a ten-time All-Star and three-time gold medalist for Team USA.
This isn’t all on Anthony. Melo is a problem. He’s not the only problem.
Holy cow, the Rockets’ offense has been horrendous. This is not the case where Anthony’s chucking has ruined James Harden and Chris Paul’s well-oiled offense. In fact, the Rockets have tried desperately to separate Anthony from their star duo. Anthony has played with Paul-Harden duo on just 37 of his 294 total minutes this season, a tiny portion of just 12 percent. Last season, the Thunder took a totally different approach, slotting Anthony next to Westbrook and Paul George for 1,976 of his 2,501 minutes, almost 80 percent of his action.
That separation could be a point of contention in Houston. Paul has referred to Anthony “as a brother,” but they’ve hardly played together. In the short time Paul and Anthony have shared the court, the defense has been comically bad, but the offense has actually been more productive than Harden and Paul’s play without their Team USA pal. With Harden and Paul on the court together, the Rockets are scoring 104.3 points per 100 possessions this season. Last season? That figure was 117, per NBA.com/stats. Again, that can’t be pinned on Anthony.
And that gets us to the real issue in Houston -- the Rockets can’t hit a shot, ranking dead-last in field-goal percentage. Paul is having by far the worst shooting season of his career, while Harden is shooting just 39.3 percent on 11.7 isolations per game, per Synergy tracking, down from his 44.3 percent conversion rate last season. He has missed more shots on isos (51) than Orlando (46), Dallas (45), Miami (41) and Philadelphia (32) have taken. In related news, the Rockets’ offense has sunk to 23rd in the NBA. That hardly has anything to do with Melo being Melo.
It may be fun to giggle at Anthony, but I wonder if the basketball world is mistaking him for Eric Gordon.
Gordon is making $11 million more than Anthony this season and shooting a horrific 32.2 percent from the floor and a ghastly 23.1 percent from deep. In an alternate universe, Gordon is playing well and being used as a trade piece to land Jimmy Butler (too late). In reality, the oft-injured Gordon is burping up a 7.7 PER with another $14 million owed to him next season. (Gordon was reportedly the center of the Rockets’ final trade proposal for Butler, but the Timberwolves turned it down for Philly’s package, per The Athletic’s reporting).
If you’re a Rockets fan, Gordon, and not Anthony, should be the target of your November disappointment because strong early play could have netted Butler. Anthony was never going to be that guy.
When nearly $30 million of your cap is soaked up by Gordon and Brandon Knight, who hasn’t played in 21 months, that’s a much larger issue than a 34-year-old player who is shooting no worse than the rest of the team. So why have all the memes been reserved for Melo?
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The Rockets may have been the league’s best chance at toppling the Warriors, but that seems like a real long shot now.
Houston is reeling, Boston is struggling and Cleveland is on pace to be the worst team ever after LeBron’s departure. At this rate, there will be three new conference finalists next to Golden State.
In fact, we’ve never really seen a defending Conference Final field be this mediocre in a long time. Golden State (11-2), Boston (7-6), Houston (5-7) and Cleveland (1-11) are a combined 24-26 (.480), making this the worst reigning Conference Final field since the NBA went to Conference Finalists in 1971.
Few people know how quickly a championship window can close more intimately than Morey. In 2014-15, the Rockets reached the West Conference Finals with Dwight Howard and lost Games 1 and 2 by a collective five points, losing the series in five games. They went 41-41 the next season, fired Kevin McHale after 11 games and let Howard walk in free agency that summer.
Hitting the reset button this time around won’t be as easy. Paul is one month into a four-year, $160 million commitment by the Rockets, one that will pay him through his age-36 season. If the NBA is a real-life Game of Thrones, the Rockets may never get closer to the Iron Throne than they did six months ago. Speaking on the Woj Pod in October, Morey admitted that championship windows aren’t open for long.
“It’s fragile,” Morey said. “I mean, winning’s fragile."