Rick Carlisle donned his navy blue Mavericks hooded sweatshirt. He both looked and sounded quite casual sitting next to Mark Cuban, whose demeanor was somewhere between proud and giddy.
“Obvioulsy, having him here is a huge step forward for us,” Cuban said about what it meant for his franchise to land Rajon Rondo. “He’s a winner and he’s a competitor.”
Rondo is a few other things too: another superstar in Dallas and a beaming light that illuminates championship hopes.
And now, he is, best of all, a Maverick.
Clearly a bit unnerved, Rondo was reserved and stoic. After nine mostly successful years as a member of the Boston Celtics, he slowly saw his surroundings change as the foundation he came to know crumbled.
Over the years, he saw James Posey, Ray Allen and Doc Rivers flee and Kendrick Perkins, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce traded away. Over those nine years, he went from being the new kid on the block to the last of the mohicans.
And as the days wore on and the Celtics embraced rebuilding, general manager Danny Ainge found himself in the peculiar position of trying to best determine what to do with a late 20-something-year-old franchise-caliber player who had no interest in losing.
As the years wore on, Rondo and the Celtics knew they were headed for an inevitable divorce.
Now, finally, Rondo was 1,800 miles away from where it all began.
Sitting beside Carlisle and Cuban, he paid respect to the Celtics, but he tipped his hand when asked what excited him about his new life in Dallas.
He mentioned “being able to play with future Hall-of-Famers” and being a part of “a team that’s ready to contend for a title.”
Meanwhile, in Boston, Ainge had to field some tough questions about what led to the trade of the talented Rondo and he spoke honestly of the “uncertainty” that the Celtics faced with Rondo’s impending free agency. Ainge was afraid of losing his superstar for nothing in return and simply could not take the risk that the Los Angeles Lakers took with Dwight Howard or the one that the New York Knicks did with Carmelo Anthony.
But in the end, for the Celtics, it was for the best.
It is often said that the worst place to be as a general manager in the National Basketball Association is right in the middle. A team that is not bad enough to get a top three pick in the draft and not good enough to seriously challenge once the playoffs roll around is up the creek without a paddle.
At least, that is what is often said.
This season, though, with the freshly re-signed Anthony and the New York Knicks sputtering out to their worst 25-game start in franchise history, one could easily make a new argument.
The worst place to be in the NBA is at the helm of a rebuilding team whose only asset is an aging player on a maximum salary and that is especially true in the post-2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement era of NBA economics.
Rebuilding teams require cap flexibility, not cap-clogging contracts.
Rebuilding teams require a slew of draft picks.
Rebuilding teams require patience on the part of their player-personnel.
And, among other things, rebuilding teams require youth.
Instead, a team that re-signs its late 20-something year old franchise player to a maximum contract will have already limited its ability to build an adequate supporting cast around him. In today’s NBA, it takes no less than three All-Star caliber performers to seriously contend for a championship, even if you are an Eastern Conference team.
Quite simply, it’s difficult to assemble that type of roster when you are beginning with a player who is collecting upwards of 30 percent of your cap.
Draft picks are the top currency in the NBA. They are lottery tickets with a potential jackpot of incalculable proportions. They are the lifeblood of a franchise and provide hope for the future.
Invariably, a team with a late 20-something superstar will need to find creative ways to field a competitive roster and build around said superstar. By virtue of him being in his late 20s, said superstar will not have patience; he wants to win now. He won’t be concerned with five years from now, he will be concerned with five months from now. It’s because the hourglass is running out on a late 20-something year-old superstar.
What Ainge realized in Boston was that by their very nature, a player like Rondo and his interests were diametrically opposed to the long-term best interests of the franchise.
Ainge made the tough decision, and perhaps the correct one. In the end, he made the decision that the New York Knicks refused to make with the polarizing Anthony.
For all that he is and brings to the table, Anthony has not proven himself to be a player capable of elevating his teammates and franchise. He will turn 31 years old before the season ends, but is in the first year of a five-year contract that will pay him $124 million.
At the age of 34, Anthony will be finishing up the fourth year of that contract in which he will earn $26.2 million. He will have a fifth year option at $27.9 million. Some people feel that he is not worth that type of investment, others simply feel that those numbers will make building around him difficult.
In the interim, the Knicks find themselves in the precarious position of having made a long-term commitment to their superstar and having to navigate the murky terrain of rebuilding while quickly becoming competitive enough to give Anthony a puncher’s chance of achieving highly in the playoffs.
In a way, they find themselves in the opposite situation as the Celtics.
And now, they find themselves in the situation of attempting to reinvent the wheel in building a contender in New York City.
When one looks back closely at the gross majority of NBA Champions over the course of the past twenty years, there are some fairly consistent traits.
The exhaustive list dating back to 1994, in reverse order: San Antonio Spurs (2014, 2007, 2005, 2003, 1999), Miami HEAT (2013, 2012, 2006), Dallas Mavericks (2011), Los Angeles Lakers (2010, 2009, 2002, 2001, 2000), Boston Celtics (2008), Detroit Pistons (2004), Chicago Bulls (1998, 1997, 1996) and Houston Rockets (1995, 1994).
Deep thought around and about each of those teams will yield a few similarities. Each of the aforementioned teams either drafted very well or attained a young player in whom the team presumably saw potential before the player was renowned as a stud. Either situation requires having an astute scouting department, so call that your first necessary trait.
The 2011 Mavericks obviously drafted Dirk Nowitzki, but Jason Terry was not considered a championship player when he was acquired, J.J. Barea was signed as an undrated rookie and Ian Mahinmi had only played 32 professional games before being signed by the Mavericks on a minimum-salaried contract.
For the 2008 Celtics, yes, Paul Pierce was their draftee, and yes, he did have Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett flanking him, but Rajon Rondo, Kendrick Perkins, Leon Powe and Glen Davis—all important contributors for that title run—were all drafted by the club.
Champions in 2004, the Pistons remain the gold standard for a team that believes it can trade its way to a championship. Joe Dumars added quite a few pieces to that 2004 team via trade which makes it somewhat easy to overlook the fact that Tayshaun Prince, Mehmet Okur and Lindsey Hunter were drafted by the franchise.
The other champions are so obviously a result of good drafting nothing more needs to be said of this trait.
The second and often overlooked trait of a champion is prudent cap management.
Inevitably, in the NBA, winning costs money. In a free market economy, the gross majority of NBA players play for the team that is willing to pay them the most. The better the player is, the more lucrative the offers he receives, again, the gross majority of time.
Championship teams rarely overpay for marginal production, or if they do, the player who is being overpaid must be canceled out by at least one other player who is underpaid for his production.
Ever notice how it seems like almost every time a team wins a championship, it loses one or two key contributors to free agency immediately after the team hoists the Larry O’Brien trophy? That is usually a result of this very concept. The player leaving the championship team usually does so in pursuit of a higher payday than his incumbent team was either willing or able to offer him. In effect, that proves that the salary he earned before leaving his team was less than what his production warranted.
Two great examples, again, using the 2011 Mavericks and 2008 Celtics are Barea and Posey, respectively.
Barea earned just $1.8 million from the Mavericks, but played 18.6 minutes per game for the club during their title run and had per-36 minute averages of 17.3 points, 6.6 assists and 3.6 rebounds. The ensuing offseason, Barea signed a four-year contract with the Minnesota Timberwolves that paid him $4.3 million in the first year—a raise of 139 percent.
Posey was a integral part of the Celtics’ 2008 championship run. He, along with Tony Allen, were the team’s most proficient perimeter defenders, but he, unlike Allen, was a highly efficient three-point shooter. Posey hit about 40 percent of his shots from behind the arc and gave the Celtics 10.9 points, 5.8 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.6 steals per-36 minutes. He was paid $3.2 million by the team, but left after receiving a four-year deal from the New Orleans Hornets that paid him $5.8 million in the first year—a raise of 74 percent.
In each case, Barea and Posey received substantial raises, helping to make the argument that the Mavericks and Celtics were able to exploit their production for less than their fair market value. Of course, an argument can be made that their market value was increased because they won championships, but a ring without production could not explain such a substantial increase in pay.
So, what does this have to do with Anthony and Rondo?
It’s simple: By trading Rondo (as well as Garnett and Pierce), the Celtics have embraced these concepts fully. They are attempting to rebuild the franchise into a contender by way of patience and draft picks. Without building around an aging star, the team can patiently embark on their all-out rebuild. They will have ample opportunities over the next few years to draft their next cornerstone and once they do, they will scour the market to find like-aged running mates for him.
In the interim, they will not chain themselves to long-money contracts tied to marginal or one-dimensional players and they certainly will not overpay for the services of any player.
By trading Rondo, the Celtics opted to to take the road that the Knicks bypassed.
With Anthony on board, the Knicks do not have the luxury of patience. In a haste, the franchise recently surrendered a 2016 first round pick and second round picks in 2014 and 2017 for Andrea Bargnani—a player who has not made a difference for them and has missed more games (70 and counting) than he has played (42).
Moving forward, so long as Anthony is the core player that the Knicks are attempting to build around, the conflict of the franchise’s long-term future and enabling Anthony to win right now will continue to rear its ugly head.
If the Knicks secure a top-five draft pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, would Anthony embrace the idea of playing alongside a youngster and waiting for him to develop into a championship caliber player? Or would he—like his friend Kobe Bryant did once upon a time with Andrew Bynum—advocate trading him away for someone who could help in the immediate term?
In terms of finding talent that overproduces based on their salary, the Knicks could certainly get lucky. But the truth of the matter is that a team attempting to build itself primarily through free agency will often find itself in the precarious position of needing to overpay. That is where the Knicks are; that is what the Celtics avoided.
For the Knicks, are Jimmy Butler and Greg Monroe worth maximum contracts?
Was Amar’e Stoudemire worth a maximum contract?
Has the newly signed Jason Smith made any difference?
Those are the types of questions and decisions that need to be pondered and acted upon for a team attempting to rebuild around an aging superstar. Wanting to win for him, in the short term, yields a haste that is unbecoming of the patience and level-headedness required of a champion.
The Knicks need to win right now, but do not have the means to do so. It is a problem that the Celtics no longer have after trading Rondo.
As division mates, the two teams faced similar situations and came to the same diverging road.
Rondo sat in Dallas. Alongside Carlisle and Cuban, he hopes to continue on toward his dream of another championship.
Meanwhile, back East, the Celtics and Knicks—one franchise with its aging superstar and one without—were taking different routes in pursuit of the same goal.
From here, it will be interesting to see who reaches the destination first.
NBA Daily: Five Second-Rounders Looking For Rookie Season Role
Although far from guaranteed, there are five recent second-rounders who could work themselves into important roles in 2018-19.
After months of speculation, rumors and workouts, the NBA Draft and their respective summer leagues are finally well in the rearview mirror. With training camps up next, franchises can begin to flesh out their rotations and decide the early season fates of their newly-arrived rookies — even if their selection didn’t come with as much fanfare or hype.
And although draft day studs like Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley III are nearly guaranteed to contribute immediately, much of the class’ future is still up for grabs — a statement particularly true for those that followed the first round. Whether it was a strong summer league showing or a picture-perfect landing spot, here are the five second round draftees poised to leave a mark in 2018-19.
Kostas Antetokounmpo, Dallas Mavericks
2017-18: 5.2 points, 2.9 rebounds on 57.4 percent shooting
Much as been made of the youngest Antetokounmpo’s controversial decision to come out this spring, but his faith was rewarded by Dallas with the draft’s final selection. Back in June, our Spencer Davies dove into Antetokounmpo’s time at Dayton and it’s not difficult to see why the Mavericks took a swing on the raw 6-foot-11 prospect. Over four games in Las Vegas, Antetokounmpo averaged five points, 2.5 rebounds, 1.3 steals and 1.3 blocks per game on 58 percent from the floor — which, of course, is not eye-popping but could foreshadow a role moving forward.
Between Dirk Nowitzki, Dennis Smith Jr., Harrison Barnes, DeAndre Jordan and the ever-talented Luka Dončić, Antetokounmpo will not be called upon to carry the scoring load at any point. On a two-way deal, the Mavericks have the luxury to develop the Greek-born stopper in the G-League until he’s ready to make a difference — but for a defensive-minded Rick Carlisle, that day could come sooner rather than later. With Dwight Powell and Ray Spalding fighting for minutes at power forward, Antetokounmpo could be an option at the three, where Barnes has just Dorian Finney-Smith behind him.
For a franchise that ranked 18th in DEF RTG (107.4) last season and will strive for their first postseason berth since 2016, giving spot defensive specialist minutes to Antetokounmpo seems like a win-win partnership.
De’Anthony Melton, Houston Rockets
2016-17: 8.3 points, 4.7 rebounds, 1.9 steals on 43.7 percent shooting
After missing an entire season due to an improper benefits scandal at USC, Melton serendipitously fell to the Rockets way down at No. 46 overall. At 6-foot-3, Melton has a shot to contribute on both ends immediately as an above-average defender and a microwavable scorer. During his Las Vegas debut, Melton tallied 16.4 points, 7.2 rebounds, four assists and a summer league-leading three steals across five contests — albeit at an improvable 38 percent from the floor. As a tenacious playmaker, Melton should get ample opportunity to impress with a franchise looking to avenge their brutal Western Conference Finals defeat last spring.
On top of learning from one of the best point guards in league history, there also happens to be little competition for Melton in the rotation. In July, the Rockets signed Michael Carter-Williams, a former Rookie of the Year winner that averaged just 4.6 points, 2.7 rebounds, 2.2 assists in 52 games for Charlotte in 2017-18 — and, well, that’s it. For a three-point bombing franchise like Houston, neither guard fits particularly well in that regard, but Melton’s 28.4 percent clip in one season as an 18-year-old still projects better than Carter-Williams’ 25 percent mark over five years.
Chris Paul missed 24 regular season games last year, but the Rockets are still willing to head into training camp with a second-round rookie and Carter-Williams holding down the backup point guard slot — that alone says far more about Houston’s faith in Melton than anything else.
Élie Okobo, Phoenix Suns
2017-18: 12.9 points, 4.8 assists on 39.4 percent from three
Outside of Džanan Musa and the aforementioned Dončić, the Phoenix Suns’ Élie Okobo entered draft night as the most promising overseas prospect in the bunch. Okobo, a 6-foot-2 Frenchman, could feasibly become the Suns’ franchise point guard by season’s end. The playmaking 20-year-old has just Brandon Knight ahead of him on the depth chart, a formidable NBA point guard, but one that does not fit Phoenix’s current rebuilding plan. Admittedly, his statistics won’t jump off the page just yet — 2.3 points, 3.5 assists in four summer league contests — but the potential for Okobo is certainly here.
While it’s worth noting that Okobo didn’t score in three straight contests after his impressive debut, he appears to be a suitable backcourt partner with franchise cornerstone Devin Booker. Whether he’s connecting with a backdoor cut in stride or hitting difficult running floaters, there are plenty of positives to take thus far. With a postseason appearance looking unlikely for the Suns, it’ll make sense to give Okobo the reins before long — even if they can’t move Knight’s contract worth $15.6 million in 2019-20.
Mitchell Robinson, New York Knicks
Needless to say, Mitchell Robinson could be an absolute treat for the New York Knicks.
For much of the pre-draft process, it looked like Robinson was a shoo-in first rounder, with many speculating that he even received a promise from the Los Angeles Lakers at No. 25 overall. Once the first 30 picks came and went without Robinson — who elected to pull out of the draft combine in May — the Knicks were more than happy to scoop him up. Across five summer league contests, Robinson averaged 13 points, 10.2 rebounds and a competition-leading four blocks per game on 67 percent from the field.
On a team-friendly four-year deal worth just $1.8 million in 2021-22, Robinson already looks like a bargain. But beyond his first-round talent at a second-round price, there’s a real chance that Robinson can contribute for New York right away. Following the recent news that Joakim Noah will be stretched if the Knicks can’t find a suitable partner by training camp, that leaves exactly two centers left on the roster: Enes Kanter and Robinson. The 7-foot-1 prospect is a natural replacement for the departed Kyle O’Quinn, while the newly-minted David Fizdale should love Robinson’s shot-changing impact defensively.
Even if Robinson shuttles back-and-forth to and from Westchester throughout the season, he could still seamlessly slide into the Knicks’ rotation from day one.
Jevon Carter, Memphis Grizzlies
2017-18: 17.3 points, 6.6 assists, 3 steals on 39.3 percent from three
Earlier this week, Matt John put forth an excellent case for what should be a comeback season for the Grit-And-Grind Grizzlies — but there’s one second-rounder still currently flying under the radar. Despite a stellar final season at West Virginia, Carter dropped into Memphis’ lap and there are few that so elegantly fit the franchise’s identity without effort. As the reigning back-to-back NABC Defensive Player of the Year, Carter should split the backup point guard minutes with newcomer Shelvin Mack, if not more by season’s end.
The additions of Jaren Jackson Jr., Kyle Anderson and Omri Casspi, along with renewed health from Mike Conley Jr. and Marc Gasol, will have Memphis eying the postseason once again — but Carter will likely be a fan favorite long before then as well. During his lengthy summer league initiation, Carter pulled in 11.4 points, 4.3 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 1.1 steals over seven games. Although his 35 percent clip from the floor could use some restraint, he won’t need to shoulder offensive responsibilities with the Grizzlies.
Carter’s hard-nosed style of play will enhance an uncharacteristically poor Memphis defense from last season, with his years of extra experience allowing the bullish ball-stopper to drop into the rotation from the get-go.
With franchises focused on their high-ranking lottery picks, many second round draftees (and their often non-guaranteed contracts) will never carve out a consistent NBA role. But from backing up future Hall of Famers to filling a hole in the rotation, it should surprise no one if Antetokounmpo, Melton, Okobo, Robinson and Carter earn some big-time opportunities in 2018-19. Last year alone, Semi Ojeleye, Dillon Brooks and Jordan Bell all quickly found their niche at the professional level — so who will it be this year?
NBA Daily: Poeltl Looking Forward To New Beginning With Spurs
Spencer Davies looks at the under-the-radar portion of the DeMar DeRozan-Kawhi Leonard trade and how Jakob Poeltl is already embracing the change.
One month ago, a superstar-swapping trade between the Toronto Raptors and San Antonio Spurs was agreed upon.
The deal—which once again sparked a national debate about player loyalty—sent a reportedly disgruntled Kawhi Leonard to The North in exchange for Masai Ujiri’s franchise cornerstone, DeMar DeRozan.
Longtime Spur and veteran sharpshooter Danny Green was also moved to Toronto, while San Antonio acquired a protected future first-round draft pick and 22-year-old big man Jakob Poeltl.
Remember, Poeltl was an integral piece of a talented Raptor bench that produced a better net rating than their starters, as well as nearly all five-man groups in the league.
While the majority of pundits have gone back and forth about who won the trade, few have mentioned the ninth overall selection in the 2016 NBA Draft. Being involved in the transaction admittedly caught Poeltl “a little bit off guard.”
But entering his third year as a pro, the seven-foot Austrian is embracing the change and a brand new start with one of the most well-respected organizations in sports.
“That’s one of the things I’m most excited about, just the fact that this program has such a big history in developing players,” Poeltl told reporters in his first media appearance since the move. “I’m really excited for the process. Gonna be a lot of work, but I’m looking forward to it.”
From what he has heard from players who have been a part of the Spurs in the past and those who are currently there, it’s an unselfish group of people. They consider it a family environment.
“Everybody is just in it together,” Poeltl said. “From the very top to the very last guy on the bench or in the gym. It’s really like a great atmosphere, at least from what I’ve heard. So I’m looking forward to actually experiencing it myself.”
As soon as Poeltl got to San Antonio, he gazed at the championship banners hanging inside of the gym and quickly realized the expectations he’ll have to fulfill this season are a little higher than where he came from.
“It’s crazy, it’s different,” Poeltl said. “Obviously in Toronto, we didn’t have banners like that. Like we’re on a good way there, but this program here has some tradition to it. Over the last 20 years been a great basketball team. Obviously, you can tell by the championships and all the accomplishments.
“It’s a little bit of pressure, too. Like we’re trying to live up to that. There’s obviously a very high standard here, so we’ve gotta come in and put the work in and really show what we’ve got on the court as a team.”
Poeltl hasn’t wasted any time in immersing himself into the culture. In fact, he’s been working out at their practice facility since he arrived and feels like there’s a “natural chemistry” already with his new teammates.
In the weight room, Poeltl came across the forever face of the Spurs and future Hall-of-Fame forward, Tim Duncan. The conversation between them was short, sweet and casual. Basketball wasn’t brought up, as that will likely be saved for another time when the season approaches.
Duncan still sticks around and helps in practices from time-to-time, but he won’t be there every day. Somebody else who will be, however, is Pau Gasol, a fellow international center that Poeltl looks forward to learning from.
Though those two will be able to give veteran advice and priceless pointers, Poeltl’s most crucial teachings will come from the Spurs lead general—Gregg Popovich. Like with Duncan, on-court discussions were not the focus of their first interaction.
“We went to dinner,” Poeltl said. “We didn’t really talk too much basketball. It was more just like trying to get to know each other, like a first impression. I think there’s more than enough time for us to talk basketball and really learn what the Spurs are all about on the basketball court.
“But it was a really good conversation. Like I really enjoyed it. He’s a very down-to-earth type guy for if you think about what he’s accomplished in his career. He’s really cool.”
Once training camp comes and the dialogue does take a turn towards the hardwood, Poeltl will be all ears. As it stands now, Poeltl’s niche is the hustle guy. He picks up the scraps, corrals offensive rebounds and dives after loose balls, but don’t pigeonhole “role player” to his name. He plans on doing more in San Antonio.
“I take a lot of pride in that,” Poeltl said. “I think I do a lot of the little things out there—set good screens, be in the right places, making good reads off of my teammates and making plays for my teammates at the same time. Obviously like for me, that’s my role right now and I’m really enjoying that.
“I’m working on my game every single day in practice and I’m trying to develop more offensively and defensively so I can take on more responsibilities in the future.”
Moving on from the team that drafted you to another can be difficult. Luckily, Poeltl isn’t coming alone.
“Obviously it helps to have a familiar face like a guy that I’ve played with over the last three years,” Poeltl said of DeRozan. “Like I know how he plays basketball, he knows me. I think we play well together.”
In the two years they have played together, Poeltl has noticed DeRozan fine-tune his game. Although he is first and foremost a pure scorer, his all-around offense is getting better.
DeRozan’s reads on the opposition are crisper, as are the adjustments he makes due to that. He understands when to take games over and has involved his teammates more and more with each season.
It’s no surprise that the four-time All-Star guard is coming to the Spurs with a statement to make. All he’s done since being drafted is improve and devote himself to his second home in Toronto. He hasn’t uttered one favorable comment towards the front office he feels betrayed him.
Witnessing the kind of player DeRozan is when he’s pushed, Poeltl expects we’ll see a whole other side of him unleashed this year.
“It’s a little bit scary, to be honest,” Poeltl said. “Because I know what he can do when he has a chip on his shoulder, when he gets that extra motivation. I think he’s gonna be ready.”
Poeltl doesn’t have quite that big of a score to settle with the Raptors.
He’s just ready to give his all to an organization in a blue-collar town that matches the kind of work ethic he’s had since he started playing the game.
“That’s kinda how I’ve been for my whole basketball career,” Poeltl said. “Just get the work done.”
NBA Daily: Can an Anthony-D’Antoni Marriage Work for Houston?
Shane Rhodes lays out how the Carmelo Anthony-Mike D’Antoni pairing could work this time around in Houston.
It’s official: Carmelo Anthony has joined the Houston Rockets after putting pen to paper on a contract. In doing so, Anthony will join a gifted offensive team helmed by former Coach of the Year Mike D’Antoni.
Stop me if you’ve heard that one before.
Back in 2011, when Anthony joined the New York Knicks via a blockbuster trade with the Denver Nuggets, a younger D’Antoni was in the midst of his third year with New York. While he didn’t exactly have a sterling record with the Knicks prior to the acquisition (89-129 before), things improved little upon Anthony’s arrival in the Big Apple (31-38 after). The two butted heads constantly and, after just a year (and an ultimatum forced on the Knicks by Anthony), D’Antoni was out the door; he resigned from his position and pursued work elsewhere.
Now, together once again, questions remain about how their relationship and, ultimately, their offensive styles will mesh in Houston. D’Antoni has already come out and said things will be different this time around, but nothing is so certain in the NBA; what is stopping things from going south as they did for the Knicks, who, despite a bevy of talent, just couldn’t make things work?
It’s important to understand where things went wrong in New York in order to look at where they could go wrong in Houston.
From the jump, the two weren’t exactly the best fit. Anthony wanted to play the way he had his entire career — heavy isolation, high usage basketball — while D’Antoni’s offense was spread out, predicated on ball movement, and closer to what we see in the modern offense.
Those two styles aren’t exactly conducive to the success of one another.
The Knicks finished the season 42-40, going just 13-14 in Anthony’s 27 games with the team. The two continued to be at odds with one another into the next season until, after leading the Knicks to an underwhelming 18-24 start, D’Antoni resigned. While things improved under Mike Woodson in 2012 — Anthony posted the highest usage rate of his career while the Knicks won 52 games — they quickly devolved into disaster and the Knicks, once again, found themselves in a hole that they are still trying to climb out of.
Now, on to Houston. This isn’t the same D’Antoni; he has changed and so has his offense. While ball movement still plays an integral role, D’Antoni has put much more of an emphasis on isolation plays in order to better fit the profile of his current roster.
The Rockets posted historic offensive numbers with James Harden and Chris Paul running the show, but did so unlike D’Antoni teams of the past. Gone are the days of the seven-seconds-or-less offense; the Rockets played at a pace (97.4 possessions per 48 minutes) that was middle of the pack, while their assist total came in at just 26th in the league, third worst among teams that made the postseason last year. Despite that, Houston managed to post the highest offensive rating (114.7) in the league.
While those stylistic changes should aid Anthony as he looks to rebound next season, they alone don’t make this the perfect fit for the Rockets. Anthony will never see the touches that he was once accustomed to in New York or Denver. He isn’t the same player he was five years ago, either; as his athleticism has declined, so too has Anthony’s ability to get past his defenders, leading to tougher, lower percentage shots that could sink the Rockets come the postseason.
The only thing that really holds Anthony back now is his own stubborn ignorance of those facts. He refused to adjust last season with the Oklahoma City Thunder because he still has “so much left in the tank.” Anthony posted some of the worst numbers of his career last season and, while Billy Donovan isn’t the offensive wizard that D’Antoni is, things should only get worse as Harden (36.1 percent usage rate) and Paul (24.5) dominate the ball if Anthony remains unwilling to change.
So, while his words may hold true, Anthony is no longer in a position where he needs to put the team on his back in order for it to be successful. Houston already has a well-established hierarchy, and Anthony is merely a column meant to buttress what is already in place. If he can’t come to accept that, the chance Houston is taking on him could backfire tremendously.
Still, Houston needs someone to eat the minutes vacated by the departure of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute in free agency. While he may not be able to match their defensive exploits, Anthony is still more than capable of filling their shoes, or even providing an upgrade, offensively. That potential upgrade alone could make the move a worthwhile one for the Rockets, who came just minutes from dethroning the Golden State Warriors despite the loss of Chris Paul in the Western Conference Finals.
For things to truly work out, however, Anthony must be willing to accept a change in his role, a diminished one in an offense that isn’t hurting for star power or shot takers, but one that desperately needs role players. If Anthony can adapt, he could be exactly what they need to challenge the Warriors. If not, Anthony’s arrival could blow up in D’Antoni’s face just as it did with the Knicks.