It’s a confusing time for Miami Heat fans. Their young players are promising but don’t quite move the needle, and their veterans are exciting to watch but well past the stage of their careers where they could carry the Heat deep into the playoffs. Simply put, the Heat are in a state of flux. Although the short-term gain would be modest (if any), acquiring Carmelo Anthony’s expiring deal would be the first step in creating a clear direction to getting them back to where they belong: at the forefront of the NBA.
Although it was honorable to run it back after the 2016-17 Heat caught lightning in a bottle and went 30-11 to finish the year, it just didn’t seem right to have a blue-collar underdog team in Miami. It’s a star’s town. Whether it is Shaquille O’Neal or LeBron James, Pat Riley has consistently managed to put his rings on the table and make stars see Miami for the destination that it is. In fact, even coming off of a non-playoff year in 2017, Riley was able to make a prime Gordon Hayward think hard about coming south to try to win titles.
Considering Paul George’s recent decision to re-sign with the Thunder, and their frivolous spending on short term deals since, it’s become clear that they are going all in on this season. For this reason many believe that Anthony will be on the trade block due to the Thunder’s sudden sense of urgency as he was a terrible fit alongside their core last year. The logical decision would be to simply buy him out, but that doesn’t seem likely as Anthony has stated before that he doesn’t want to leave money on the table. This means the Thunder will likely be looking to offload him for essentially anything of substance as they try to maximize their current roster to compete with Golden State’s (somehow) improved core.
That desperation is why acquiring slightly overpaid rotation players (likely two of Kelly Olynyk, James Johnson, or Dion Waiters, with ancillary pieces thrown in to make salaries work) on longer deals from the Heat in exchange for only one year of Anthony seems like a no-brainer for the Thunder when most teams wouldn’t even take the call. Thunder GM Sam Presti is a magician, but they are out of options. A trade of this manner is the only way for the Thunder to meaningfully improve in their severely capped-out situation.
Based on his age (34) many assume that Anthony’s inevitable decline is underway and that acquiring him would just be taking on dead money, but there is a higher-than-you’d-think possibility of him reviving his career (and image) in Miami. In recent years, many a veteran has come south with their value at an all-time low only to use their one-year deal to play their way into a contract that seemed outside the realm of possibility just eight months prior (Waiters and Johnson are perfect examples).
The main reason pointed to when praising Miami as the NBA’s veteran rehab center is their unique strength and conditioning culture. It’s no secret that Anthony hasn’t been the most well-conditioned star in the league throughout his career, but as is well documented, the Heat would change that. Considering just two years ago a player of similar stature in James Johnson managed to go from fringe veteran to a sixty-million dollar man by transforming his body with the Heat, then it’s only logical that getting Anthony into Miami Heat shape should allow him to recapture part of his former self — if not more.
Additionally, as underwhelming as Anthony was this year it’s undeniable that a lot of issues came from his poor fit next to Westbrook. The Thunder’s coaching staff doesn’t really call many plays, they just let Westbrook go and have the supporting cast play off of him. As effective as “letting Westbrook go” can be at times, it often results in a lot of early shot clock Westbrook-Steven Adams pick and roll action which causes other players (even Paul George) to go minutes without getting a touch at times. Although Anthony had a hand in the dysfunction, it’s no wonder the Thunder were 29th in the league in passes per game this year.
When Anthony was able to get a touch even casual fans could tell he wasn’t in a great rhythm. Adjusting from a high usage, yet effective, ball-stopper to third fiddle didn’t come easy for Anthony, if at all. This past year he posted a career-low in usage and most shooting percentages (per Basketball Reference). When watching him it appeared as though he was forcing up attempts to score whenever he got touches near his spots rather than letting the game come to him as there was no certainty to when he’d be getting the ball next. Like it or not, it’s innate for him as a pure scorer to get his shots up.
On the contrary, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra is routinely lauded for finding ways to get the most out of his guys by feeding them the ball in their spots after having an initial action shift the defense. Although it isn’t “the beautiful game” Spurs by any stretch of the imagination, the Heat managed to finish 11th in passes per game because of Spoelstra’s distaste for stagnation. That ranking would almost certainly go down if they were to acquire Anthony but it’s unquestionable that having him more engaged in a free-flowing offense like the Heat’s would restore much of his effectiveness.
As was previously mentioned, Anthony’s stock is the lowest it’s ever been. This past year he registered a -1.1 Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) which tracks how much more productive a player is than fringe NBA production. After a decade plus of being among the league’s best this was the first season of his career below zero, and many are taking that as a sign of things to come. If Anthony can’t, at the very least, become a plus NBA player again in Miami by getting in Heat shape and playing a more natural role (not entirely natural-- he’s not that guy anymore-- just more natural than in OKC) in Spoelstra’s offense, then he can’t anywhere.
Even in the (somewhat likely) event that Anthony isn’t a great fit and makes them noticeably worse, the Heat can always buy him out late in the year to join a contender in a limited role. This would still open up the ever-sought-after cap space that drives the trade while also allowing the Heat’s younger players more opportunity to improve. Conversely, in the glass-half-full event that Anthony has a noticeable bounce back year, the Heat could trade him at the deadline for assets to start building their star-chasing war chest that will be vital going forward.
It may not result in a ton of wins, but let’s be straight here: the Heat weren’t winning anything meaningful this year regardless. For a franchise with no clear path, taking on Anthony’s expiring deal would be the first step to opening up enough cap space to hunt big fish in next summer’s star-studded free agent class (Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, to name a few). Based on Riley’s track record, with all those stars on the market it’s difficult to imagine he couldn’t smooth talk at least one into trying to become the next Heat star to reign the East. It may not be pretty, but this is the closest the Heat will sniff to a “get out of jail free card.” It’s up to them if they want to use it.