50 games in, Carmelo Anthony has yet to allow his defense to rest its case

Carmelo Anthony, Portland Trail Blazers (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)
Carmelo Anthony, Portland Trail Blazers (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images) /
Carmelo Anthony
Carmelo Anthony, Portland Trail Blazers (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images) /

The defense of Carmelo Anthony has been a lightning rod for criticism. In Portland, he’s been solid enough to avoid ridicule. Here’s how he’s revived it.

In the NBA 2K stratosphere, and in video games in general, the term “spamming” has a negative connotation. It refers to the art of pressing a button repeatedly, exposing a flaw in something over and over again to succeed. To many, it’s viewed as a “cheat” — something that “wouldn’t happen in real life.” But you certainly couldn’t tell the Utah Jazz that when they matched up against Carmelo Anthony a few years ago in the 2018 Playoffs; they showed us what spamming looks like in real life.

Depending on what side of the fandom you stood on, it was either a beautifully-crafted, strategic brand of basketball, or it was disturbing to watch. According to ESPN.com’s Baxter Holmes, the Jazz attacked Anthony’s pick-and-roll defense 157 times — for reference, Anthony only played 194 minutes over six games — creating an incision in Oklahoma City’s defense sizable enough to leave us wondering: how much longer could he survive in this NBA?

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Nearly two years and one pseudo-retirement later, those cases deserve to be revisited. The day news broke that the Portland Trail Blazers took a leap of faith in signing him, talking heads around the world offered similar takes, generally centered toward the decline of his defense. 50 games into Anthony’s resurgence in Portland, and we can see why they’ve been mostly quiet since.

Let’s quickly consider perspective. At their most desperate, the Blazers didn’t sign Anthony while expecting Scottie Pippen. The primitive hope was that Carmelo Anthony just wouldn’t be a defensive detriment to an already revolving door defense. And early returns suggest that he hasn’t. Here are a few numbers:

Per on-off stats from Cleaning the Glass, the Blazers have actually been 7.0 points stingier per possession with Anthony on the floor, which ranks in the 92nd percentile this season.

This serves as both a testament to Carmelo Anthony’s work to avoid the national spotlight for defensive miscues, but also how much trouble the injury-riddled Blazers were having. An early-season scratch with Zach Collins was sure to open the floodgates, and it soon showed; in the ten games before acquiring Anthony, the Blazers were allowing 118.2 points per game, a number that would rank third-to-last over a full season.

Individually, Anthony also hasn’t been nearly the aliability many anticipated. Along with helping the Blazers to a +5.3 on-off, as well as adding 13 additional wins on-court, he’s been somewhere between average and a sliver under, when it comes to man-to-man defense.

  • What opponents shoot normally on 2’s — 54.2%
  • What opponents shoot on Anthony on 2’s — 53.4%

Verdict: Opponents shoot 0.8 percent worse on Carmelo Anthony defense vs. average

  • What opponents shoot normally on 3’s — 36.6%
  • What opponents shoot on Anthony on 3’s — 40.3%

Verdict: Opponents shoot 3.7 percent better on Carmelo Anthony defense vs. average

  • What opponents shoot normally on any shot — 46.7%
  • What opponents shoot normally on any shot vs. Anthony — 46.4%

Verdict: Opponents shoot 0.3 percent worse on Carmelo Anthony defense vs. average

No one in the state of Oregon should start writing a Defensive Player of the Year ballot for anyone, but those numbers are at least respectable for two reasons. One, they aren’t indicative of how poorly analysts spoke of him this past year. And two, they can be compared to formidable defenders. You put those numbers on side of say, this year’s version of Paul George, a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in 2018-19, and they’re match-worthy.

Here’s what’s perhaps most impressive of all: it would be one thing if Anthony, with 40,000 pre-Portland minutes on his legs, started to show declines defensively at this point. But as he’s further adjusted to Terry Stotts’ defensive schemes, numbers actually point to him improving.

In February, for example, Anthony played part-barricade, holding opponents to 8.4 percent lower than their normal percentages inside ten feet, assuming they can get an entry pass, and nearly two percent overall. That may not seem like much, but for a Blazers team with a -1.6 differential, it could be the difference between win and loss.

Anthony still sometimes struggles closing out, as old age will do. He’s prone to gambling from time to time, too, which is how players get breathing room on 3-pointers on him. But, he’s fantastic at playing safety on cross-court passes, and turning them into transition tramples. (See a clip here at 2:35), and here.


He’s also shown the small-spurt ability to cover younger, more agile wings. This is a spirited effort to cover Jaylen Brown, one of the NBA’s premier scorers.


The quarantine, if you play your cards right, provides you with the chance to narrative check. Over the last few days, I’ve pored over tape from Carmelo Anthony’s defense from Denver on, and even come away with a few notable plays. There are definitely some miscues, some breakdowns with effort. He’s been killed from time-to-time on pick-and-rolls. But it certainly isn’t to a point where he’s unplayable.

Media-driven ideas are always the easiest to go, because they require no effort, no research, and can be spit-balled from casual fan to casual fan. It makes the Detroit, 2003 NBA Draft debacle an intrigue. Anthony has gone on record in saying he felt he needed to score to keep his team in position to win. If surrounded by great defenders and habits from the jump does his career arc do the same? In the past, Anthony has been vocal about his defense, and how he’s been construed as a liability. And he has reason to.

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The jury’s been out on Anthony’s ability to stop opposing scorers for quite some time. Under a 50-game sample size, it’s safe to argue, his defense, ironically, has yet to rest.