SALT LAKE CITY — Carmelo Anthony hasn’t once wondered this season what life might have been like as a Houston Rocket.
“No, no,” Anthony claimed when asked about the matter Saturday. “Not at all. No.”
The rest of the basketball world’s collective mind will wander differently when his Oklahoma City Thunder play the Rockets on Christmas.
There was a time only a few months ago when the Rockets topped Anthony’s list of possible trade destinations. But they and his former New York Knicks couldn’t work out a deal. Anthony added the Thunder to his list. And he found himself in Oklahoma not long after.
Now, 33 games later, the Thunder are three months into an attempt to mold the future Hall of Famer — a career-long, ball-dominant, mid-range-reliant scorer — into something else: a catch-and-shoot assassin who can splash like a salmon from the 3-point line.
The possibility of a transformation is why OKC was so attracted to Anthony from the beginning. The trade, which sent big man Enes Kanter, shooter Doug McDermott and a second-round pick to New York, went down so quickly, the Thunder didn’t een formally meet with Anthony to discuss a role prior to the deal. They gravitated toward his 43 percent shooting on catch-and-shoot triples from a season ago and figured he’d fall in line alongside Russell Westbrook and Paul George.
The Rockets — who value dunks, layups, free throws and 3s to a greater extreme than any other organization — thought similarly.
But it hasn’t always worked in Oklahoma City. Even within progress, there’s been imperfection.
Anthony attempted 22 3-pointers over the Thunder’s weekend back-to-back against the Atlanta Hawks and Utah Jazz, both wins. Against the Hawks, 10 of 12 were catch and shoot attempts. It’s just what OKC coach Billy Donovan has been looking for.
“Yes, 100 percent,” Donovan said. “I give him a lot of credit, because this is different for him.”
It’s an adjustment the Thunder have hammered into Anthony, one the Rockets have adjusted to similarly with new point guard Chris Paul, a close friend of Anthony’s and one of the league’s best floor generals, who is integrating into an all-time offense just fine.
Just as the Thunder are trying to push Anthony away from what Donovan refers to as “non-paint 2s,” the Rockets are attempting a related feat with Paul, who might be the NBA’s most accurate shooter between the free-throw line and 3-point arc. He sank more than half his shots from mid-range, generally the least efficient area of the floor, last year with the L.A. Clippers. Yet, he’s dropped his mid-range shots from more than five a game a season ago to two with Houston.
It’s part of a system that simply doesn’t allow those sorts of shots. It’s one in which Anthony could have been a piece.
“Everybody goes through their ups and downs and their struggles, their triumphs differently,” Anthony said. “Ours, we were trying to figure out how we wanted to play, how we wanted to do. Any time you get a new team, new players, the style of play becomes different...Guys have to accept that.”
Anthony still had his atavism moments against the Jazz on Saturday, though he was much more willing as a catch-and-shoot guy than he showed at the beginning of the season. Still, he hoisted eight mid-range shots.
It’s one more reason to wonder exactly how he would have adjusted in Houston, where “mid-range shot,” might as well be a curse word. The Rockets are riding the philosophy to potentially historic levels, averaging 113.7 points per 100 possessions with Paul and MVP-favorite James Harden leading the way, the highest offensive efficiency since the NBA began keeping track of per-possession data in 1996.
Amidst Donovan’s preaching about working from the 3-point line and around the rim, Anthony, individually, has taken the second-most mid-range shots in the NBA, per NBA.com, at 228. That’s 53 more than the entire Rockets roster combined.
So, it’s worth questioning, how would he have fit if he were, in fact, in Houston? Would the Rockets have forced a stylistic change on him even more than the Thunder have tried? (And yes, the Thunder have tried.) Would Houston have to compromise the aesthetics of its offense? Would whichever party that ceded more have to sacrifice too much of his or its identity to remain successful?
Whatever the possibilities in Houston, Anthony is making the effort in Oklahoma City. But reversing decades of basketball habits takes more than 33 games.
“It’s just a matter of accepting that role and that’s all it is, realizing this is what it’s going to be. These are the types of shots I’m going to get. This is the type of offense we’re going to be running, and accepting that and working on that role,” Anthony said. “That’s something I’ve kind of been doing over the past week, just allowing myself to accept that role and doing whatever I’ve got to do make this team win.”
Fred Katz is the Thunder beat writer for the Norman Transcript and CNHI Oklahoma as well as the host of the postgame show, Thunder After Dark, and the OKC Dream Team, a weekly Thunder podcast that runs every Tuesday. Follow him on Twitter: @FredKatz.