Carmelo Anthony's 27-point explosion in the Portland Trail Blazers' Game 5 loss against the Los Angeles Lakers was a nice encapsulation of the latter portion of his career. With Damian Lillard out and the Lakers easing off the throttle in what should have been a walkover, Anthony thrived as one of the centerpieces of the Blazers offense. He kept Portland afloat by shooting 9 of 16 from the field. That would have been nice during the competitive portion of the series.
In Portland's first four games against the heavily-favored Lakers, Anthony shot 36.5 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from behind the arc in a lesser role. Those offensive woes, largely the result of playing against perhaps the best defense of the postseason so far, make Anthony virtually unplayable in high-stakes games. Portland was outscored by 67 points with Anthony on the floor in the series, but outscored the Lakers by 14 with him on the bench. This doesn't exactly look like playoff-caliber defense:
It's the great divide between the true-hooper Anthony acolytes and the analytically-inclined doubters who largely predicted many of the issues Portland encountered against the Lakers. Anthony can still score. From time to time, he can do so efficiently, and there are occasions in which that can help a team win games. But when flaws are magnified in the playoff crucible, he has to do so at an unrealistic rate to justify the sort of minutes that would satisfy a player as proud as Carmelo. Anthony can help teams win, but his ability to help winning teams is another matter.
That difference is why Anthony was available to Portland in the first place, and it was a compromise the Blazers were willing to make in November, after Rodney Hood and Zach Collins suffered serious injuries. Players who can contribute to winning at any level are hard to come by on the in-season free-agent market, beggars can't exactly be choosers. So the Blazers nabbed the best available option, and he played a part in helping them beat out the mediocre field for a No. 8 seed the Blazers never expected to need to fight for.
They were, after all, a Western Conference finalist a season ago, and while there were already structural flaws on a team that let its only two passable wing defenders leave in free agency, Portland was a team designed with the intent of high-level winning. Teams that fancy themselves contenders rarely tolerate the sort of flaws that Anthony has spent a career battling. Presumably, the 2020-21 Blazers plan to compete for something better than a No. 8 seed.
Whether or not they're able to do so in what might be the deepest Western Conference of all time remains to be seen, but the Blazers have decisions to make in constructing their roster. Trevor Ariza, somehow their best defender for bigger wings like LeBron James at the age of 35, is under contract for $12.8 million next season, but can be waived for the low price of $1.8 million. Hood has a $6 million player option he will almost certainly exercise coming off a ruptured Achilles tendon. His ability to contribute is unclear, but Portland will have to plan ahead.
While money will be tight league-wide due to revenue lost to the coronavirus pandemic, Portland will have a mid-level exception of some sort to deploy in free agency as well as the No. 16 overall pick in the NBA Draft. Improving their 27th-ranked defense will likely be the goal with those tools, but the backcourt is set with Lillard and CJ McCollum entrenched and Gary Trent Jr. and Anfernee Simons showing promise. If Portland spends on a center to play behind Jusuf Nurkic, it will likely be Hassan Whiteside through Bird Rights. Anthony's small forward slot is the likeliest to be upgraded.
Jae Crowder doesn't sell jerseys, and a Maurice Harkless reunion would enthuse few, but Portland's best immediate hope of fixing its defense lies in adding wing depth. A healthy Collins deprives Anthony of starter minutes at power forward -- though the position suits him if Portland would prefer to give a veteran those minutes over, say, Wenyen Gabriel. But would he accept a role in the 10-15 minute-per-night range after getting closer to 30 this season, and for the majority of his career? Especially if there are other interested parties?
The matter of his own price tag comes into play here as well. Minimum-salary players rarely offer 27-point upside. Anthony will have suitors, particularly in a COVID-19-influenced market that will place at least a minor emphasis on players who can help generate auxiliary revenue. Portland signed Anthony for the minimum. It can offer him only a 120 percent raise before dipping into its cap exceptions. How great an opportunity cost are the Blazers willing to pay for a player they just watched struggle in the playoffs? Is he worth the MLE when better-fitting players are available?
The answer is probably no for a team with grander ambitions than a first-round exit, which puts the Blazers and Anthony in the awkward position of confronting the reality of their situation. The factors that paired the two sides in November no longer seem to apply. Anthony wants to return to Portland, but presumably, in the role he just occupied, and the Blazers would likely take Anthony back, but with no guaranteed role in light of their theoretically improved station a year from now. Portland's situation is changing. Carmelo never has.
He's still the sort of player who can get you 27 points in a pinch. He just can't do so in a way that justifies the 37 he's liable to give up on the other end. When his deficiencies are amplified by the kinds of teams that can consistently exploit them, the very same teams Portland probably wants to beat next season, it hardly matters what he does on offense. Portland lost with him scoring 27 in Game 5 and lost with him scoring two in Game 2. And if the Blazers want to win at the higher level they planned to before this season, they're going to have to ask themselves how valuable those points will be in light of what they cost everywhere else next season.