Welcome to our Lakers Season Preview Series! For the next several weeks, we’ll be writing columns every week day, breaking down the biggest questions we have about every player the Lakers added this offseason. Today, we take a look at Carmelo Anthony.
On Aug. 3, the Lakers signed a former 10-time All-Star, six-time All-NBA player, one of the top-10 all-time scorers in NBA history, and a man who is not only a close friend of LeBron James, but also widely considered one of James’ closest peers throughout most of their basketball lives.
On Aug. 3, the Lakers signed a player who, just two years before, had fallen completely out of the NBA against his will before clawing his way back into the league as a role-playing, defense-light stretch four. Someone who readily admitted that he never believed he would have a chance to play for the NBA’s premier franchise.
Only Carmelo Anthony fits both of those descriptions, and while the first chapter of his NBA career is the one that will inevitably send him to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame one day, it is his embrace of the second chapter that finally allowed him to both play for the Lakers and become James’ NBA teammate.
The Lakers signed a lot of veteran role players to minimum deals this offseason, which is what a team has to do when it’s built around three handsomely paid superstars in James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook. Only one of those guys has earned a career total of over $262 million per Spotrac, nearly 100 times the $2.64 million he will be making this year. Only one of those guys once compelled the Lakers to spend $1 million to make a Hollywood-quality movie of his life in a past attempt to recruit him.
Anthony is one of the NBA’s most interesting dichotomies. Off the court, he is still very much Melo, sipping absurdly expensive wine, jet-setting and doing press in places like the New Yorker about his upcoming autobiography. And he will no doubt be a leader in the Lakers’ locker room this year, trusted and respected by everyone from James on down. But like Vince Carter before him — as well as another one of Anthony’s new teammates, Dwight Howard — Melo only extended his career and earned his way onto the Lakers by letting go of who he once was on the court and embracing what he can still do instead.
It did not come easy for him. Even as his abilities started to fade, Anthony laughed when a reporter asked him in 2017 if he would consider coming off the bench before his first and only season in Oklahoma City. Following an awkward year there as third wheel to Westbrook and Paul George, Anthony quickly flamed out in Houston, and then nobody else, not even the slow-moving disaster that was the 2018-19 Lakers, was willing to give him another shot.
In a May 3 story from The Athletic that was published soon after he became one of the NBA’s top-10 all-time scorers, Melo described the period between his dismissal from the Houston and when the Portland Trail Blazers signed him in Nov. 2019 as the “defining moment” of his career:
It was a defining moment because it forced Anthony to look inward. He had to drill past the pain, the anger and the embarrassment of being out of the league and start asking some hard questions: Why did he play the game? What did he love about it? What mattered to him? What did he need to change?
“Even though it was a bad time — well, I don’t want to say bad time, but a down time for me — it was a game-changer for me,” Anthony said. “Mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually, it just changed the game for me. It made me lock into a different perspective.”
That different perspective would become obvious soon enough. The Carmelo Anthony that returned to the NBA as a Blazer in late 2019, and stayed with them through the pandemic-caused fits and starts of the remainder of that season and the next one was a different one than the one that left Houston. The best way to describe how different is through usage rate, which estimates how often players have a role in their team’s offensive sets. Superstars are usually at 30% or above—and Anthony’s career USG% is exactly at 30, per StatMuse. But in his two seasons in Portland alongside Damian Lillard, that number was at 21.2 and 23.1, respectively, per Basketball-Reference. Aside from his 10 games in Houston, those are the two lowest metrics of Anthony’s career.
That is not to say that Melo became some shrinking violet — he led the pregame huddle in his very first game as a Blazer, with Lillard’s blessing and admiration. But in 2019-20, he also averaged under 20 shot attempts per 100 possessions for the first time in his NBA life and still made three-pointers at the highest clip, 38.5%, of his career. He then improved his three-point percentage to 40.9% in 2020-21, even while primarily coming off the bench—the very thing he had scoffed at just three years before in Oklahoma City. He mentored the Blazers’ younger players and slimmed down to play small forward for the first time in years when Zach Collins returned in the 2020 NBA bubble. And this summer, the star who had burned every bridge he could in Denver and wore out his welcome in New York, OKC and Houston left Portland with love for the team and praise from his teammates.
When the Lakers courted Anthony with that $1 million Tobey Maguire-narrated movie in 2014, they were courting a true superstar, a ball-dominant isolation scorer who they hoped could complement another all-time great at that role in Kobe Bryant. What they are getting in 2021 is a far cry from that Carmelo Anthony. But the Carmelo Anthony of today, the sweet-shooting, role-playing combo forward with a refreshed perspective and an extremely respected voice, even on a team full of veterans, could be exactly what the Lakers need.