Carmelo Anthony once bristled at the mere concept of coming off the bench. He has done so precisely eight times in his NBA career, all during his failed stint with the Houston Rockets. He conveyed a willingness to serve as a reserve under the right circumstances in a 2019 interview, but blamed the Rockets for failing to communicate those expectations.
"I wasn't willing to accept that role of coming off the bench in Houston because that never was relayed to me," Melo said on ESPN's "First Take." "It was 'you are the piece that we need to get us over the hump and win a championship.' I went in with that mentality. 'We need Melo to come in here and get us over this.' I watched the previous year. I saw where I can plug myself in there, and I really believed that we were gonna do that. But when I get there, it was something totally different. The dialogue started getting less and less. There was no more conversation. It was just doing it, and then I got to react to the things that are being done."
Hardly a ringing endorsement of his bench role. The Portland Trail Blazers never even bothered asking him to replicate it. Anthony played 63 total games as a Blazer last season, and he started in each one. He averaged 32 minutes per night and took the third-most shots on the team. The Blazers may have signed him for the minimum, but they treated him like a full-fledged starter.
Circumstances dictated that. Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic were both out with long-term injuries. Rodney Hood joined them soon after Anthony's signing. Gary Trent Jr.'s breakout was still months away. So thin were the Blazers in the frontcourt that Mario Hezonja, Caleb Swanigan and Skal Labissiere all started games for them last season. All three could be out of the NBA next season. The Blazers didn't start Anthony out of deference to his resume. They did so out of necessity. If he wasn't going to play 32 minutes at forward for them, who would?
Portland now has half a dozen answers to that question, none of whom need to be Anthony. Collins is recovering from ankle surgery, and while he may not be back in time for opening night, he won't miss much more time than that. Hood is back as well on a hefty short-term contract. Trent, one of the bubble's standouts and Portland's best young player, is due a substantial role, and 2019 first-round pick Nassir Little will push for any role whatsoever. Those are just the players they're bringing back.
The more impressive portion of Portland's offseason revolves around the two forwards added over the past week. The Blazers gave up two first-round picks to swipe Robert Covington away from Houston. They spent their non-taxpayer mid-level exception importing Heat reserve Derrick Jones Jr. Their merits as players aside, Portland's expenditure suggests its recognition of the need at forward. The Blazers made substantial investments in both. They've made investments in every other forward on the roster, spending draft picks on Trent and Little, trading two first-round picks to get Collins and giving Hood over $10 million. Anthony, for the second consecutive season, is reportedly signing for the minimum.
He wouldn't have done so without assurance about his role, but pure math seemingly caps his playing time. The Blazers have at least seven forwards to satisfy, all of whom cost more to acquire and mean more to Portland's future than Carmelo. There isn't a comfortable way to shuffle players into new positions, either. Yes, Trent will play some guard, but Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum occupy most of Portland's backcourt minutes, and Anfernee Simons is going to play as well. Jones could theoretically fit at center, but Portland's reacquisition of Enes Kanter fills the non-Nurkic minutes. Wenyen Gabriel hasn't even been mentioned yet, and his defensive upside is going to get him on the court eventually as well. In 53 first-round minutes, Portland played the Lakers to a draw with Gabriel on the court. Hood's contract was practically designed to be traded, thanks to its non-guaranteed second season, but the Blazers tend to prioritize taking care of their own. If he's productive coming off a torn Achilles tendon, the Blazers aren't going to push him out the door for less than a meaningful return. This logjam is real.
The condensed schedule may offer momentary reprieves in the form of load-management. That alone would be enough to put depth at a premium, but the added risk of COVID-19 ravaging a roster for weeks at a time amplifies its importance. Having too many players is a first-world problem.
But it's one that Anthony's personal history suggests could become problematic, especially in light of Portland's needs. The Blazers craved basic competence a year ago. They were so riddled with injuries that the mere idea of a functioning NBA player, even a redundant one, was enough to warrant starter minutes. If healthy, the current Blazers get to be a bit pickier, and that doesn't bode well for Carmelo on a roster that doesn't particularly need him.
The Blazers had the NBA's third-ranked offense last season even in spite of the injuries. They nearly missed the playoffs due to their No. 27-ranked defense. Remove Anthony from the former and the drop-off is minimal. Portland scored only 1.8 fewer points per 100 possessions when Carmelo went to the bench last season. Any unit featuring Lillard, McCollum, Nurkic and shooting is going to score points. Extra shot creation is nice, but ultimately redundant if it comes at the expense of more pressing weaknesses.
In Anthony's case, it does. Even ignoring his own defensive flaws, Covington is a former First-Team All-Defense selection. Jones has never played enough to warrant consideration, but on a per-minute basis, he's flashed similar upside. Hood was once a worthwhile defender. Trent still is. If fixing the defense is Portland's priority, limiting Carmelo's playing time in favor of the better defenders in-house is probably the right place to start. Anthony's mobility has declined to the point that even more consistent couldn't turn him into a passable defender. This is true of most 36-year-olds. It's especially true of ones who hardly defended at 26.
These are political decisions. The Blazers surely promised Carmelo something to get him to return on a minimum-salary deal. He's so revered by his fellow players that many of them openly lobbied to get him back into the league after his prolonged post-Houston absence. Benching him would create locker room drama.
But eventually, a Blazers team with championship ambitions is going to have to reckon with the fact that dedicating starter minutes to a one-dimensional 36-year-old probably isn't a great short-term decision and absolutely isn't a wise long-term decision. The best version of their team is one in which Covington is bombing 3-pointers and Jones is running pick-and-roll with Lillard. It is one in which Trent's development is prioritized and Little's gets an honest chance. The Blazers wouldn't have invested so much in the forward positions if they didn't internally view it as a need.
Carmelo Anthony was a necessity last season. He's a luxury right now, and when push comes to shove, the Blazers are going to treat him like one. Anthony's response to that will embody the great debate of his entire career. He has never proven comfortable sacrificing minutes and shots for the team, but in that same 2019 interview, Anthony expressed another priority. "The ultimate goal is to win a championship," he told Stephen A. Smith. "The only thing left for me to do is win a championship."
If that's really the goal, now is the time for him to prove it. Accepting and embracing a more limited role is the best thing he can do for a Blazers team within striking distance of the Western Conference elite. A championship may be the preferred destination, but whether or not he wins it, that sort of sacrifice is truly the only thing left for him to do in the NBA.