So much attention has been paid to Carmelo Anthony‘s fit with the Rockets. How does he fit on a team that loathes mid-range shots? How does he fit Houston’s switching defense? How does he fit a team trying to match up with the Warriors? How does he fit with Mike D’Antoni, his old coach on the Knicks? How does he fit with James Harden and Chris Paul?
But maybe we’re asking the wrong questions.
Perhaps, the first question ought to be: Is Anthony still any good?
Anthony performed terribly with the Thunder last season. He shot inefficiently from the field, fell way off in drawing fouls, defended like a sieve, rebounded poorly and did even worse at setting up teammates.
His box plus-minus was -3.8. Just how low is that? Since 1974 (the first season plus-minus can be tracked), someone played at least 2,500 minutes 2,478 times. Anthony’s box plus-minus is tied for 2,476th in that group.
Shouldn’t a player of his perceived caliber avoid a season that disastrous? They usually do – unless they’re washed up.
Previously,* 85 players posted a box plus-minus of -3.0 or worse after achieving All-Star status in a previous season (minimum: 41 games).** Of those 85, 84 never had another positive box plus-minus season.
*In addition to Anthony, Joe Johnson and Jameer Nelson did it last season. They are not counted here, though Johnson and Nelson are out of the league.
**Including Tony Parker, a current player who still has a chance to bounce back.
The lone exception: Rashard Lewis with the 2014 Heat.
Lewis’ box plus-minus was just +0.1 that year. He was on the fringe of Miami’s regular-season rotation, but he was OK then had some nice moments in the playoffs. It was hardly an exemplary year, but it was fine.
Maybe that should be the bar for Anthony.
Instead, he’s the most hyped minimum signing since Shaquille O’Neal with the Celtics in 2010.
Part of that was circumstance. Anthony got his name in headlines during a lengthy process to get from Oklahoma City to Houston. It became known he’d leave the Thunder. Then, he got traded to the Hawks. Then, he got bought out by Atlanta. Then, after a while, he finally signed with the Rockets. Each step brought more attention to Anthony.
But it’s also because of Anthony’s reputation. He’s a 10-time All-Star who was very good in his prime. His box plus-minus was steadily positive, peaking at +3.6 in 2014.
Yet, signs of decline existed even before last season. His box plus-minus tumbled from +2.6 in his penultimate season in New York to -0.7 his final year there. The drop to -3.8 in Oklahoma City might just be a continuation of a trend for the 34-year-old.
The Thunder didn’t present a perfect situation, but it wasn’t as bad as some – including Anthony – make it out to be. Remember, Oklahoma City was one of just a few places Anthony would waive his no-trade clause for. He clearly didn’t think it was such a boondoggle when traded there.
It’s hard to see how the Thunder defied reasonable expectations at the time of the trade. He had to adjust to playing with Russell Westbrook and Paul George, no doubt. But those other stars were already in place. Was Anthony really surprised his touches declined sharply? And will he get many more playing with Harden and Paul?
Harden and Paul are better passers than Oklahoma City’s stars. Anthony has expressed more openness about coming off the bench in Houston. The Rockets were his first choice all along. There are plenty of reasons this could work.
But don’t ignore this fact: If Anthony flourishes in Houston, it’d defy a long history of players like him being over the hill for good.