Why Melo didn’t fit in OKC, and what’s different about Houston

When Carmelo Anthony accepted a trade to the Oklahoma City Thunder three weeks before the 2017-18 season, the thought was that the star addition would create the NBA’s next big three, one powerful enough to compete with the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers of the world. That didn’t happen.

A clunky offensive hierarchy and defensive issues led to a first-round playoff defeat and also spelled the end of Melo’s brief tenure in OKC as the franchise waived him in July. Now in a reserve role with the Houston Rockets, many of those same question marks have followed the future Hall of Famer to his new home.

So what made Anthony a poor fit in OKC, and how has he adjusted to coming off the bench so far in Houston?

As the Rockets visit Oklahoma City on Thursday night for Anthony’s Thunder reunion, ESPN.com’s Tim MacMahon and Royce Young tackle the biggest questions surrounding the highest-profile minimum-salary player in the NBA.

Can ‘Olympic Melo’ make a comeback in Houston?

MacMahon: At Rockets media day, Anthony kept mentioning how much more comfortable he’d be with the Rockets than he was with the Thunder last season. He had time to prepare for his arrival in Houston as opposed to landing in Oklahoma City “at the 25th hour.”

“Last year, I didn’t know what to expect coming into the situation,” Anthony said. “It’s different when you’re clear on what is needed to be done or what you have to do or what’s needed of you. It’s a big difference.”

But Anthony was vague when pressed for specifics about how his role would be different and elusive about the possibility of coming off the bench, claiming that they hadn’t had that conversation yet, which was a classic semantics play. As we try to figure out how Melo fits in Houston, I guess we should start with this question: Why didn’t it work in OKC?

Young: There’s a lot to unpack when it comes to Melo’s adjustment with the Thunder, but the simple answer is this: He didn’t shoot the ball well. The “why” is the question, whether that was comfort, teammates, role, system or something else.

But one thing that always needs to be mentioned as a baseline: He effectively chose the Thunder. He waived his no-trade clause to join them, so it’s not as if he was traded into a situation he wanted no part of. He understood up front he would be changing positions full-time to power forward and he knew he would have to approach the game at least slightly different.

He came to Oklahoma City with somewhat of the expectation that combining with Russell Westbrook and Paul George would form a superstar triad where shots were evenly distributed and scoring averages stable all around. They spent the entire training camp and first month of the season repeating to each other “you be you,” but probably through gritted teeth, Anthony realized the Thunder didn’t need him to be him anymore.

With the Rockets, Melo entered with a different mindset from the outset, being willing to come off the bench. It doesn’t seem like he sees himself on equal footing with Harden and Paul, but more of the complementary piece OKC envisioned.

Like the Thunder, the Rockets are hoping to unlock “Olympic Melo,” the near-mythical catch-and-shoot stretch 4 monster who feasts on open looks. He tried to be that guy in OKC, but just wasn’t very good at it.

He took and made more 3s than in any year in his career: 42 percent of his shots were catch-and-shoot, up from 29 percent his last season with the New York Knicks. He was taking half the number of pull-up jumpers, fewer midrange shots and few isolation jab-stepping jumpers. Fifty percent of his shots came off of no dribbles, compared to 39.8 percent the season before.

But here’s the striking number: On open 3s, he shot only 30.5 percent, and 37.8 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s. Most of those numbers align with how it has gone in Houston so far, and obviously the Rockets feel that in their system, with their players and possibly a better chemistry recipe, he can do better.

MacMahon: That is indeed the hope in Houston, where GM Daryl Morey has been eyeing Melo since his 2012 summer free agency tour. This version, of course, is no longer a perennial All-Star in his prime.

The Rockets are really lucky they weren’t able to pull off a trade with the Knicks before last season, which they thought was going to happen at one point that summer. They didn’t have to deal with the financial pain of Melo’s max deal, and as one high-ranking Houston source noted during training camp, the year in OKC was clearly a humbling experience.

I mean, Melo went from “Who, me!?” in regards to a reserve role with the Thunder to at least reluctantly accepting coming off the bench with the Rockets. Or maybe “tolerating” it, as a rival scout corrected me during a recent conversation.

In fairness to Melo, it’s been a rocky early ride with the Rockets for a guy trying to find his fit with a new team. He had to make the mental adjustment to coming off the bench — and he doesn’t mind telling you how tough that is — and then served as a spot starter when hamstring strains sidelined two starters. The plan was to use him almost exclusively as a power forward, but his starts came at small forward with James Ennis out.

And the two premier playmakers who recruited him to Houston with promises of getting him great looks have both missed time: Chris Paul due to suspension, and James Harden due to his hammy. It was more bad than good offensively for the Rockets’ version of Olympic Melo during Houston’s horrendous 1-5 start.

A Brooklyn/Chicago back-to-back was a nice little get-well trip, with Melo scoring 45 points on 17-of-26 shooting over the two wins as he went back to coming off the bench with Ennis returning from a strained hamstring.

Melo torched the Nets on catch-and-shoot opportunities, knocking down 6 of 9 3-point attempts. He was only 1-of-7 on 3s in Chicago, but he feasted on good midrange looks after attacking closeouts and bullying guards on the block.

“Every day is going to be different,” he said before the road trip. “It’s going to be a challenge. I’m going to have to figure it out on the fly.”

I chuckled when Melo made an off-dribble jumper from just inside the 3-point line off a jab-stepping iso on his first touch of the regular season. I don’t think that’s the kind of shot that Mike D’Antoni had in mind when he agreed to give coaching Anthony another shot after they butted heads about offensive philosophy during their brief tenure together in New York. Melo even made light of it in the preseason when he mouthed, “My bad,” toward the bench after hitting a jumper just inside the 3-point line.

Young: Thunder coach Billy Donovan did spend a lot of last season trying to find ways to throw Melo a bone with some of those mid-range isos. But the lineups that featured Anthony as the primary scorer — playing without George and Westbrook — weren’t overly successful (the most-used such lineup played 38 minutes together and was a plus-2.5 points per 100 possessions).

The best lineup for OKC, though, did include Melo; it was the starting five. Before Andre Roberson’s knee injury, the Thunder’s starting unit was dominant, outscoring opponents by 13.5 points per 100 possessions, one of the best numbers for any starting group in the league.

MacMahon: Melo wasn’t brought in to start, but it does seem like he’s settling into his niche with the Rockets. And although it’s small sample size theater at this stage of the season, he has been adequate as a catch-and-shoot guy. He had a 59.3 effective field goal percentage off of catch-and-shoot opportunities entering the week. By comparison, Ryan Anderson, the pure shooter Anthony really replaced in the Rockets’ rotation, had a 58.8 catch-and-shoot effective field goal percentage last season.

Melo has also been effective in picking his spots to post up. Key phrase: picking his spots. There is a better chance of a blizzard hitting Houston during the NBA playoffs than D’Antoni calling a play for a Melo post-up, but Anthony has done a good job getting deep position off a mismatch in transition on several occasions and picking on smaller defenders after switches.

He has shot 14-of-18 on post-ups this season, per NBA.com/Stats, which again is evidence that the Rockets have done a good job recognizing opportunities for him, not necessarily that he needs more of them.

Melo’s days as an elite, go-to scorer are done. He’s 34 and fighting Father Time, but the Rockets firmly believe he can be an efficient complementary threat with two of the league’s premier playmakers feeding him for open looks.

OKC couldn’t hide Melo on defense; can Houston?

MacMahon: Let’s be brutally honest here. As much attention as we pay to Melo’s offensive decline and whether he can be reinvigorated with the Rockets, the big problems with him are on the other end. And, well, Melo hasn’t played much defense this season.

The Rockets are a bottom-10 defense with him on the floor (111.2 points per 100 possessions) and awesome without him (100.9 points per 100 possessions, right behind NBA-best Boston’s 100.8). Again, small sample size and all that, but yikes.

Simply put, the Rockets’ switch-everything scheme puts a bullseye on Melo. Opponents hunt him, trying to get him matched up with their best scorers (we saw this plenty during OKC’s first-round loss to Utah last season). He’s not quick enough to defend good off-dribble players on the perimeter and not big and athletic enough to prevent big men from scoring in the paint.

Houston has to figure out ways to help him, but it’s on Melo to do the little things to limit opponents’ opportunities for easy buckets. He can’t be lazy running back in transition. He can’t be a step late on rotations. Superstars can get a pass for resting on an occasional defensive possession. That no longer applies to Melo.

In fairness to him, that trend at least temporarily ended on the Rockets’ get-right road trip. They’ve been even stingier with him on the floor — a 98.6 defensive rating! — than when he sits during the three-game winning streak entering Thursday’s OKC reunion.

So how did the Thunder manage to be a solid defensive team with Melo starting 78 games last season, and why did it all fall apart in the playoffs?

Young: Three reasons: Paul George, Andre Roberson, Steven Adams. That starting group — those three plus Anthony and Westbrook — was an outstanding defensive unit (94.7 defensive rating), primarily because it was able to hide Melo behind three great individual defenders. After Roberson’s injury, there was no systematic recovery and Melo’s deficiencies became much more obvious.

Part of the reason the Thunder felt good about making the trade for Melo was to try to produce a more bendable five-man lineup and have more players who could play in more situations. Except Melo became a clear liability, and without Roberson available to clean up mistakes, the Thunder got exposed. The Rockets are facing some of the same kinds of issues, with no Trevor Ariza and no Luc Mbah a Moute, who each left via free agency over the summer.

The Thunder hoped to absorb some of Melo’s defensive limitations with better scheme — they tried less 1-through-5 switching to avoid him being isolated into pick-and-roll mismatches — but they never could get that right. After Roberson’s injury, OKC’s defense was about four points per 100 possessions worse with Melo on the floor.

The Rockets are seeing similar results, which is why they’re thrilled defensive guru Jeff Bzdelik will be coming out of retirement to rejoin the coaching staff.

MacMahon: The bigger question, in terms of whether Houston has any real championship hopes this season, is whether the Rockets can figure out how to be solid defensively despite Melo’s obvious limitations on that end. Bzdelik, who was fired as the Denver Nuggets’ head coach 28 games into Melo’s second season after clashing with his young star about commitment (or lack thereof) to defense, now has the challenge of solidifying the Rockets’ defense.

Will the chemistry experiment work for Houston?

Young: You mentioned Melo’s humbling experience in OKC, and that’s what gives me optimism this could eventually work out for Houston. It’s a low-risk move with Melo on a minimum deal, and there’s no trade-approval albatross in the way of moving him if the Rockets need to. He went from declaring not once, but twice, that he would not be coming off of the bench … to coming off the bench with the Rockets. It’s a process for Melo to accept his role, and that began with a challenging year in OKC.

He wasn’t used to going minutes without taking a shot, or even a touch, and had trouble being ready to shoot when the ball did find him for an open 3. He never looked entirely comfortable, or confident.

One other aspect to this is chemistry and team dynamic. In OKC, there was internal talk about how Melo impacted the locker room. To be clear, he was remarkably professional all season long, and at no point was there any locker room strife. But Melo’s general vibe and personality influenced OKC, particularly Westbrook. The Thunder had a confident we’ll-be-all right air about them all season, and that was projected most from Melo. And while he and Westbrook got along extremely well, that kind of atmosphere had a negative impact on Westbrook, who needs to be on edge at all times to succeed on the court.

Westbrook has joked before that the reason he doesn’t play it cool in the All-Star Game is because he’s not good enough to take it easy. He has to play one way, and that mentality sets the tone for the entire organization; the Thunder lost some of that identity with Melo.

Their primary struggle was consistency, especially against less-than-good teams, and that often manifested by thinking they could just kind of show up and win. Westbrook-led teams have never operated like that.

But on the flip side, there has been a lot of talk about Melo’s relationship with Paul and how their friendship could positively impact the situation. Why will it be different between him and Harden than it was with Westbrook and George?

MacMahon: For better or worse, CP3 has never shied away from getting in a teammate’s face. He called out the Rockets as a whole in a timeout during the second quarter in Brooklyn on Friday night, when Houston was sleepwalking through another horrible defensive effort, and the Rockets responded with their first really good defensive half of the season. PJ Tucker is cut from the same cloth.

“If you think you’re gonna come here and not play defense, Tuck’s got another thing for you,” Paul said on media day.

Those are the guys who set the tone in the Rockets’ locker room, with Harden’s voice obviously mattering as the reigning MVP. Melo is respected and liked, but it’s on him to fit in with a franchise that won 65 games and was a hamstring away from an NBA Finals appearance last season, as they like to say. There are vets who will be blunt with him — behind the scenes — if he doesn’t quite fit in.

And any notion that the Rockets could coast or play it cool during the regular season disintegrated during that brutal 1-5 start.

The Rockets, unlike the Thunder, didn’t sell Melo on being part of a big three. As D’Antoni mentioned before the season started, they want him to be their version of Bob McAdoo on the Showtime Lakers: an aging superstar who excels in a reserve role.

Melo has reluctantly accepted that role — or at least not rocked the Rockets’ boat. How well he fits remains to be seen as he and his new team find their footing.

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