There is no “almost” when talking about Carmelo Anthony being out of the league. For a calendar year, he was left at home, the NBA convinced he was unable and unwilling to adapt to a smaller role in the modern era.
It’s a part of Anthony’s story that he’ll never get away from, and one that makes the start to this season all the more remarkable. Each 3-pointer that barely touches the net, each roar from the crowd when he checks in, each moment he steps on the court is a reminder of how, almost exactly three years ago, all of this was taken away from him.
“I think about that every day,” Anthony said.
On Monday, Anthony received some of his loudest cheers yet as he connected with long-range bomb after long-range bomb, finishing with 29 points and seven 3-pointers in the Lakers’ 126-123 overtime win over the Hornets. It was the fifth time Anthony’s scored at least 20 points — each one coming at Staples Center — in the opening 11 games of the season.
It was also yet another reminder of what Anthony still has left in the tank, and a reminder of how remarkable it is that the league had effectively given up on him.
“Everyone else thought that. I never did,” Anthony said. “That’s something that I took on the chin.
“I never doubted myself. I always stayed solid on who I am and what I can do. The right situation for that came in Portland,” Anthony said. “They opened their doors up to me, they gave me the same opportunity (I have here).”
Now, what started as a tongue-in-cheek joke about Anthony’s contention for Sixth Man of the Year feels more and more realistic with each 3-pointer that finds nothing but net. Anthony continues to flourish off the bench, proving to be a vital contributor to a Lakers team currently decimated by injuries.
Even with his success, the Lakers seem set on keeping him on the bench, hoping his energy will continue to elevate them on a nightly basis, while also hoping to keep him in the groove he’s found himself in this season.
“Our crowd is amazing with him,” head coach Frank Vogel said. “They’re keeping him out of the starting lineup (laughs) because the energy we get when he checks in is something I don’t want to mess with. And obviously there’s a temptation to slide AD, to the 5 but I like what we’re getting with (Melo) coming off the bench.
“I’m not sure what it is (behind the crowd response), but he’s a great player that I think our fans came close to acquiring a couple times, or wanted to bring to the L.A. Lakers,” Vogel continued. “Now we have him. And man, he’s playing just terrific basketball and the fans are rewarding him.”
Only Tyler Herro (20.3) and Buddy Hield (17.7) are averaging more points per game off the bench this season than Anthony’s 17.6 per contest. So far, neither are doing it at the efficient clip Anthony is, as he’s shooting 50% from the field and 52% from the 3-point line.
But it’s not just his competitors for Sixth Man of the Year that can’t match Anthony’s newfound efficiency. A player maligned for not being an advanced stats darling is now putting up analytics that would make Daryl Morey blush.
On a minimum of 20 wide open 3-point attempts this season — classified by NBA.com as a shot with a defender more than six feet away — no player is shooting better than Anthony’s 65.4%. At Staples Center this year, following Monday’s game, Anthony is shooting a staggering 64.4% on his 59 3-point attempts. In eight games at home, Anthony has never shot worse than 50% from the 3-point line, and has six games of shooting at least 60%.
Anthony’s Synergy numbers are just as incredible. In 42 spot-up possessions, he ranks in the 97th percentile at 1.5 points per possession (PPP). No player ranking above him has more than 26 spot-up possessions. He ranks in the 87th percentile in catch-and-shoot jumpers, and the 94th percentile on no-dribble jumpers.
That all this success comes with him taking on a role off the bench is a sweet bit of irony considering the reputation he gained for his unwillingness to adapt to changes. Anthony has pushed back at the notion he’s not willing to be a reserve already and, on Monday, disagreed with the idea that he needed to accept a bench role coming into the season. He had already embraced being a reserve with the Blazers. This wasn’t a change, even if the uniform is different.
“Coming here, it wasn’t an adjustment,” Anthony said. “The first time I came off the bench it was a hard time (for me) to come off the bench. It was something that I didn’t know how to react to. I didn’t know how to respond to. It was something foreign to me. It was something I had never done before, outside of playing for the USA team, but that was so different. But having that experience coming off the bench, and understanding and being able to see what’s needed on the floor, the energy that’s needed to come off the bench, and just coming in there and fitting right in.
“I’ve accepted that (since) before I came here,” Anthony repeated for emphasis. “Coming off the bench is something that I’ve accepted. I don’t think about it. I haven’t thought about it. It’s just something that’s best for this team.”
Realistically, Anthony will probably cool down as the season goes along. His 1-of-16 shooting on 3-pointers away from Staples Center indicates there may be some magical aura in Los Angeles that helps him combine the powers of Olympic Melo and Hoodie Melo into the fully evolved form of Staples Melo. He himself admitted on Monday that he considers Staples Center one of the best “shooter’s gyms” in the league, a far cry from its reputation with Lakers fans.
But how he’s getting his shots is sustainable. LeBron James and Anthony Davis will still command the attention of the defense, and Anthony will be the beneficiary more often than not. The open looks will still be there and Anthony, one of the greatest scorers of all-time, will have the chances. In that sense, he won’t need to continue to be elite to be productive, but instead just to simply continue to take the shots he’s taking. He’ll make enough of them to make an impact, even with a slight drop off.
But if he continues to shade closer to the way he’s played to start this season than the downslope of any impending regression, then his Sixth Man of the Year candidacy will only continue to grow, a case that’s already one of the strongest in the league through the opening weeks. And considering where Anthony just three years ago, it’s nothing short of a remarkable turnaround.