The burnout of the shooting star Carmelo Anthony

ByBaxter Holmes ESPN logo
Wednesday, October 16, 2019

HE IS PREPARING to launch his 20,361st field goal attempt, but he has no idea it might well be his last. It's Nov. 8, 2018, and with 8:54 remaining in the fourth quarter, his Houston Rockets down 86-64 to the Oklahoma City Thunder, Carmelo Anthony had secured an offensive rebound. Two seconds later, he eyes a rim that sits 23 feet away, from a most ironic spot for him.

The corner.

For a volume midrange shooter -- a man considered the antithesis of the analytics movement that has revolutionized the NBA -- Anthony is about to take what that very movement has roundly declared to be basketball's most efficient and valuable shot: a corner 3-pointer.

Up to this point in the game, all 10 of Anthony's attempts have failed to reach the bottom of the net; his last resulted in a basket only because of a favorable goaltending call. Five of those shots were from beyond the arc. Also present in Oklahoma City, where his team now trails by 22 points, is Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, who in some 24 hours will meet with Anthony in a hotel room in San Antonio. Morey will tell Anthony -- who was expecting to play the next day against the Spurs -- that the Rockets, after just 10 games, no longer need his services.

After that, Anthony will spend the rest of the season on the sidelines as NBA players profess their love for him on social media and in interviews, all but demanding that Anthony, who turned 35 in May, belongs among the 450 players in the league. This cycle will continue into the summer, a chorus growing louder as the future Hall of Famer -- a 10-time All-Star -- remains untethered to any team. Other reclamation projects -- including enigmatic center Dwight Howard and 38-year-old wing Joe Johnson -- are expected to make NBA rosters. Anthony will even go on national television -- on ESPN -- and campaign for a different ending.

"I feel like I still can play," Anthony tells Stephen A. Smith. "I know I still can play."

In this moment, though, that is all in Carmelo Anthony's future. On this day, he is still 34, still in the league, still in a game, with the ball in his hands. As he's done 20,360 times before, he lets it fly. He has taken many shots that now measure as poor, because he came up playing a style that his heroes did before him, but this shot is quantifiably defensible. Ironic, then, that this one caroms off the back of the rim, giving him two points on 1-of-11 shooting while a national television audience looks on. A timeout is called two seconds later. He checks out of the game. He does not come back in.

After a 98-80 loss drops Houston to 4-6 on the season, Anthony boards the Rockets' charter plane. It lifts into the chilly Oklahoma City sky toward south Texas as a waxing crescent moon hangs above. Several staffers aboard have no idea that they just witnessed Anthony's last game. He has no idea he's just played in it. There is tomorrow, another game. Anthony doesn't know that it's over.

AFTER THE TIMEOUT is called but before he checks out of the game, Anthony lingers on the court at Chesapeake Energy Arena, giving a long look to the Thunder's bench. One season earlier, on the late-September 2017 day that the Thunder had introduced Anthony, he had been asked about coming off that very bench after starting every game in his career. Sitting in his introductory news conference, he'd worn a hoodie, his arms crossed. He'd leaned forward into the microphone, a smile breaking across his face.

"Who, me?"

That sound bite would be amplified when, in his exit interviews after a disappointing season in Oklahoma City, Anthony was asked a similar question. "Yeah, I'm not sacrificing no bench role, so you can -- that's out of the question." And so the narrative went: an aging star who couldn't let go of the stature he had enjoyed, undone by his unwillingness to let go of what was ultimately holding him back.

Anthony declined to participate for this story, and his representatives directed comment to previous interviews. But many people close to him and inside and around the organizations where he has played were willing to discuss his swift demise. "His name is a blessing and a curse," says one source close to Anthony.

"And it's more of a curse right now."

Anthony's headlong dive into basketball exile is partly the story of the game's dramatic evolution that placed him on the wrong side of history. But it's also partly the story about the pratfalls of greatness -- and how stars often decline as steeply as they rise to dominance.

"When you're one of the top 10 players in our league for 10 years, you think it's going to be there forever," says one of Anthony's former NBA coaches.

"They're always the last ones to know."

THE WARNING SIGNS first arrive in southwest Louisiana, where the Rockets have gathered for training camp at a complex in Lake Charles. It's late September of 2018, and after years of fawning over Carmelo Anthony, the Rockets finally have him. Team officials believe that his offensive punch will compensate for the loss of long-range shooter Ryan Anderson, whom they traded the month before. They believe that Anthony, with a fresh start, can bounce back from a poor season in Oklahoma City.

Which is not to say there aren't concerns. There's concern among some coaching staff members and others in the organization about the dynamic between Anthony and Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni; the two had had a fractured history during their time together with the Knicks a few years earlier. There's concern that Anthony, a midrange jump-shooter, will struggle within the Rockets' analytically driven offense, one predicated on 3-pointers, free throws and shots around the rim.

But the Rockets are ultimately confident in D'Antoni's system. They believe that it can accentuate the positives and minimize the negatives from a player's skill set -- not just Anthony's but any player's. The approach is risky. But under Morey, the Rockets are nothing if not aggressive. They're trying to hit a home run.

As one team source says: "We needed scoring."

In talks with Anthony, team sources say, his role was explained: He would be coming off the bench. Those sources also say Anthony embraced this role, was nothing if not professional and understood his fit on a roster that featured reigning MVP James Harden and Chris Paul and had ambitions of a deep playoff run after winning 65 games the season before and falling one win shy of the NBA Finals.

During training camp in Louisiana, though, another issue arises, one that some Rockets officials say they hadn't fully grasped until they saw Melo on the court: The 34-year-old is struggling in the team's defensive scheme, one that requires players to switch often on pick-and-roll action. (According to Second Spectrum data, the Rockets switched on 44% of screens last season, by far the highest in the NBA. The Warriors were second at 33%. No other team was above 25%.)

That Anthony was a subpar defender wasn't breaking news to anyone, but then the NBA's style of play changed -- in a big way.

When Anthony first entered the league in 2003-04, a total of 35,492 3-pointers were attempted leaguewide. By 2018-19, that number had jumped to 78,742, a 121% increase.

As teams, in response, began stocking up on long-range shooters, defending the perimeter became a top priority, especially with respect to switching pick-and-roll actions to deny those shooters open looks. According to Second Spectrum data, defenses switched on pick-and-rolls 7.2% of the time in 2013-14; that rate was 16.5% last season.

One rival front-office executive notes that the league's 3-point revolution makes it harder than ever to hide players who aren't strong defenders. He's talking about Carmelo Anthony -- someone, he says, "who can't defend, can't close out, his feet are slow and he gets blown by." More than ever, offensive teams will repeatedly target weak defenders in pick-and-roll actions, the executive adds.

And that very thing had played out in real time for Anthony during his Oklahoma City stint -- most notably during the Thunder's 2018 first-round playoff series against the Utah Jazz.

In that series, which the Thunder lost in six games, Anthony was the screen defender 157 times, per Second Spectrum; he was being targeted by a Jazz offense looking for switches. That figure was the second highest for a Thunder player in that series; only Steven Adams (186) had more. Then, in Game 5 of that series, Anthony was subbed out of the game in the third quarter with the Thunder trailing 71-52. With him on the bench, the Thunder roared back and took an 88-87 lead, further evidence of a trend that continued: The Thunder were minus-9.7 in that postseason with him on the court and plus-5.3 with him on the bench.

Although the Rockets knew of Anthony's defensive weaknesses before he joined, team sources say they didn't anticipate just how limited he would be in their aggressive switch-centric defense, which tasked him with running quicker players off the 3-point line. One team source speculates that, had they known he'd struggle so much in their defense, Anthony wouldn't have been brought aboard. "He really, really struggled with it," the source says.

But in the early going of the 2018-19 season, other factors would contribute to his ouster as well. For one: After losing their first game to New Orleans, the Rockets beat the Lakers in their second game -- Chris Paul is suspended two games for scuffling with Lakers guard Rajon Rondo. With Paul out, the Rockets drop their next four games; in that stretch, Harden strains his left hamstring. Anthony delivers games of 22 and 24 points during that losing streak, but at 1-5, the Rockets are already feeling desperation in the ultracompetitive Western Conference. "It was the perfect storm in those first 10 games," one Rockets source says.

Anthony turns in another vintage performance in their next game, tallying 28 points on 9-of-12 shooting in a Nov. 2 win in Brooklyn to help snap the losing streak. But the issue of Anthony's defense continues to fester. In the Rockets' first five losses, opponents shoot a whopping 54% when Anthony is the closest defender. "We just couldn't put him on the floor defensively," one team source says.

After starting every game of his career until this season, Anthony cooperates in his role, coming off the bench in eight of the 10 games in Houston. Still, the Rockets know they can't just take him out of the rotation; doing so would cause a media firestorm. "Because his name was Carmelo, we treated it differently," one team source says. And when getting two more wins brings the team to 4-5 with a game in Oklahoma City looming -- a reunion for Anthony against his former team -- it appears that things might be looking up for the Rockets.

But when Anthony struggles offensively in that 18-point loss to the Thunder, the central theme of internal conversations within the Rockets organization solidifies: The team is struggling, changes need to be made, there is no time to wait. The Rockets hope that parting ways with Anthony quickly might allow him to join another team. Morey delivers the news to Anthony in San Antonio the day before the Rockets are to play the Spurs -- though publicly, the team would say only that Anthony was out for the next three games because of an "illness."

In the days and weeks to come, rumors surface of Anthony potentially joining other franchises, and one source close to Anthony says he believes Melo will be joining the Lakers midseason. Multiple sources close to the situation note that the Miami Heat had also been interested in acquiring Anthony before he'd chosen Houston, but in the end, no option materializes.

IN HINDSIGHT,a question lingers: If the Rockets are such an analytically rigorous team and knew beforehand that an aging Anthony was a notoriously poor defender who might not fit in their switch-heavy scheme, why bring him aboard in the first place?

In 2018-19, Anthony had an offensive rating of 102.3 and a net rating of minus-9.9 -- both the worst of his career. "He just can't play NBA defense anymore," one Rockets source says, but the offensive woes ultimately calcified the Rockets' thought that they had gambled and lost. Still, there remains a measure of guilt among some in and near the organization and within Anthony's circle.

"I feel awful that it ended the way it did," says another Rockets source. "He would have been better off either going to Miami or just not playing. But those 10 games ... basically ruined him."

Three months after he last suited up, Anthony heads to Charlotte for a star-studded dinner at the All-Star Game to honor Heat star Dwyane Wade in the midst of a farewell tour in his 16th and final season. At the gathering, many NBA stars of past and present toast Wade, who sits in a throne-like chair. When it's his turn, Anthony references how they've known each other since college, how they're like family.

"One of the realest conversations that I had with you in 16 years was when you told me you were about to retire," Anthony says. "I said, 'Hell no.' I said, 'You can't go out like that.' Now look at you."

In this moment, Anthony is 34; Wade is 37. A league source present at the gathering said Anthony's words seemed genuine in showing love to a dear friend and in no way envious of the farewell tour that Wade is enjoying. Because, the source says, as everyone honored the 2006 Finals MVP, Anthony didn't yet believe his NBA career was over. He thought he'd still be picked up by a team -- soon.

"IT'S ABOUT THE right fit," Wade says. "The toughest part -- for GMs, presidents, owners and players -- is how to handle an aging superstar in this game. It has to all work perfectly. Everyone has to make the right sacrifices, has to be the right group and coach. It has to work perfectly when it's an aging star in this game."

It's a few weeks before last season's All-Star Game, and Wade is speaking to reporters in New York before the Heat play the Knicks. Sitting courtside is Anthony, who by now has been let go by the Rockets. A few months from now, Wade will play his final NBA game, this one in Brooklyn, and again Anthony, who remains unsigned, will be in attendance. At one point midway through the fourth quarter, the ball will bounce toward Anthony, sitting courtside in street clothes. He'll grab it and pretend as if he'll shoot it, but he doesn't. The crowd roars. The clip goes viral. After the game, Wade presents his jersey to Anthony, and the two longtime friends and members of the 2003 NBA draft class share a long embrace.

The end -- and the reckoning that comes with it -- is often brutal, all the more so because it plays out on a public stage. And so on many recent summer days in New York City, onlookers line up outside the tall glass windows peering down into a full-length basketball court near the corner of 11th Avenue and 42nd Street in Hell's Kitchen. They've told the front desk at the luxury apartment complex that they're considering a membership to the Lifetime Athletic Sky gym and just want to look around, but staffers know better. They know that the curious are really just there to watch the pickup games they've seen go viral on Instagram, featuring a who's-who of NBA superstars: Harden, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, C.J. McCollum.

And it's here that these onlookers see Carmelo Anthony play.

They don't see the Carmelo Anthony they likely remember best, for that version could last be found a mile away and six years ago, during the 2012-13 season. Back then, Anthony was 28, a seven-time All-Star in his second full season with the Knicks. And that year, something unusual happened for the Knicks: They caught fire. But the reason they did so would speak to Anthony's impending struggle to fit into a changing league that would ultimately leave him behind.

Anthony, several members of those Knicks say now, had always envisioned himself as a small forward; he'd stubbornly preferred to play that position, even though members of the coaching staff and front office say they had long viewed him as a stretch power forward who could space the court with his shooting. But Knicks insiders say that ownership -- namely Jim Dolan -- wanted Anthony to play the small forward position while A'mare Stoudemire played power forward. This frustrated some members of the coaching staff, who viewed it as driven only by Dolan's desire to have star power on the court, according to sources on those Knicks teams. But in 2012-13, Stoudemire was sidelined for most of the season with knee trouble. To accommodate, Anthony agreed to change positions. "The injury that year forced everyone's hands -- Jim's and Carmelo's," one Knicks source says.

With Anthony in a power forward role and with the offensive scheme in place, the often-hapless Knicks thrived. In something of a preview of the 3-point revolution that would find its fullest form three years later with the Warriors, those Knicks attempted a league-high 2,371 3-pointers. They averaged 110.5 points per 100 possessions that season and had a net rating of plus-6.2 with Anthony on the court.

Anthony led the NBA in scoring that season -- 28.7 points per game. He made 37.9% of his 3-pointers, the second-best mark of his career, while attempting 6.2 per game, his most attempts per game in a full season.

The Knicks would go on to win 54 regular-season games, finish with the second-best record in the Eastern Conference, win their first Atlantic Division title in almost two decades -- and win a playoff series for the first time in 13 years.

Says one Knicks source: "The only thing he had to worry about was scoring, so it was perfect."

But as quickly, or accidentally, as it came together, it fell apart. The reason? Staffers wanted to keep several of the veteran players, but Dolan, they say, didn't. "Every time we brought up veteran names, he's like, 'I don't want any of those guys back,'" one Knicks source says. And GM Glen Grunwald was fired just days before training camp began. "That threw everything for a loop," the Knicks source says. "That, I think, started the beginning of the end."

Stoudemire returned from injury, Anthony returned to the small forward position and the Knicks fell back to earth, posting a 37-45 record. They haven't returned to the playoffs since.

"It was a perfect fit for [Anthony]," one front-office executive said of the 2012-13 Knicks. "And they abandoned it."

SIX YEARS LATER, Anthony now largely plays before an audience of Instagram followers and onlookers gathering outside windows that peer into a gym in Hell's Kitchen. Those close to him have referred to the gym as a sanctuary for Anthony, a place where he can disappear into the game he loves and escape the growing doubts that he'll never play it again professionally.

Those in Anthony's innermost circle are deeply wary of any information or narratives that might affect his ability to play in the league again.

And while Anthony believes -- or so he said on ESPN -- that he'd be "at peace" if he never plays in the league again, he knows that this ending will haunt him, a former teammate over multiple seasons says: "He doesn't want to go out like this." Wade and Kobe Bryant received a farewell tour, both of them Anthony's close friends. LeBron James, another longtime friend, will likely receive one too. "[Anthony] wants to go out like that," his former teammate says.

The gym where Anthony so often plays isn't far from Madison Square Garden, which he helped electrify six years ago; it's only a few avenues to the east, maybe a 20-minute walk. But the distance from where he was then to where he is now is nothing shy of an eternity.

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