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NBA Daily: The Twilight Zone

Even the best players have to endure the twilight of their careers at some point. Whether they can still be effective on the court depends on how they handle it.

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It is the middle ground between prime and retirement, between IQ and adaptability, and it lies between when the shot doesn’t fall as much and when a guy can’t jump as high as he used to. This is the dimension of aging stardom. It is basically when a star enters the NBA equivalent of which we call The Twilight Zone.

When a star player enters the twilight of his career, he can’t produce at the same level he once could anymore. With his skills diminishing by the day, said player needs to figure out how he can still be useful for his team in the wake of falling out of his prime. Who exactly would be a player that currently fits this description? Well, Carmelo Anthony for one.

Evers since his days as a New York Knick ended, Carmelo’s numbers have dwindled quite a bit. It’s evident that he no longer possesses the elite scoring abilities that made him a future Hall-of-Famer, but he has shown that he can still put points on the board. Whether he can still be an effective player depends on the role he’s given if another team gives him a shot.

As of now, no one seems to be interested in ‘Melo’s services, but that hasn’t stopped him from putting himself out there. After a very candid interview with Stephen A. Smith about how things have gone for him over the last two years, Carmelo Anthony has received a lot of support from stars and media alike on Twitter. The support has become so strong that there is now a campaign for him to return to the NBA so he can have himself a farewell season.

It’s like how the old saying goes: “Don’t ever underestimate the heart of an NBA Twitter campaign.” Or something like that…

All jokes aside, a player with his kind of reputation deserves a more upbeat chapter to end his career on than the one that ended so disastrously for him in Houston. Determining whether Carmelo deserves a roster spot requires going over what happened in his brief stint in Houston. Prepare yourself though, because this next segment is going to tear ‘Melo down while giving him props at the same time.

Among all the commotion surrounding ‘Melo being frozen out, are we just going to overlook how bad he was in Houston last year? Because let’s not waste any time here. He was awful.

Houston probably knew ahead of time that Carmelo wasn’t making any All-NBA Defensive teams, but his deficiencies in that department manifested themselves in a pretty ugly way. The defense allowed almost 10 more points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor.

Then again, defense was not why the Rockets brought him in. Carmelo was supposed to be the third banana offensively behind James Harden and Chris Paul. And… he couldn’t be that either. The offense scored 1.6 fewer points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. That’s slightly below average which isn’t terrible, but for someone like Anthony, that’s not nearly enough.

As for the “hyped” Harden-Paul-Anthony trio, those three didn’t see much time together – 37 minutes exactly – and when they shared the court, the Rockets were minus-16.5. Now, Carmelo had his moments in H-Town, and he wasn’t their only problem at that time – but when they cut ties with him, as quick as it was, it seemed pretty rational.

Because he was exiled pretty hastily, this led to many believing that the reason why Anthony has failed to be productive for his last two teams has been because he’s failed to adapt his game in order to help his team. Chauncey Billups even gave his former teammate some harsh critiques when it came to what his priorities were as a player.

Carmelo most certainly has a track record for making his teams run operations his way, but the notion that he refused to change his game in the last two years is one of the NBA’s most widespread myths.

Carmelo Anthony’s dominance offensively stemmed from his advanced midrange game. From the start of his career with the Nuggets to the end of his tenure with the Knicks, Carmelo’s specialty was his iso game in the midrange. In his rookie year, 34 percent of his shots came from 10 feet to just below the three-point line. As his career went on, that number went up all the way to nearly 50 percent. He took a fair amount of threes, but he lived in the high-post.

That all changed when he got traded to OKC. The highest percentage of three-pointers Carmelo attempted in his career was 30 which was his last year with the Knicks. When he played for the Thunder, that went all the way up to 40. 43 percent of his shots were still taken from 10 feet to just below the three-point line, but he was trying to be a floor spacer to a team that needed it.

Those percentages only went up in Houston. Only 26 percent of Carmelo’s shot attempts came from 10 feet to just below the three-point line, while almost 53 percent of his shot attempts were from downtown. He may have had issues with Mike D’Antoni in New York, but he earnestly tried to adapt to D’Antoni’s emphasis on floor spacing when they reunited in Houston.

It’s true that his defense still left much to be desired, but offensively, Carmelo tried to transition from being the alpha male to a third-in-command over the last two years. It hasn’t been that his attitude has gotten in the way of his career. It’s that he’s struggled to show that he’s still a consistent threat on the one end that made him so special.

That doesn’t mean it’s over. That just means Anthony’s next team will have to set the bar lower for him. At the very least, Carmelo’s shown that he can keep his ego in check and play within a team concept. That’s better than say another particular fading star in the NBA that goes by the name of Dwight Howard.

Here’s what’s funny about Dwight. Much like Carmelo Anthony, Howard is not the player he once was. Unlike ‘Melo, he has proven that he can still be an impactful player. He’s still a great rebounder. He’s still a strong presence inside. He still blocks shots at a decent rate. He’s only a year removed from one of the best seasons he’s ever had as a pro outside of Orlando.

Yet somehow, it’s always the same story. Because he marches to the beat of his own drum, he wears out his welcome and the team that had just acquired him the year before drives him to the airport. His prime hasn’t fallen through the cracks as much as Carmelo’s has, but when and if Memphis waives him, there could be some real doubts surrounding if he gets another chance.

Dwight has vowed – on numerous occasions – that he does not have an ego. That he’s not a team cancer. In all fairness, we can’t just ignore his side of the story, but the fact remains that the last time he stayed on a team for more than one year was five years ago. He’s not handling the twilight of his career well at all. Not because he’s not good anymore, but because he refuses to change his game.

It’s weird to say that there might be a chance that we don’t see either Dwight or Carmelo in the NBA next season. To be fair, we didn’t see much of them this past season. But when the prime of a star player is over, it may not take too long for their career to follow suit.

Howard and Anthony may not have transitioned well from their primes, but there have been good examples of great players who adjusted their games in their last seasons to help their team win. Bill Walton. Karl Malone. Grant Hill. Recently, a new NBA champion embraced the twilight zone, and his name is Marc Gasol.

Gasol’s numbers were declining in Memphis, which was to be expected from the 34-year-old. When he was traded to Toronto, he averaged career-lows in virtually every category. At first glance, that doesn’t look good on his nor Toronto’s part. When you take a closer look, anyone who watched him knows that the influence he had on the Raptors was though was undeniable.

Toronto didn’t ask Marc to be the jack-of-all-trades center he was in Grind City. All the team wanted him to do was stretch the floor (he shot 47 percent from three in the playoffs and regular season), help their ball movement (he averaged about 3.5 assists in the same time period) and play excellent defense in the post – check out his defense on both Nikola Vucevic and Joel Embiid.

Gasol’s excellent play served to reinforce the Raptors’ decision to trade for him, and he’s another example of players thriving in a lesser role for the better of their team.

It’s not fun when the sun begins to set on your career, especially when you were the toast of the town for years. If handled well, glory is still in the realm of possibility. Even if it’s not as much on your terms like it was previously.

If it doesn’t, it just means your BIG 3 career is right around the corner. Is that so bad?

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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