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August 29, 2019

Why the Sixers and Carmelo Anthony do not make sense together

It's a story that doesn't seem to go away, no matter how many times it doesn't come to fruition. Carmelo Anthony is linked to the Sixers by a reporter, his name and history generates a lot of chatter, and we all pretend we didn't just have this conversation the next time he pops up.

The latest reporter to run it up the flagpole is Frank Isola of The Athletic, who included this tidbit about Anthony's current options in his latest article.

Anthony’s future could be tied to free agent Joe Johnson, the MVP of the BIG3, who was out of the league last season. ESPN reported that Johnson will work out for the 76ers on Thursday and that he’s also drawn interest from the Clippers, Bucks, Nuggets and Pelicans. Assuming Johnson signs, other teams in the market for bench scoring could turn their attention to Anthony.

Anthony has reportedly been linked to both the Clippers and Lakers. His representatives have also had conversations with Philadelphia. [The Athletic]

In the past, the Sixers have been adamant about the team's lack of interest in bringing on Anthony. When reports circulated earlier this year, people around the team actually went out of their way to proactively contact reporters close to the team and refute the reporting, which they said at the time had not been run by them whatsoever before being run.

The team context has changed in the time since, and to be clear, the Sixers never definitively rule a player out when they're linked to them, knowing how quickly circumstances could change in this league. Heck, they brought back Spencer Hawes as part of a workout on Thursday, and I would bet you there are less than a dozen fans who want to see him back in a Sixers uniform before he calls it quits.

But despite some interest from the public, a marriage between Anthony and the Sixers doesn't make sense on several levels.

They have nowhere to play him

Let's just assume a pact with Anthony would jettison one of Philadelphia's end of roster players. Trey Burke is on a partially guaranteed contract, the second year of Furkan Korkmaz's deal has a trigger date next summer, there are certainly ways for them to create a roster spot if they wanted to.

None of the realistic options would open a window for Anthony playing time. The starting and closing lineups will feature Al Horford at power forward. When Joel Embiid first hits the bench, either Tobias Harris will slide up to the four or Mike Scott will enter the game and serve as the stretch four. When Embiid returns, one of those men is subbing in to play that spot, right up until Horford subs back in to close the game out.

There's also a case to be made that some of their other wings should be sliding up toward that end of the rotation to make room and feature more modern bench lineups. Players like James Ennis could easily slide up to the four to accommodate other members of the rotation, and with better guard depth the Sixers can toy more with using Ben Simmons as a forward roll-man than they have in the past. 

While positions matter less in the modern NBA, power forward is the only position Anthony has any chance of defending at this stage. It has been a long time since he was a credible defender of true wings, and even defending fours would be a stretch with the number of switches he'd be forced into in pick-and-roll coverage.

The Sixers are already in a position where Harris is going to have to defend smaller wings more than he should in order to get their best five players on the floor together. But doing that for Al Horford, an elite defender who is comfortable with two or 200 touches in a game, is one thing. Asking either Harris or Scott to do that for even longer stretches for the sake of getting Anthony on the court is a fool's errand.

Joe Johnson coming in for a workout makes a bit more sense for Philly because he represents some of the things that Anthony does in a guard/wing package, where the Sixers have a lot more question marks in talent and experience. You can only be as valuable to a team as roster context allows you to be.

"Olympic Melo" is no longer a realistic idea

Back when he still had the athletic gifts that helped him tie everything together, a popular idea among basketball analysts was that team context was the only thing holding Anthony back. His performance in the Olympics as more of a stretch four alongside the likes of LeBron James, Chris Paul, etc. was the supposed evidence of this. And to be fair, he certainly could have had a more successful prime with better talent around him in New York.

But Anthony's success has always been predicated on the good of his offense making up for his defense, which was passable in his younger days when he had the athleticism to recover from mistakes. Injuries and time have taken the pep out of his step, turning him into a straight-up negative on defense for about seven years running. 

If this were as simple as a physical issue, it'd be easy to set aside. But in his mid-30s, he still misses reads you'd expect much younger players to make. He'll flash on the wrong side of a pick-and-roll, miscommunicate switches, or close out lazily on a shooter. His general apathy on that end is hard to swallow in a league where connectivity on defense is more important than ever. Even in more recent Team USA settings, like the 2016 Olympics, Anthony's poor reads often allowed inferior opponents to hang around in games despite the talent gap between Team USA and everyone else.

To overcome a list of issues that grows with time, Anthony would have to be something resembling the offensive force he used to be, or at least an elite stretch four. There is some evidence to suggest he could be the latter — his catch-and-shoot numbers were down during a brief stint in Houston last season, but over his career, he has generally been a very good, sometimes elite shooter off of the catch.

But if the latter is all you want, why would the Sixers prioritize giving Anthony time over Scott? One is a role player who has been comfortable and confident as a bench shooter for basically his entire career, coming off of back-to-back seasons where he shot better than 40 percent from three. The other is a former star who has struggled to find his place as he has faded down the stretch of his career, his ego and former skills complicating a shift to the bench.

That is not a criticism, either. People in all walks of life have a hard time when they lost their proverbial fastball or are told they need to change to meet new demands in the workplace. Anthony is more decorated than any player left on the open market, and the same pride that drove him to become a high-level player in the first place is hard to cast to the side as you try to fight your way back into the league. 

Even in areas Anthony can contribute where the Sixers need help, like shot creation, the best course of action would be to give other players those reps. A lot of this season should be spent developing the likes of Embiid, Harris, and Simmons (with Josh Richardson behind that group) as hubs of the offense who can be counted on when it matters, supplemented by younger role players and Horford filling in the blanks. The Sixers will ultimately live and die in May and June based on how well they develop what they have right now. 

I don't see how the Carmelo Anthony of 2019 makes any meaningful contribution to the team, barring a change in structure. It can't hurt to have his number on speed dial, but they should hope they never have to use it.

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