IT WAS NOV. 5, 2017, game nine for the newly formed superteam in Oklahoma City. After a bumpy 4-4 start, the Thunder were in Portland to take on a division rival.
Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts had taken his spot in the narrow hallway of the Moda Center pregame to talk with reporters, and as had been the case for the first eight OKC games, a number of questions were aimed at what to make of the big three -- Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. Expected were platitudes about the talent, scoring and potential, but as Stotts plowed through the praise, he said the quiet part out loud about the Thunder.
"With all due respect to Carmelo," Stotts said, "four of their five starters are very good defenders."
As Stotts continued outlining his perspective on this Thunder team, his report on Anthony wasn't meant to be a joke, or a jab, though it was sort of taken that way. He wasn't wrong. Anthony had never been regarded highly on the defensive end. Even though he had shifted positions, playing power forward in OKC, he had still been a nightly pick-and-roll target for opposing offenses. Then, after a turbulent season in which OKC won 48 games, Stotts' quiet hallway scouting report on Anthony hit a crescendo. It was Game 5 of the Thunder's first-round series against the Utah Jazz. Already down three games to one, OKC trailed 71-53 and was headed for a public shaming of their so-called superteam.
Then, a run. A season-saving run. In the last seven minutes of the third quarter and the first four minutes of the fourth, the Thunder roared back, deploying wing Jerami Grant at the 4 with a hyper-aggressive, switch-everything swarming defensive scheme.
Anthony watched all of it from the bench.
After OKC was eventually eliminated in six games, it was clear to anyone paying attention: Melo wasn't going to be back in Oklahoma City.
Then, after an infamous 10-game stretch in Houston to open the 2018-19 season, Carmelo Anthony, a man who had made 10 All-Star teams and scored nearly 26,000 points, was cut from the Rockets. His reputation was in tatters.
As Anthony's precipitous fall played out in franchise boardrooms and front offices across the league, a different reaction emerged from his peers. There was confusion. Consternation. Outrage.
"It was a basketball crime of its purest form," says Jamal Crawford, 21-year vet and three-time Sixth Man of the Year. "Melo is a baller. He's a hooper. He's a hooper's hooper. That's why he's so revered and why it bothered so many people. That's why it was so loud."
The respect Anthony holds throughout the league never went away, even when he did. Young stars admire his craftsmanship, his attention to detail, his raw scoring power. Anthony, who is now in his second season with the Blazers and just passed Hall of Famer Elvin Hayes for 10th on the NBA's all-time scoring list, has long been one of the most polarizing players in the game, the de facto dividing line in the debate between good shots and bad.
For players, it's as if he's the representation of pure hoops, the pushback against efficiency calibrations and analytics-driven decisions.
"He can't get a job? That's almost a slap in everybody's face," Crawford says. "Especially the true ballers of the league. If it can happen to Melo, it can happen to anybody."
JUST TWO YEARS removed from being an All-Star in New York, Carmelo Anthony, at 35, was jobless.
"I know myself. I believe in myself. I know what I can do. So that was the hard part at first -- asking myself why," Anthony says. "Like why? Why me? Of all people, why? Why? I was beating myself up."
A week passed. Then two. Then a month. No one called.