Blazers had better hope Carmelo Anthony embraces a bench role this time

NBA Free Agency, Portland Trail Blazers

The Portland Trail Blazers are bringing Carmelo Anthony back, but they need him to embrace a new role.

Against the odds, Carmelo Anthony and the Portland Trail Blazers were a perfect match last season. It’s easy to forget now, but heading into his flier deal with Rip City, Melo was preparing to suit up for his fourth different NBA team in as many seasons.

His arrivals with the Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets were treated with the hype of adding depth, shooting and plenty of scoring experience to the rosters of legitimate contenders … with the assumption that he’d understand his prime years were behind him and it was time to accept a lesser role.

But that’s not what happened. In fact, it was the exact opposite, as Melo considered the idea of coming off the bench an insult and an affront to his Hall-of-Fame career.

“Who, me?” he asked incredulously in OKC before laughing the idea off altogether.

Never mind that he was in his early 30s, joining a roster that had Russell Westbrook and Paul George, and was a defensive liability. He wanted to start, because that’s what he was accustomed to. It’s the biggest reason he and the Thunder didn’t work out. The same situation played itself out in Houston the following year, only much faster, as he lasted only 10 games before he was awkwardly held out of games, dumped on the Chicago Bulls in a trade and ultimately waived.

So no, expectations weren’t high last November when he signed with the Blazers after not playing an NBA game for an entire year.

But funnily enough, it worked out. The team, fanbase and media embraced him, and everyone just seemed happy that Melo’s prestigious career wouldn’t go out like that. He put together a good season too, averaging 15.4 points and 6.3 rebounds per game on 38.5 percent shooting from downtown, stepping up to fill in for an injured forward rotation that was missing Rodney Hood and Zach Collins.

He had found a new NBA home, and it was no surprise there was mutual interest in keeping him in Rip City.

The caveat? He got the starting role he’s always filled. In his 58 appearances with the Blazers last year, he started in all 58. In fact, in 1,122 regular-season games and 77 playoff games in his career, Melo has only come off the bench in eight of them — all of which came during his disastrous 10-game stint with the Rockets.

So what happens now, with the Blazers reportedly set to bring him back on a one-year deal?

Melo filled his role beautifully last year, but we can’t ignore that before the bubble, the Blazers were 29-37, sitting outside the playoff race. Injuries to Hood, Collins and Damian Lillard, not to mention Jusuf Nurkic’s absence, played a significant part there. But the fact remains that if not for their 6-2 run in the bubble and the Memphis Grizzlies’ dismal 2-6 mark, the Blazers would’ve missed the playoffs. And even if they had made it in, convincingly, they were still the 8-seed as a sub-.500 team.

That’s typically the result when you’ve got a minus defender like the 35-year-old Anthony in your starting lineup.

Next season, expectations will be higher. Nurkic, Collins and Hood will be healthy. Dame and CJ McCollum will continue to do their thing, only this time, they’ll be bolstered by the type of lockdown defensive wing they’ve always needed in Robert Covington. Throw in another new arrival in Derrick Jones Jr. and suddenly the wing rotation is filling up, with the emphasis shifting to the defensive end of the floor.

Melo can still fill an important role on this team. He shot the ball extremely well from deep last year, hit a number of clutch shots throughout the season and in the bubble, and his ability to create in isolation situations is an obvious boon for the second unit of any playoff squad.

But if this happy union is to continue, for the first time in his NBA career, during his age-36 season, Carmelo Anthony needs to fully embrace not just a reduced role like last season, but a clearly defined bench role.

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