The early returns on Carmelo Anthony’s tenure in Portland have been decidedly positive.
He’s helped redirect a season that was headed in the wrong direction, reenergizing Portland’s office and on Friday helping the Blazers earn their first three game winning streak of the season.
Anthony is still learning how he fits alongside his new teammates. Before his debut at New Orleans on Nov. 19, he estimated he knew about five of the Blazers plays.
Terry Stotts guessed that Anthony had probably learned twice that many before tip off on Friday against the Chicago Bulls. Now six games into his Blazers career, Anthony’s grasp of the playbook had grown along with his on-court chemistry with his teammates, particularly shooting guard CJ McCollum.
Stotts has tweaked his rotations to keep McCollum and Anthony on the floor together more, subbing them both our earlier and in the first and third quarters and then sending the back in together to help bolster the second unit.
“I think I have a good understanding of his strengths,” McCollum said of Anthony. “How I can help him, especially in certain matchups, certain times in the game when we can go 1-4 pick and roll, or I can set a screen on him to try to get a mismatch.”
Anthony was more cautious, noting that him and McCollum are still perfecting their play together.
“We’re working. We’re working,” Anthony said. “We’re trying to get better at it. We’re still trying to get our timing down. We’re still trying to get our angles down. It’s small things that we as basketball players know that we have to kinda sharpen up before we can get to that fine tuned of that pick and roll situation.”
Since Anthony joined the Blazers McCollum has fed him more than any other teammate with nearly a quarter of McCollum’s passes ending up in Anthony’s hands, according to tracking data from NBA.com. There’s a budding trust developing for their two-man game that’s just six games old. But their connection goes deeper than the 10 days Anthony has been with the Blazers.
For the past three summers McCollum has gone to New York to participate in Anthony’s “Black Ops” runs at the Life Time Athletic. It was in these exclusive pick up games — well documented on Instagram by trainer CJ Brickley — that McCollum and Anthony first started to develop a familiarity and chemistry. These runs were informal, even on a court full of NBA players these are still offseason pick up games, but McCollum said they gave him a head start into understanding how to play alongside Anthony.
“A natural feel,” McCollum said of how he and Anthony play off each other. “Two smart people who know how to play the game, understand time and score and know how to take advantage of spacing. The other part is [I’ve] played with him some in the summer the last few summers so I understand his game. I think that the communication helps a lot.”
The McCollum and Anthony pairing is even more literal inside the Moda Center, where their locker stalls are right next to one another. It’s a proximity that can only help their relationship both on and off the court. When McCollum tried to duck out early on Friday he stopped and asked reporters if they needed to talk with him first.
“Oh, they need you,” Anthony quipped. “Of course they need you.”
McCollum answered questions and then left, giving way for Anthony to do the same with the type of “my turn, your turn” approach their on-court game has often mimicked. The dynamic was on display midway through the fourth quarter on Friday, when Anthony assisted a McCollum three-pointer and then two possessions later McCollum flipped a pass out to Anthony for a three-pointer on the left wing.
Six games into the Melo experience in Portland and the Blazers are still finding their way. Anthony’s partnership with McCollum has been a promising development as they work find a balance for when to let the each other go to work and how to maximize their talents. But as Anthony quickly noted, this on-court relationship is still in its infancy.
“We’re getting there,” he said. “It takes time. We’re getting there.”