With 4:53 left in the second quarter of the Lakers’ third game of the season, Carmelo Anthony was faced with a decision. But like so many other things in life, what came before it was equally important.
Anthony began the play from the baseline, pitched the ball to LeBron James and motioned to be setting what looked like an incoming screen. Mundane enough. But then Anthony vanished. The pick that was seemingly en route to make contact was no longer there — nor was the 37-year-old — as to the defense’s surprise, he had now darted away from the vicinity, leaving behind no trace of his signature headband, but instead, only a specter.
In reality, Anthony was just in a short roll after executing what is typically referred to as a “ghost screen,” a maneuver that — like it’s namesake suggests — sees a player begin the typical angling to set a screen, only to rip away in the last second before making contact. Never actually touching the opposition, or existing in the precursor of the play. Just disappearing like an apparition.
When he catches the ball from James, Anthony is faced with the aforementioned fork in the road. His patented pull-up jumper — the very one that has helped catapult him to ninth on the league’s all-time scoring list — is there, inviting him if he wants it. But so is his teammate Malik Monk, teetering into the team’s dunker spot.
A split second later, Anthony makes his choice: He gives the ball up. Monk misses, but collects his own rebound and puts it back in.
He received no assist on the play, but the result is not what’s important here. The pass, and the decision, however, are what matters, and are also an apt summation of the Carmelo Anthony the Lakers have gotten this season. And both parties have been better because of it.
Like any player who has spent over a decade in the league, Anthony’s strengths — and weaknesses — could be recited by fans like students recalling their multiplication tables. When he’s at his best, his jumper is melted butter gliding through the net, when he’s not, the air is being the sapped out of the ball and he's throwing cold, yellow bricks at the rim.
With Portland the last two seasons, Anthony seemingly accepted the fate every player is faced with in the twilight of their career — adapt, or become extinct. He came off the bench. He saw less of the offense run directly through him. He was no longer the best player on the team, nor the second or third, either. It was a cold truth that he happily embraced, and likely also helped give the Lakers’ hope that this version of Anthony could buy into an even more streamlined role next to their star trio this year.
So far Anthony, has done just that, especially on offense. Largely through allowing others to make his life easier. Last season, 48% of Anthony’s makes were assisted upon according to Cleaning the Glass. After three games with the Lakers, that number has skyrocketed to 72%, which would easily be a career high.
On the court, this has been seen most with the team’s utilization of the forward. The frustrating isolations and post-ups are not yet entirely stored away in the attic next to the Holiday decorations, but are fewer and further between.
In their place is more of an emphasis on leveraging Anthony’s still present shooting gravity off-ball. Specifically, the aforementioned ghost screens have become a budding staple for Anthony and the team’s creators.
The benefits to these actions are twofold:
- Anthony’s shooting prowess, even at this advantaged stage of his career, needs to be respected. Which forces the defense into a difficult split-second decision when guarding the likes of James or Russell Westbrook while Anthony is rotating toward empty space on the wing.
- It forces Anthony to immediately shoot or make a play within rhythm rather than bringing the offense to a standstill while he tries to create something out of thin air.
This refining of his game as a cog rather than a primary option has simplified his approach while also literally and figuratively spacing the floor for the Lakers’ stars to operate. As beyond just being the beneficiary of their playmaking, Anthony has also tinkered with his shot profile to better fit within the team’s scheme — and with their personnel — early on.
Nearly half (49%) of his shots have come from behind the arc to start the year. The dreaded long two’s that have haunted his own teams when they’ve clunked off the rim have been sliced down to only 22% of his shot make-up (his second-fewest ever), and his mid-range frequency overall would be the lowest mark of his career (30%) if it were to sustain.
His hot start from deep has undoubtedly been a marvel — he’s shooting 66.7% on threes so far — but that will likely regress back to the mean. This degree of him doing less however, whether through spotting up, moving without the ball or being a screener, should be the story.
Perhaps the most telling stat of all is that 68.6% of Anthony’s shot attempts have come within two seconds of him receiving the ball per the league’s tracking data. This is a huge jump from his 38.4% mark a season ago.
But while the offense has shown tantalizing potential, the other end of the floor remains, as expected, dubious at best. Anthony, never universally known as a world-class defender during his career, is still generously draped in red for the opposition to bull-run toward.
There is a level of accepting that this is simply Anthony’s fate when it comes to his ability on defense at this point. He is slow-footed, loses his man consistently and takes bad routes on closeouts.
These things matter. But It’s also not impossible to work around his weaknesses.
With the right players around him, the right scheme (blitzing the ball-handler before he can get hunted for example) and the right level of effort, Anthony has shown signs of being able to survive on the floor. And if his offense can hold (relatively) steady, this will likely be a trade-off the team will happily accept.
Although the start to the year has skewed mostly positive for Anthony, it has ultimately been only three games. He will not shoot over 60% from behind the arc all season, and will also likely dip into his bad habits on offense at times, and waver a bit on defense.
But even with all that understood, it’s hard not to be encouraged and excited by the mindset Anthony has displayed to start the year. Because like anyone in nearly any circumstance can attest, it is difficult to change. To let someone else steer, to step aside when it’s necessary. That’s scary. Especially for a player whose entire career has been predicated on being the guy.
But then, it’s fitting, really, that Anthony and the utilization of the ghost screen have gained traction on the Lakers. At it's core, it is a play that is essentially a decoy, meant to prey on the defense’s assumptions of what a player would usually do right up until they change course, leaving those expectations behind.
Maybe this is what Anthony’s final chapter was always supposed to look like on the basketball court. One that we never saw coming, because we didn't believe it could.