The Portland Trail Blazers had themselves a borderline great offseason, albeit without the addition of any huge names, and are positioned to compete for a top four seed in an absolutely stacked Western Conference. Robert Covington gives them the kind of defensive wing they sorely missed last season after the departures of Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless, neither of whom possess Covington's chops.
Derrick Jones Jr. is another long, athletic wing who makes the Blazers a far more versatile defensive team than they were a season ago, when they basically needed Damian Lillard to go scorched earth every night in hopes of outscoring opponents, because they surely weren't going to stop anyone.
Jusuf Nurkic is back and fully healthy after looking like a beast in the bubble. Zach Collins returns healthy. Rodney Hood has re-signed. Harry Giles is a wild card. All of this impacts the standing of Carmelo Anthony, who returns to Portland on a one-year, $2.6 million deal and, likely, in a bench role.
Anthony has resisted coming off the bench in the past. He laughed when a reporter suggested it as a possibility while he was in Oklahoma City. Until 2018 when he landed in Houston, where he lasted just 10 games, starting two, Anthony hadn't come off the bench even one time over the first 15 years of his career: 1,131 games played, 1,131 games started.
You can understand this idea of coming off the bench now, after a solid season, being a rough reality check for a player like Anthony, who has been a superstar his entire life and will forever, at the very least, be a starter at heart.
Anthony has been cast as selfish and hardheaded and, frankly, misguided when it comes to the level of meaningful basketball that remains in his tank. He hasn't always come across as particularly mature or humble. Which is why, to me, it was such an impressive thing to hear him speak so honestly -- not selfishly, honestly -- about the mental challenge of coming off the bench and the "pill" that reality is to swallow.
"I had to swallow that pill," Anthony told reporters last week. "I had to really be honest and then transparently with the team and with the organization. And also with Dame and CJ [McCollum], you know that we had multiple conversations, leading up to me coming back here. Those conversations were very honest on both sides.
"And it was just something that, I was very comfortable and familiar with this situation. So I would rather do that [come off the bench] here and knowing that you know this team and the players still respect me at a different level, and the coaches and the organization.
"They let me know I still would be a major part of what happens with his team, you know, the direction or just the plan for this team," he said. "This is what works for this team. I definitely don't question that, it's just what's the best situation is for the team, and to make it work for all parties.
"... It's a comfort level," Anthony added. "It's me coming to the table and saying OK, like, 'Talk to me about what that role would be. If you don't want me to play with the first five, that doesn't mean that I'm not a 'starter' right? It's just that we need to balance. I mean we need that balance.
"You can't bring CJ and Dame off the bench. So you say, I'll do it. I'll make it happen. But honestly I had to really sit down with myself and like, think about that, because you know I've tried it in Houston and only did it for seven or eight games, but this is new for me.
"If I sit here and say that it wasn't hard… with your pride and your ego, yes especially coming for somebody like myself. But I had to take a deep breath and we'll figure it out, we'll make it work.
"I had to know from the guys I was going to war with," he said. "You know these guys are my teammates, the guys that I'm actually going to be in the bunker with every night, night in and night out. So as long as we are on the same page and as long as the production is being put out there every night, then we're gonna make it work."
There's a lot to unpack here, but I want to start with what is, to me, the operative line in this whole examination, which is that Anthony finds the idea of coming off the bench in Portland, particularly, more palatable because he knows, with a successful season under his belt, "the players still respect me at a different level."
Players talk about winning being their only goal because it's the right thing to say, and we as fans like the way it sounds, but the truth, in any profession, is that people want to be respected by their peers. For athletes, it's everything. Anthony will always be respected for what he's done in the past; players revere him. But he wants to be respected right now.
It's not to say players who come off the bench aren't respected, but save for Manu Ginobili and Andre Iguodala-like exceptions -- Hall-of-Fame guys for which coming off the bench becomes an actual identity -- there's an implicit understanding in the game of basketball, at any level, that the guys coming off the bench aren't as good as the guys who get their names announced before the game.
To start is to have the automatic respect of your peers, your teammates, your coaches, the fans, everyone. Nobody has to say it, as they do with celebrated reserves. That's the reason we have a Sixth Man of the Year but not a "Starter of the Year" award, because starters don't need special recognition. The "starter" distinction speaks for itself.
And it doesn't just confirm your hierarchal standing to others, by the way. It says it to the player himself. He who starts feels good about himself. He feels confident. A guy who is relegated to the bench, in some cases, might be forced to wrestle with insecurities that starting and starring have long rendered moot.
For a guy like Anthony, who has been painted as a washed-up gunner who literally wasn't worth a roster spot anymore, you can understand those insecurities, or irritations, flaring back up at the prospect of once again being marginalized.
He knows that's not happening with the Blazers, which is why he's able to accept this role when it may have been beyond his capacity in the past. The way Portland embraced him and has spoken of him at every turn, the way he re-proved himself on the court last season (he posted over 15 points and six boards a game on 38.5 percent 3-point shooting in the regular season, and that 3-point accuracy shot to 45 percent in the bubble), has provided him license to let go of his ego.
That's not easy to do. There's a reason you don't see many players who've reached the heights Anthony has reached moving to the bench, even at the end of their career when their skills have clearly deteriorated. Guys like Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and even Kobe Bryant -- who, like Melo, was basically an (often inefficient) bucket-getter and nothing else by the end of his career -- finished their careers with something of a lifetime-achievement starting spot.
Dwyane Wade gave up his starter status in Miami when he still had plenty of game left. Paul Pierce came off the bench for the Clippers. Ray Allen did it for the Heat and Vince Carter did it for multiple teams (though neither of those guys was ever quite at the level of prime Melo). But there aren't many examples.
The "starting five" is a sacred distinction in basketball. It matters to people in junior high. It matters in high school and college. And, yes, it matters in the pros. To acknowledge that is not selfish or immature. It's honest. And I think Anthony deserves credit for that.