Dennis Schröder and Carmelo Anthony face Uphill Battles of Finding new Roles

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Carmelo Anthony as “Hoodie Melo” Associated Press P/REX/SHUTTERSTOCK

Many similarities tie Dennis Schroder and Carmelo Anthony together. Locker room predicaments, questionable shot-choice, and team misplacement have led both to this point. Ironically, the two are now being traded for each other, perhaps to fill similar roles on different teams.

Conversely, they may find what they are searching for: bliss in a specific role. Carmelo as a sixth-man that scores and (at least) try to stay in front of his man. Schroder, coming off the bench and providing unselfishness next to Russell Westbrook.

Can either player fulfill their potential? How does Schroder fit in Bills Donovan’s offense? What makes him similar to a former OKC point guard?

Is Melo ready for a new role? Will he accept his fate? Do his accomplishments speak for themselves?

Dennis Schröder’s fit in OKC

The Schröder experiment has the potential to look like a combination of Reggie Jackson and James Harden’s stay in OKC. By supplying a scoring punch off the bench, the German point guard could supplant Westbrook when he needs a break. On the other hand, the former Hawk could clash with the aforementioned point guard, the two wrestling for the ball possession-after-possession.

Either inception is plausible, given Schröder’s tendency to disrupt and intensify situations. As well, he holds the ball for elongated periods of time. Like his oft-compared counterpart, Rajon Rondo, he waits for the idealistic opportunity to receive the plaque of statistics—assists.

Perhaps the deepened infatuation with the golden standard statistic is what led to him being exiled. With the nomination of Trae Young as starting point guard and designated shot-chucker, Schröder’s role was usurped.

The role as an off-ball player is new for the German point guard. Schroder’s usage rate (number of plays by a player divided by the team’s possessions) over the last four seasons has exceeded 27 each time. This past season was his highest (30.5). Additionally, he attempted a career-high in shot attempts. OKC will not allow him free reigns as Atlanta did. He will have to pick and choose his spots.

A spot where he especially excels is in the pick and roll. There, he uses his blow-by quickness and peripheral vision to pinpoint closing angles. His 6.2 assists per game is deceiving, as his 12.5 potential assists placed 12th in the league.

Not to mention, Schroder placed in the 69th percentile as a pick and roll ball handler. That percentile is classified as very good by Synergy Sports’ statistics. When Westbrook is exhausted for putting the team on his back, Schroder can step in and the Thunder can run the same plays.

On this play, he finds a rolling John Collins. Not many floor generals are able to slice and dice like Schroder did here.

Can Russell Westbrook and Schröder play Together?

Notably, Schröder’s time of possession eclipsed Ben Simmons and Chris Paul’s. The issue is that Oklahoma City is the home to a resembling individual, albeit in souped-up form. Russell Westbrook is a human wrecking force. That force is enacted by an excess of touches, to a point of underlying team decay.

Of course, the team played poorly when Westbrook heaved ill-advised every opportunity he got. Behind the curtain of an MVP performance, endless triple-doubles (Westbrook is fourth all-time in said category), there lay a pigeonhole of laughable highlights where Westbrook would block out his own teammates and brick contested 40-feet shots.

The figures back this up as well. In games where the former UCLA guard shot 20 field goals while shooting 45% or less, the Thunder went 12-16. That record pales in comparison to their regular season record.

Even though 5 of his teammates maintained a higher field goal percentage than him, Westbrook found ways to exclude his teammates. While the Paul George signing was highly acclaimed, the addition did not move the needle. Prior to his Oklahoma City excursion, George was a bona fide star and number one option in Indiana. Unfortunately, his game became sacrificial and his statistics dropped in every major category. Many assumed adding the small-forward star—often discussed as a top-10 player—would coincide bounteous success. Toss in the arrival of Carmelo Anthony and the idea of a new Western Conference was a discourse from Golden State dominance.

All the while, the team only got a smidgen better, improving by just one win. As well, they lost in the first round (again), to an inexperienced Utah Jazz team that lost Gordon Hayward. It’s fair to say Westbrook has a conceited (if not slightly egoistic) approach to basketball. For players that played 50 or more games, Russ was third in percentage of points unassisted (79.7%).

That specific data calls into question whether he can fit next to a mimicked and substantially watered down version of himself.

For all his talents, Schroder is not an off-ball threat. He does not cut when backdoor opportunities are available and refuses to run off screens with a purpose. According to Synergy Sports, he is below average in transition and spot-ups and is just average off-screens.

If Westbrook has the ball, what kind of impact does Schroder make?

Reggie Jackson and Dennis Schröder’s Similarities

In 2013, the Harlem Shake went viral, Derrick Rose was mounting an insurmountable comeback, Anthony Bennett was chosen first overall (followed by a hilarious Bill Simmons reaction), and the Warriors had yet to start their dynasty. More to the point, Reggie Jackson was still a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Kevin Durant starred on the team, too.

Schröder is constructed similarly to a point guard that once supplanted Westbrook: Reggie Jackson. Reggie Jackson, now an oft-injured starting point guard, once spelled—and even played next to—Russ. In the 2013-14 season (Jackson’s best season in Thunder colors) where Reggie Jackson tallied at least 10 points, Oklahoma City recorded a 45-14 record.

In all regards, the story of Schröder is the Reggie Jackson OKC story in rewind. The German point guard began his career in a losing situation as the star. Jackson, on the other hand, commenced his career as a backup on a renowned team.

If the story is rewinded, the plot is fast-forwarded. Both point guards possess similar strengths and burdens; long arms, pick and roll efficacy, trivial spurts of defensive impactfulness, locker room tension, and a shoot-first approach. Their per-36 numbers are even mirrored images:

 

Points Rebounds Assists Turnovers Field-Goal Three-Point Blocks Steals
19.6 3.8 7.2 3.6 43.4% 32% 0.2 1.7
18.1 4.4 6.4 2.9 43% 32% 0.2 1.5

So how did the two point guards feed off each other’s strengths? Were they a natural fit? What does that mean for Schröder?

When in need of a bucket, Scott Brooks trotted out his best 5-man lineup of; Jackson, Durant, Ibaka, Perkins, and Sefolosha. That lineup outscored the Westbrook rendition by 7.8 points, whilst boasting a +2.5 net rating compared to Westbrook’s -1.5. That isn’t to say Westbrook should be written off as a fruitless all-star, but it arises an adage often iterated by talk-show hosts.

When Brooks paired the two undersized guards, a simultaneous dissent took place. Donovan will undergo agnate drawbacks with this guard-matrimony.

Offensively, playing both guards will stymy the team’s ability to shoot from deep. Keep in mind, Donovan’s base offense is structured like Brooks—the spread pick and roll—so general muse is coherent. Being that both players hover around 30% from deep, the floor will shrink and allow the defense to ease off the three-point arc. Luckily, Westbrook’s quickness allows him to speed by defenders and create shots. Otherwise, it’s going to be difficult to find quality possessions.

Defensively, the dearth of a Westbrook and Jackson combination is glaring. In every decade of the NBA, there is a definitive—and distinct—antithesis. In today’s league, the augmentation of screens (and the import of Spain screens) leads to mismatches down low. The 6’1’’ 172-pound build of Schröder is small for a point guard, much less a shooting guard. Even if you slide Westbrook down to the 2, he will be bullied by bigger guards. The addition of another point guard just means there is a higher probability of either one shifting onto a post player.

While it is not a guarantee Donovan plays a lineup set verbatim to Brooks’, it’s worth finding a benchmark for the current OKC coach.

Whichever way you slice it, playing Ray Felton less is a win. The former Bobcat (yes, Bobcats are still in the league) developed a repertoire as a team player over his 13 years. At times, he let Westbrook slide to the 2 and take a breather from attacking the defense at full speed. Mostly though, Felton was a net negative. In fact, the Thunder were 7.7 points worse when Felton was playing the 1 (according to Basketball Reference’s plus/minus).

Oklahoma City Bides time for Projects

Unloading Melo allows them to give minutes to their two projects, Hamidou Diallo and Terrance Ferguson. Both are hyper-athletic beasts that expedited the college process. Given time to develop, the two can become 3-and-D players for a Thunder team desperately in need of those. Alex Abrines is a typical European shooter whose slight build holds him back from defending wings. Although P.J. Dozier did show flashes when he got the opportunity, the small forward is not going to corral enough minutes to enthrall. Jerami Grant defends wings but is a center on offense. Josh Huestis has not panned out since the Thunder made him a draft-and-stash first round pick a few years back. Notorious for his broken jump-shot, Andre Roberson is (probably) the best defensive stopper in the league. Howebeit, his coaches are not patting him on his back for his offensive plays. And while neither is a surefire prospect, Ferguson and Diallo have glistened in bigger roles. Diallo shot 33.8% from three in his one season playing for Calipari. He struggled to create but benefitted from playing with shot-creators; Kevin Knox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Ferguson shot 33.3% from deep and certainly turned heads with plays like these:

Carmelo Anthony’s Fit in Houston

The next character in this segment is a contentious player.

By and large, Anthony’s worse season was capped off by consecutive apathetic Instagram posts. His first picture displayed his college championship ring on his right hand and a celebratory cigar in his right. The second one was a freeze frame of a stoic, if not carefree, man shrugging while sipping (probably Chateau) wine. The last post was a gloating one, the meaning captured by its caption:

For all the questions regarding his pompous—possibly narcissistic-—personality, who’s to blame a person for getting the bag (pop culture translation: getting paid). Anthony, who’s accumulated $227.4 million in his career, is coming off a year where he made $27.4 million. And for what? For being a last-ditch solution for a team aiming at contention, and a team indubitably desperate for the last part of their big three. Instead, they got a vastly unwanted third-wheel. A declining player who was unwilling to sacrifice—for the greater good of the team—his spot in the starting lineup.

Sixth-Man Melo?

His unwillingness to accept the sixth-man role is, for him, as reasonable as throwing on the hoodie that he popularize every offseason.

The argument for him to come off the bench is not a novel one. For all intents and purposes, Carmelo Anthony belongs in the same conversation as Michael Phelps, Gabby Douglas, Usain Bolt for the most decorated Olympian seen in our lifetime. After all, he is the 2006 and 2016 co-male USA basketball player of the year. Befitting, his personal records rival his team accomplishments. The former Knick ranks first in games played (31) and points scored (336). And for all the NBA championship banter, his play coaxed 4 gold medals (3 Olympic games and 1 FIBA). Perhaps his role in red, white, and blue was indicative of the pragmatic—and inevitable.

Coach K praised Anthony’s chameleon-like ability to switch roles. “To devote that amount of time is remarkable really, and it’s not been done. He’s been such a good guy to coach and he’s accepted different roles.” If Anthony can resurrect that role—the sixth-man—he may be able to find similar success in the NBA.  Even when coming off major injuries, Anthony has refused to start the game off the bench. All of his 1054 games have been games have been started at the small or power forward position.

Houston, we have a Solution

The storyline is familiar for Houston. They wrestled Chris Paul away from Lob City and paired him with ball-dominant combo guard, James Harden. Emerging headlines questioned how the two would fit. After all, there was no precedence, D’antoni used Steve Nash exclusively at point guard in his time in the 7-second offense in Phoenix. Nonetheless, D’antoni got his team to buy into another point guard. He complimented the two stars with players that don’t need the ball; P.J. Tucker, Trevor Ariza, and Clint Capela. However, the anatomy of the roster is uncertain, thus the tenor is wavering. The Suns put the Rockets in an impasse: pay Ariza $15 million and dip your toes into the luxury tax or step back.

Despite the insistence of Tillman Fertitta, the Rockets seem determined to eschew the luxury tax. Management also let Mbah-Moute walk (to the LA Clippers for one-year $4.3 million) and initially low-balled Capela. The only player on the roster that duly fits the small forward profile, is P.J. Tucker (albeit he’s 33 years old). As well, his physical play adds more wear and tear to him. If roster agitation is any indication, the Rockets and Daryl Morey are dead set on the former Olympian medalist.

The obvious denounces Carmelo is not a direct replacement for Ariza and Mbah-Moute. Ariza is the archetype for 3-and-D players. He is the Morey model, capable of defending the premier wing and hitting corner 3’s on kick-outs. To boot, Mbah-Moute defends at the same rate but hits the back iron more often on shot attempts. Conceivably, Mbah Moute’s ankle injury is worse than first reported. The Rockets could have insider information. That’s a good explanation for the Rockets to let him walk.

Still, signing Melo does not replace the finite two-way ability the aforementioned bring to the table. For power forwards that dressed in at least 50 games, Anthony ranked 50th in defensive real plus/minus.

Carmelo inked his $27.9 million contract already, so Houston can benefit. They will sign him to a 1 year-$2.9 million deal. If Daryl Morey’s Instagram is any indication, he always has something up his sleeve.

And while there is warranted worry Carmelo will be another ball-stopper on a team that is comprised of them, I think he will fit in. Sure, there could be some rough patches right out the gate. If adding Chris Paul deviated from D’antoni’s game plan, then Carmelo Anthony is an utter anomaly.

Pick and Roll Melo?

Of course, if Melo learns to compromise, then Houston will find a way to accommodate. Melo actually sunk 37.2% of catch and shoot threes—which actually is a notch above Houston’s 36.8%.

On this action, Anthony slides to the corner during an opposite court pick and roll. Adams, an underrated passer, finds Anthony for a swift catch and shoot three. Being shot-ready is acutely significant in the D’antoni offense.

D’Antoni (who once perfected the pairing of Nash and Stoudemire) is obsessive over pick and roll play. With two of the best passing guards, the Rockets have the luxury of creating plays out of thin air. Last season, the Rockets were in the 93rd percentile in the pick and roll.

This is one aspect of Carmelo’s game he needs to improve upon in the off-season. Antony only got 1.2 possessions a game (6.9% frequency) as the designated screener. For a player that is uber-efficient from the elbow and short-corner, bestowing him more opportunities to pick and pop is surely a bilateral triumph.

Likewise, Anthony did not get many test runs as the pick and roll ball handler in OKC. Per 1.9 possessions, Anthony scored 0.86 points as the lead shot creator. As well, he misfired regularly—he shot only 39.6% from the field.

For Houston, James Harden and Chris Paul’s court vision opened doors for PJ Tucker and Trevor Ariza in catch and shoot situations last season. Harden and Paul ranked 1 and 3 in assists and 5 and 6 in potential assists. Notwithstanding, Houston ranked second (25.8) in catch and shoot three attempts. Anthony will have plenty of opportunities to shoot, just in select situations, like the catch and shoot.

Overall, Anthony will never be defined by his competency as a pick and roll player, but by wringing his talents, D’Antoni can find a neutral ground. After all, there were some plays where Anthony looked capable of making the extra pass.

In the end, Houston cannot be content with Melo in his most simple form. There were two players with at least an 18% isolation frequency to score less than 0.9 points per possession. One was Carmelo Anthony. The other was Dennis Smith Jr. That figure makes sense for Smith Jr., he’s a rookie that needs reps to improve. At this point in his career, Anthony is not the explosive player like he was in Denver. Thus, he is best utilized in varying spots on the floor, in clever plays.

Adding up the isolation field goal attempts per game of Carmelo, Paul, and Harden equals 15.2. That number is practically through the roof. Last season, the Rockets led the league in isolation plays, averaging 12.6 per game. Those attempts almost exclusively featured Paul and Harden. Adding Carmelo is an accommodation. It’s not out of the question that this leads to a grappling conflict between the two stars. Who gets the ball and in what scenario?

D’antoni will have plenty on his plate as the season approaches. He’s had experience doing it before. This time, finding ways to involve Melo—both on and off the court—while not alienating the rest of the team, could prove insurmountable.

That could be said for either player. Schröder and Anthony encounter similar obstacles. Finding solace in a new role and on a new team will prove a treacherous endeavor.

All stats are pulled from Synergy Sports, Basketballreference.com, NBA Math, NBA.com/Stats unless otherwise noted.

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