Picture Carmelo Anthony on the wing, sizing up his defender. He is isolating, the way he has done thousands of times before. There's the familiar jab step. The hard dribble to the left. He steps back and rises for his high-release jumper. Swish.
Earlier in Anthony's career, this one-on-one situation was one of the most precarious positions a defender could imagine. He had every trick in the book in terms of getting his shot off, and he was dangerous whether he was shooting from deep, pulling up from mid-range or attacking the basket. Double-teams swarmed with regularity. Sharpshooters like Voshon Lenard, J.R. Smith and Steve Novak benefited from all the extra attention, getting wide-open looks when Anthony would get rid of the ball. This was the basis for elite offenses in Denver and New York.
At 33, after 14 years as a professional, Anthony is no longer quite as fearsome. He still has his moments, sure, but his last few years with the Knicks showed that the crafty scorer should no longer be asked to carry a team. Now that he is with the Oklahoma City Thunder, he won't be. If everything goes right, he'll carve out a role that is closer to what he has done in international competition time and time again, finally bringing the glorious Olympic Melo to the NBA.
With Team USA, those isolations were quicker and rarer. Anthony scored many of his points as a result of other people's playmaking. He played power forward and became a matchup nightmare, hitting 3s in transition and attacking close-outs aggressively. There was too much talent around him for opponents to send help, and his teammates were happy to see him take advantage. This is why he was so attractive for the Houston Rockets, potentially playing in coach Mike D'Antoni's system, and it is the same reason the Thunder should be excited about acquiring him.
In Oklahoma City, there is absolutely no way that he can lead the team in usage. As long as he's not playing too many minutes without both Russell Westbrook and Paul George, Anthony will likely be third in that category. Westbrook and George are established superstars, not up-and-comers, and Anthony should have no problem deferring to them as the primary creators. He should also be OK with playing power forward most of the time, or at least buying into a system where he and George are interchangeable at the forward spots, with both of them switching screens and crashing the glass.
It took Anthony a long time to add the Thunder to his list of acceptable destinations, but let's be clear about this: They are giving Anthony a golden opportunity. Next to Westbrook and George, he can rejuvenate his career and alter his reputation. More than perhaps any other perennial All-Star of his generation, Anthony has been polarizing, even in his prime, because of his inconsistent defense and ball-dominant style. He needed a team that had proven playmakers, and they needed more firepower after Westbrook's historic but taxing season. Together, they can realistically think about playing games that matter in the playoffs and perhaps even reaching the conference finals.
The potential pitfalls are obvious: With the exception of international competition and that magical 2012-13 season in New York, Anthony has been used to playing one way. He is scorer at heart, and his efficiency has declined in recent years. While one might argue that a lot of that had to do with the way the Knicks were constructed, there is a reason that guys like Vince Carter are so rare. It is never easy for franchise players to adjust to smaller offensive responsibilities and figure out how to contribute to winning in other ways. Westbrook, too, could struggle to keep Anthony and George happy after an MVP season in which he did whatever he wanted.
All of this adds up to the biggest challenge of Billy Donovan's coaching life. With little notice before training camp begins, Donovan has to install a system that forces his three stars to share the ball and make each other better. It is his job to find Olympic Melo. Unlike D'Antoni, he is not synonymous with a style of play that will naturally push Anthony into that role.
For Donovan, the good news is that they all wanted this. Westbrook and George played the recruiting game. Anthony waived his no-trade clause. All of them are coming off seasons where they played with flawed teams, and all of them are motivated to win. Anthony, in particular, is coming off four years with four different coaches in an organization defined by drama, dysfunction and disarray. If that was not enough to make him humble, hungry and ready to buy in, nothing will. If there was ever a time to sacrifice, it is now.