Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 21, 2019

A Sad Ending Just Waiting To Happen

A NOTE TO READERS: As previously advised, there will be no post on Sunday. The regular Thursday and Sunday schedule resumes next week. As always, thanks for your support!

Melo is back. One year and four days after his exceedingly brief time in a Houston Rockets uniform ended with a terse announcement by Rockets general manager Daryl Morey that the team was “parting ways” with the ten-time All Star, 35-year-old Carmelo Anthony returned to an NBA hardcourt Tuesday night as a member of the Portland Trail Blazers. His many fans will no doubt cheer the return of Anthony and his 25,551 career points, second only to LeBron James among active players and the nineteenth highest career scoring total in league history. Make that 25,561 after Anthony tallied ten points on 4-14 shooting in 24 minutes as the Blazers lost for the tenth time in fifteen games so far this season, 115-104 to the New Orleans Pelicans. Yet however much some basketball fans are rejoicing at the news that the career of one of the NBA’s most prolific shooters isn’t over just yet, it’s hard to imagine Melo’s stay with his fifth franchise ending happily.

Anthony’s return came in the third of a six-game road trip for Portland. Tuesday’s contest was on the Pelicans’ home court at the Smoothie King Center, in the shadow of the Superdome in downtown New Orleans. Like most arenas, the venue draws its name from a corporate sponsor willing to write a prodigiously large check for the right to plaster its logo all over the structure. In this case the owner of the naming rights is a privately held franchisor of outlets selling ostensibly healthy blended beverages. But not so long ago, an arena called Smoothie King would have been an aptly named location for Carmelo Anthony to put on a show. In Denver’s rarified air, where his career flowered with the Nuggets, the team that made Anthony the third overall pick in the 2003 NBA Draft after his freshman year at Syracuse, and later at the beginning of his time in Gotham with the Knickerbockers, Anthony defined smooth. Gliding across the court, finding isolation opportunities against overmatched defenders, he would take the ball and shoot and shoot, and then shoot some more, in nightly performances that frequently brought fans to their feet.

But the time since an arena crowd witnessed Anthony hitting one pull-up jumper after another while mixing in the occasional bomb for three is measured by more than just the months of his recent exile from an NBA roster. He led the league in scoring average in his third season in New York, averaging 28.7 points a game in 2012-13. The Knicks won 54 games and made it to the second round of the playoffs that season, achievements the woebegone Madison Square Garden franchise has not approached since, though that story is about much more than Anthony.

Still the numbers tell the tale, and Melo’s have been in steady decline since that year. Both his accuracy and his average have spiraled down together, to barely more than forty percent and just 16.2 points a game during 2017-18, his single season in Oklahoma City. Anthony’s numbers were even worse during his ten games with the Rockets early last year, though his fans might question the sample size.

One game is a decidedly small sample, but Tuesday night’s performance was Anthony’s game of recent years in microcosm. He was in the starting lineup, appropriate for a player who have always seen himself as a star. He was on the court for 24 minutes, certainly not the most of anyone in a Blazers uniform, but not the playing time of someone just filling a role either. And there were a couple of times when Anthony caught a defender flat-footed and launched a shot that found the bottom of the net and served as a reminder of another time.

But those few moments were more than offset by the many minutes in which he turned the ball over five times, played lackadaisical defense, and committed needless fouls while failing to draw a single whistle from New Orleans defenders. Most of all, those minutes were enough for Anthony to send shot after shot to the basket, producing miss after miss, ten in all out of fourteen attempts from the field, more shots than all but one of his teammates.

It is tempting to blame the long layoff that he endured, the months of not knowing if he would ever suit up and take the court again. But Anthony moved well while in the game, and he had his share of open looks. What he did not have was the deft shooting touch that always set Melo apart. Perhaps that will come back but imagining that it will requires a conscious decision to ignore the steady decline embodied in his statistics over the past half-dozen years. It’s also fair to wonder just how long the Trail Blazers are willing to wait. After going to the Western Conference Finals last spring, Portland is off to a terrible start this season, currently sitting near the bottom of the conference standings. Should management decide to throw in the towel, Anthony might have a home for the balance of the schedule, even if his contributions are minimal. But Houston started poorly last season, and one of the reasons the Rockets jettisoned an unproductive Anthony was GM Morey’s determination to get the franchise back in the playoff race.

Melo will be in the Hall of Fame one day, and there is every reason to wish the one-time superstar a soft exit from his sport. But even the biggest stars are not guaranteed a chance to go out on their own terms. All the baskets that produced more than 25,000 points don’t necessarily buy even the semblance of a farewell tour. It is the sadder but more familiar tale that is far more likely – that of one more hero who came to believe that the cheers would never stop, that time could be defied, and who thus stayed too long. That story always ends badly.

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