When Carmelo Anthony and the Trail Blazers agreed to a one-year contract last month, he said it was the result of a series of direct, no-nonsense conversations with those at the top of the Blazers’ hierarchy.
Anthony saw the changes being made to the Blazers roster this offseason, including trading for power forward Robert Covington, who plays his position. Anthony was unsure just how much the players, the coaches and the front office wanted him back. The new additions to the roster made it seem like they wanted to move on from the 36 year old entering his 18th NBA season.
So he leaned on those he had become especially close with during his first season in Portland — team leaders Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. And he asked for conversations with two people he had come to trust over the past year — coach Terry Stotts and Neil Olshey, the team’s president of basketball operations.
Those conversations were difficult ones to have for the future hall of fame player to have. There were things discussed that hurt his ego, and things that he did not necessarily agree with.
But in the past year, ever since the Blazers’ courtship to bring him out of NBA purgatory, Anthony had come to value Olshey for his honesty. And during the 2019-20 season, he had grown to respect and appreciate the tell-it-like-it-is realness of both Lillard and McCollum.
At the end of those conversations, Anthony said he had to “take a deep breath” and accept some hard truths: He wouldn’t be a starter. He won’t play 30 minutes a game. And, in the case of back-to-backs, he might not play every game.
But there were two important things that emerged from those conversations, two things that ultimately kept him in Portland: Love and legacy.
Ever since the Blazers’ season ended in late August, Lillard and McCollum have been in frequent communication with their big brother Melo. Both players expressing the same sentiment, they want him to run it back with the Blazers.
But as free agency started, both leveled with Anthony. The Blazers needed to get better on defense, hence the trade for Covington, and with Rodney Hood returning and Derrick Jones Jr. signed, and Zach Collins coming back in January, it was becoming a crowded roster at forward.
“I’m very honest and blunt,” McCollum said. “I told him how he can help, and that I’d like to see him back here, but it’s obviously a business and he has to do what’s best for him … you can ask him about the rest.”
Lillard continued with the message.
Lillard and Anthony wouldn’t say exactly what was said between them, but it’s apparent that roles were discussed, in particular, whether Anthony would come off the bench. In 1,122 career games, Anthony has started all but eight.
“Just trying to be realistic about the situation,” Lillard said. “And he was being realistic about it as well.”
Anthony said he might have been realistic about coming off the bench, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt.
“I had to swallow that pill,” Anthony said. “I had to really be honest and transparent with the team and the organization, also with Dame and CJ. We had multiple conversations leading up to me coming back here. Those conversations were very honest, from both sides.”
He said he was able to have those conversations because of the trust in the organization established over the past year, after he joined the Blazers 15 games into the 2019-20 season. Olshey had lived up to every one of his promises. And the players and coaches were not only welcoming, they showered Anthony with appreciation and were reverential of his talents.
“He wanted to come back, I wanted him to come back, all our teammates wanted him to come back, Terry (Stotts) wanted him to come back,” Lillard said. “We wanted it to get done.”
That love meant something to Anthony, who felt comfort in being wanted. If he was going to wade into the unknown of coming off the bench for an entire season, he might as well do it where he felt secure.
“I was very comfortable and familiar with this situation, so I would rather do (coming off the bench) here, knowing this team and the players still respect me at a different level,” Anthony said.
But there was one conversation that put him over the top. It was with Olshey, the team’s architect, and it was a subject that Anthony said no one had ever broached with him: his legacy.
The darkest time of Anthony’s career came in he 2018-19 season in Houston, which ended after 10 games and began what would essentially be his being exiled from the NBA for more than a year. It was a time that hurt Anthony, for it robbed him of his love for basketball while raising questions about his playing style, his compatibility in a locker room and whether he was washed up.
That’s where Olshey stepped in and started talking about Anthony’s legacy. Not since Scottie Pippen left in 2003 have the Blazers had a sure-fire, first-ballot Hall of Famer on their roster, and Olshey made it clear that he and the organization felt a responsibility to not only respect Anthony as NBA royalty but to treat him as such.
They would do so by highlighting his assets and minimizing his deficiencies. Yes, the team wanted him to come off the bench, but they would feature him in the second unit, with play calls and post-ups. And yes, he probably won’t play the 33 minutes a game he averaged last season, but he would be looked to as a late-game weapon who can take the last shot.
Olshey told him he wanted the Blazers to be “custodians of his legacy.”
“That was a major point and emphasis in conversations I had, with Neil in particular,” Anthony said. “We talked about (legacy), and he made me feel comfortable as far as him protecting that legacy and not letting it …”
He paused, and visions of Houston came back to him.
“It could go anywhere; I mean, I could be in another situation I was in like Houston,” Anthony said. “Neil was very open and honest and upfront with me that he wouldn’t allow that, that he wouldn’t do that. So when you have people in the organization that want to go side-by-side with you through this journey and be a part of your legacy, it gives you a different type of confidence, a different thought process.
“And it eases a lot of thoughts and questions when you have people who really, truly care about your legacy.”
Olshey said his legacy talk wasn’t scripted.
“It was completely genuine,” Olshey said. “Having been in two difficult situations prior to his arrival in Portland, we understand that, as the current caretakers of his legacy, we have to accept a heightened level of responsibility that goes beyond just success or failure on a game-by-game basis. That responsibility means something unique to all of us, but everyone from executives to coaches to players embrace the experience of sharing this part of his Hall of Fame journey.”
Deep down, Anthony knew this time was probably coming in his career, a time when he would have to consider a role off the bench. And now, with a comfort that his legacy wouldn’t be tarnished in the process, he was willing to listen.
“It was the comfort level. It was me coming to the table and saying, ‘OK, talk to me … what would that role be?’” Anthony said. “OK, you don’t want me to play with the first five doesn’t mean I’m not a quote/unquote starter. We need a balance, we need that balance, and you can’t bring Dame and CJ off the bench, so I’ll do it. I’ll make it happen.”
After all the conversations were done, all that was left was for Anthony to reflect. Reflect on what he had heard. On what he valued. And on how he saw himself. And for the first time in his career, he could see himself as a reserve.
“But honestly, I had to really sit down with myself and like think about that, because it’s new,” Anthony said. “I tried it in Houston — I only did it for seven, eight games — but this is new for me. And if I sit here and say that the thought of that wasn’t hard, or difficult to hear and take, and that it played with my pride and ego … yes, it does. Especially coming from somebody like myself. But you know, I had to take a deep breath and (say) we will figure it out. We will make it work.”