Carmelo Anthony is an easy scapegoat for the Rockets’ sluggish start, but Houston’s problems run much deeper than him.
Carmelo is the most convenient fall-guy for the Rockets’ puzzling start to the season. They went 65–17 without him last year and were 6–7 when they ended the Carmelo Experience this season. But it’s not that simple.
To be clear, Anthony is not the solution. The Rockets are minus-10.9 per 100 possessions with Anthony on the court and plus-3.9 when he’s on the bench.
The idea of “Olympic Melo” — a spot up specialist who mixes it up on the glass — is a myth. Anthony is hitting at a 31.4 percent clip in catch-and-shoot situations this season, and Houston’s defensive rebound percentage dips when he’s on the floor. Like in the Olympics, Anthony has benefitted in the form of clean looks from star talent around him. However he’s shooting 29.2 percent on “wide open” 3s (designated as 6-plus feet between him and the nearest defender).
Part of the reason Houston signed Anthony was to prevent another 0-for-27 3-point disaster that sunk its Finals hopes last year. The Rockets wanted somebody who could score in a variety of ways, but Anthony isn’t that guy anymore.
He won a scoring title in 2013 by operating largely out of the mid-post with a variety of jab steps, jumpers, and forays to the hoop. But Anthony has lost his first-step quickness and doesn’t have the reliable jumpshot to fall back on anymore. He’s getting to the line a career-low 2.2 times per game and is netting .750 points per shot on long 2s. Those areas used to be central to his success and are now detriments.
Even with all that said, Carmelo shouldn’t be the scapegoat. Houston signed him for the minimum, which is indicative of his expected role coming into the year. More troubling to the Rockets should be Chris Paul’s regression.
Paul was once a perennial 50–40–90 candidate who would average 10 assists in his sleep. This season, however, he’s shooting 41.9 percent from the field (career-worst), 34.8 percent from 3 (worst since 2013), 77.1 percent on free throws (career-worst), and averaging 7.5 assists per game (good, but still a career-worst).
33-year-old Paul is coming up on 1,000-career games and has logged over 35,000 minutes (regular season and playoffs). He has battled injuries throughout his career and it seems like the mileage is catching up with him.
When Paul was on the floor with James Harden last year, the Rockets outscored opponents by 13.5 points per 100 possessions. That number is down to 1.8 this season. Houston was nearly unbeatable when Paul, Harden, and Clint Capela were available last year, but that trio only has a plus-2.1 net rating this season. Paul’s diminishment is a key factor in both cases.
Houston was cautious with Paul throughout the regular season last year. Once Mike D’Antoni revved his point guard’s engine in the playoffs, Paul tweaked his hamstring and had to watch as his team fell short of the Finals. D’Antoni doesn’t have that luxury this year as the West has grown deeper and the Rockets’ bench has grown thinner.
The loss of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute were huge for Houston, as has been the plummet of Eric Gordon. After being a Sixth Man of the Year candidate the past two seasons, Gordon is bricking shots to the tune of 32.3 percent from the field and 23.5 percent from 3 (both career lows).
Gerald Green, Gary Clark, and Michael Carter-Williams have been left to fill the void created by the departures of Ariza and Mbah a Moute. As expected, they’ve been horrible. None of the three have been able to crack 37 percent from the field or 29 percent from 3. Teams don’t even guard Carter-Williams in particular, which clogs the space Paul and Harden need to make plays.
It’s still not time to panic. The Rockets will be a player come buy-out season and Daryl Morey has shown willingness to move mountains if it helps his team. However the signs are there that the Rockets might have missed their championship window. Cutting ties with Carmelo was a necessary step, but Houston has other problems to figure out.