At Oklahoma City Thunder media day in September, Carmelo Anthony laughed at the idea. It was as if the reporter had asked him how he felt about wearing a suit jacket over his signature hoodie instead of his new uniform and shouting, "I'm Mr. Fancypants!" every time he made a shot this season.
"Who, me?" Anthony said, interrupting the reporter. Then he cracked up, making it clear he did not think he needed to dignify the question with a serious response.
"I mean, I don't know where that started or where that came from," Anthony said.
Anthony loudly called out to new teammate Paul George: "Hey, P, they said I gotta ."
Most of the assembled media laughed along with Anthony. Seven months later, though, such a suggestion seems more than reasonable. In fact, after what happened in Game 5 against the Utah Jazz on Wednesday, benching Anthony and limiting his minutes might be the only way for the Thunder to save their season.
For Oklahoma City to force Friday's Game 6, it had to go on a stunning and spectacular 32-7 run in the third quarter. Anthony was barely on the court for any of it -- Jerami Grant replaced him with the Thunder down 71-53, and, when he returned 11 minutes later, they had an 88-87 lead.
It would be unfair to say the turnaround was entirely because Anthony was off the court. There were several other factors:
- Rudy Gobert, perhaps the planet's best defensive player, went to the bench because of foul trouble.
- Russell Westbrook, one of the league's streakiest shooters, found his rhythm and scored 33 points in his final 20 minutes of playing time.
- George made a bunch of big plays, including a dagger 3-pointer.
- The Thunder switched more often and played their best defense of the series, disrupting Utah's flow.
- Alex Abrines replaced Corey Brewer on the wing, which helped Oklahoma City's spacing.
Thunder coach Billy Donovan's game plan cannot be simply to hope Gobert gets in foul trouble again and the Jazz's top-notch defense falls apart. If there is anything to take from their comeback, it is that they have to use the lineup that succeeded.
With Grant on the floor in place of Anthony, Oklahoma City is much more athletic and versatile. The 24-year-old is still in Steven Adams protect the rim and stay in front of guards on the perimeter. By replacing Brewer with Abrines, the Thunder can maintain some spacing. This is not a perfect lineup -- this Thunder roster could really use some reliable 3-and-D guys -- but it makes sense: Westbrook and George are responsible for the playmaking, and the rest of the guys fit in around them like role players are supposed to., but he is active, long and quick, the type of player who can help
Over the course of the season, Anthony has been willing to sacrifice touches, shots and his beloved jab steps. That is admirable. The problem is that, if he is not doing what he did for the majority of his career -- shouldering an enormous amount of offensive responsibility, attacking his defender one-on-one until the opponent has to double-team him -- then he is not particularly useful, particularly in OKC's mind-numbingly stagnant offensive system. Anthony has not shot well enough to be an effective stretch 4, and his defense has been terrible. He has been reduced to a role player who does not do role-player work.
Let's say that Donovan decides to keep Anthony in the starting lineup but continue the switching strategy. This is what that looks like:
Thunder fans are familiar with this, having seen teams aggressively seek out Anthony in pick-and-roll situations all season long. Anthony simply should never asked to contain quick guards like Donovan Mitchell under any circumstance.
There are only two reasonable arguments for keeping Anthony in the starting lineup and playing him major minutes. You are either hoping that he will catch fire at the right time or you are worried about the politics of benching a 10-time All-Star. The former seems unlikely given that he has basically been a more shot-happy Jeff Green lately, and the latter should not matter when the season is on the line.
During Oklahoma City's magical third quarter, Anthony was seen arguing with assistant coach Mo Cheeks because he wanted to get back on the court. This is to be expected, but Donovan made the right call by sticking with the group that was working. Heading into Game 6, will Donovan be brave and bold enough to act on what has become painfully obvious? Anthony never fit with the Thunder like they hoped he would, and the only way forward is for everyone involved to be humble enough to accept that. Bowing out in the first round in order for him to save face would be no laughing matter.