Carmelo Anthony and the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Struggle to Thrive: How Melo is Adjusting to Russell
Carmelo Anthony was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Doug McDermott, Enes Kanter, and Chicago’s 2018 second round draft pick. During a packed offseason, Anthony was expected to be the final piece of an Oklahoma City big three alongside Russell Westbrook and Paul George (big four if you consider the 24-year-old Oceanian wunderkind Steven Adams) that could push the Thunder into Finals contention past the San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets, and Golden State Warriors.
The road was bumpy from the get-go as the Thunder meandered out of the gate to an 8-12 start before finally seeing some holiday success by climbing up to the fifth seed by the end of December on the back of a season-best six-game win streak. The ups have been mountainous and the lows have been hellish: Oklahoma City has bested the league’s two strongest teams in the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors, but they have also lost to teams like the Dallas Mavericks (twice), Brooklyn Nets, Sacramento Kings, and the Orlando Magic.
Combining Westbrook and Melo’s defensive energy (or lack thereof) was bound to need some work, but surprisingly the offense has also been a bit of a project. Teaming up guaranteed some sacrifice by the three former first-options Westbrook, PG, and Melo — but Melo in particular is averaging career lows in points per game and field-goal percentage: averaging 17.5 points on 41.3% shooting. A major factor is the shots that Melo is taking as he adjusts to the team’s spacing and his lack of volume. On his career, Melo shoots 35% from three and 47% from two and although he is shooting 36% from three this season, his shooting within the arc has dropped to 44% (last season it was 36% from three, 47% from two). Melo’s traditional shot-selection involved a litany of mid-range jump-shots and some post buckets, as last season marked a career high in attempts from three with 30% of his shots coming from deep (compared to 18% on his career) — this season that mark has jumped to 37%. Despite shooting at a much greater efficiency within the arc, the Thunder’s spacing has pushed Melo to the perimeter and his shots within 10 feet of the hoop have dropped by 4% and he has become less effective with those shots as he acclimates to Oklahoma City’s movement. While Melo’s field-goal percentage within 3 feet of the basket has jumped from 56% last season to 60% this season, his percentage at 3-10 feet has dropped from 42% last season to 21% this season and his signature shot: the long-two between 16 feet and the three-point line has dropped from 46% to 40%. Formerly the bane of New York and the “King of the Mid-Range Pull-Up, Jab-Step J” — Carmelo Anthony is taking less of his favorite inefficient shots that he manages to hit effectively in lieu of taking more of his decent three-point shots that he seems to be uncomfortable putting up. That post-up turnaround J is still working for him, but his play so far is barely reminiscent of the Carmelo Anthony of old as the isolation, volume scorer seems to have trouble adjusting to ball-dominant teammates in an offense with more motion and less clear-out spacing.
Carmelo’s most points scored this season is a 28-point game against the Denver Nuggets in which the Thunder lost 94-102 — by this point last season, Melo had already dropped 28+ points ten times for the Knicks. In early December Carmelo had what he called the roughest shooting stretch of his career. After a Mexico City game against the Brooklyn Nets in which the Thunder lost Anthony talked about the rough patch he was going through:
“For me, I think these past three, four games offensively have been the toughest stretch for me, as far as scoring the basketball, making shots,” Anthony said. “I don't think it had anything to with the altitude for the most part. I think it's just, for me, this is a rough stretch for myself personally. Probably the roughest that I've had throughout my career.”
Anthony shot 15-of-49 from the floor (30.6 percent) through a three-game stretch and was also just 2-for-17 from the three-point line through four games. In reality, his worst shooting stretch was an 11-for-46 three game run while he was in Denver in 2011 — so the fact that this stretch feels roughest for him indicates that the issue ties into mental struggles with a system more than just personal ability.
It’s tough not being the first option on a team and the hoodie aficionado has had a hard time adjusting to only taking 15.7 field goal attempts per game, the lowest of his career since he took 16.4 as a sophomore on Denver. Russell Westbrook’s shots have been fine though, as his 21.2 attempts per game are the third most of his career. It would seem that a lineup change may have a positive impact on Anthony’s stats and maybe part of the issue is that he struggles to handle power-forward minutes at this age. Moving Paul George to shooting guard and Anthony back to his traditional small forward position could be a way to help him get back to his original form, especially since Melo is giving up height and wingspan to a lot of the other power forwards in the league and doesn’t have the quickness or athleticism of his younger self to take advantage of bigger defenders. The defenders that Carmelo is facing are bigger, longer, stronger, and can get in the way of his shot — being guarded by Anthony Davis or Noah Vonleh is very different than Wilson Chandler or Andre Iguodala. For the Thunder to maintain their progress as a team and to elevate into that top-tier of NBA elites they will need to continue focusing on opening the game and their spacing up for their big three while considering different lineups and the possibility of switching Melo’s position around to encourage shots and matchups he is most comfortable with as their team chemistry steadily bubbles up.