Portland Trail Blazers President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey had tried to get Carmelo Anthony in trades with the New York Knicks, tried to get him as a free agent post-Oklahoma City. Now, they were together on a call Thursday morning. Time had passed; circumstances had changed.
“You need us,” Olshey would tell Anthony. “And we need you.”
Out of basketball for a year, one of the game’s great scorers needed someone to believe in him again. This time, Portland made an offer Anthony couldn’t refuse — a non-guaranteed contract, a chance to revitalize a reigning Western Conference finalist fighting injury and inconsistency, an NBA job.
Anthony is 35 years old, and the Blazers can’t be confident with what he has left — nor how much he can impact a 5-9 team fighting to stay relevant in the Western Conference standings. Of what Portland can be confident: Anthony was probably the best of limited options.
He has joined the Blazers in New Orleans and is available to make his debut tonight.
After six straight trips to the Western Conference playoffs — including two conference semifinal runs and a West finals appearance a season ago — Olshey knew this: The Blazers needed a player capable of commanding the respect of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. They needed a presence to roust the spirit of an unnerved locker room.
The Blazers wouldn’t find that in the NBA’s G League, nor with a journeyman veteran out of a job. Trades are difficult. Approximately 40% of NBA players are signed to offseason free-agent deals — including several Blazers. Those players are ineligible to be moved until Dec. 15.
Olshey and coach Terry Stotts had heard McCollum say throughout the summer that Anthony’s New York workouts were convincing, that Anthony could still be useful to a franchise. Yes, circumstances changed for Portland, too. Like the rest of the NBA, the Blazers wouldn’t sign Anthony to sit on the end of the bench.
They’d sign Anthony only to play — and they need that now.
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Zach Collins, the starting power forward, is out until March because of shoulder surgery. Center Jusuf Nurkic is still rehabilitating a fractured leg. It remains unclear when Pau Gasol will make his debut. Fourth-quarter Trail Blazers leads have kept disappearing as teams blitz and trap Lillard and McCollum — and those two guards need someone they trust to deliver passes for big shots. The Blazers are No. 2 in volume of offensive isolation plays this season, and that fits Anthony’s style.
Olshey had stayed in touch with Anthony’s agent, Leon Rose of CAA Sports, and in recent days they started to talk more seriously about the possibility of Anthony joining the Trail Blazers. The reasons kept piling up, and Olshey kept discussing the possibility with Stotts.
“For us, Melo can be another guy who is a threat,” Olshey told ESPN. “He can change the geometry on the court. He can get to the free throw line late in a game. And he has the poise to handle himself in those late-game situations we’ve struggled in.”
Anthony still considered himself a star upon arrival in Oklahoma City two years ago, and that played a part in his resistance to embracing what had been expected of him. Houston was different, too. There was still Knicks scar tissue with Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni, which left little room for the benefit of the doubt after a slow start.
Anthony is no victim, though. He contributed to the circumstances — the perceptions — that kept him out of the league. Unless Anthony accepts that he needs to adapt to stay in the NBA, there’s no guarantee this stop with the Blazers will have staying power.
No one signed Anthony after the 2019 trade deadline, nor in the buyout market — nor over a long summer of free agency. Olshey and Stotts took turns talking to Anthony on Thursday, and heard what they needed to hear.
Olshey has known Anthony since his days as a camper at the old ABCD All-American camp in northern Jersey and knew he had always been a gym rat. This hadn’t changed in the past year, and that was important, because the Blazers need him to get into game shape rapidly. They want him on the court as soon as Tuesday’s game with New Orleans.
“What I heard was that he felt he was ready,” Olshey told ESPN. “He wasn’t looking to take one more lap. He doesn’t just miss the lifestyle. He wants to play. Listen, it was just two years ago that teams were killing each other to get the guy. I told him, ‘You need a home where you can have a defined role in a winning organization — where the best players are going to respect and embrace you.’
“And I need a guy to walk into our locker room and shake things up.”
This isn’t a perfect partnership, and this isn’t five years ago. For the franchise and a declining superstar, there’s an unmistakable desperation in the air.
And yet, once more, the Portland Trail Blazers needed Carmelo Anthony. Finally, he needed them too.
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