When I took over the reigns of Daily Thunder in the summer of 2017, I admittedly failed to grasp the scope of my new responsibilities. I’d been spewing Thunder opinions into the universe for the better part of six years at the time (mostly on Twitter), so being publicly torn apart for my thoughts was familiar territory. But as I scoured the streets near Chesapeake Energy Arena looking for a parking spot prior to last season’s Media Day, the entire thing felt alarmingly…real.
I mumbled “What am I even doing here?” while walking around the building for the second time, unable to determine which entrance was mine.
I thought “Was I supposed to wear a suit?” when some members of the media passed me in the hall wearing three-pieces. (Even the vest. Seemed unnecessary but it still drove anxiety deep into my bones.)
Regardless, there were goals in mind when I started writing in 2011 and physically getting into the building was at the top of them. As a kid from the middle of nowhere that didn’t pursue a journalism degree in school, the sense of achievement at that moment was special. I posted a photo of the room to my Instagram account with the caption “It was all a dream” (miss you B.I.G.) and sent some Snapchats to my girlfriend and mother. I then broke out pen and paper (purchased specifically for the occasion) and waited for the show to begin.
As a lifelong lover of basketball and someone who has spent a great deal of time to playing, watching, and discussing the game, I often find myself at the intersection between being a writer and a being a fan. I understand the responsibility of objectivity and remaining impartial — like, I get it. But as interviews began that day, it was difficult not to turn to the guy next to me and say, “I think that’s Russell Westbrook over there.”
What I’m trying to say is that I was a fan long before I started acting fancy on the Internet, you know? Plus, Russ and I don’t spend a lot of time in the same room.
This period of time was a circus for a number of reasons — Westbrook had just averaged a triple-double and won MVP, the team had acquired Paul George a few weeks prior, and then, some two days before Media Day itself, Sam Presti sent Enes Kanter and Doug McDermott to the New York Knicks in exchange for Carmelo Anthony.
Yes, that Carmelo Anthony — 10-time All-Star, Olympic legend, hooded sweatshirt aficionado, and one of the greatest scorers to ever walk God’s green earth. The vibe around the team had gone from “Russ and PG13 — how fun!” to “Maybe we’ve got something here!” and there’s nothing quite like the Thunder fanbase when it’s fully-charged with blind optimism. Hindsight makes it all look a bit silly now, but it felt like something important was happening.
As Melo made his way into the room and plopped down with a sigh and an “oh man” — I was transfixed and hung on his every word. I know I was fired up because I even saved a clip of Melo plopping down with a sigh and an “oh man.”
Riveting stuff via yours truly.
Seeing the players up close was a trip (Steven Adams is too big for comprehension), but Melo provided something the others simply couldn’t. This was Melo — a lasting relic of pre-Thunder basketball and one of those guys that has been around long enough to carry a different sort of weight about him. He had knocked my Cowboys out of the NCAA tournament in 2003, gotten a ridiculous amount of buckets since, and, regardless of your feelings about him and his game, is a piece of living basketball history. Seeing him in a Thunder jersey was borderline incomprehensible for me.
He spoke about the trade, contending for championships, and, most notably, scoffed at the idea of coming off the bench (an ominous soundbite I somehow missed). I’d read articles and knew how poorly all of this might look on the court, but none of that seemed to matter in the moment. Age, analytics, and advanced statistics be damned — this was actually going to work. I believed him.
The only 12-year-old in rural Oklahoma with a SLAM subscription was somewhere inside me and he was punch-drunk on the possibilities.
Despite my initial optimism, the 2017-18 Thunder season was an absolute nightmare. Yes, the team won 48 games and ended up with the 4-seed/homecourt advantage in the West — facts that seem palatable when void of context. However, let’s be honest — last season sucked, didn’t it? I’m sorry but it did. Whether you were a fan, blogger, or even a player on the team, no one seemed to be having a great deal of fun. It rivals the 2014-15 campaign (the one where KD broke his foot, Russ broke his hand/face, and OKC missed the playoffs) as the most frustrating in the decade since the organization arrived in Oklahoma City.
And all of that frustration derived from lofty expectations.
The tricky thing about sports is managing said expectations — something I think we all fail to do more often than we’d care to admit. The “We’ll Get ‘Em Next Year” mentality is programmed into us from an early age — and, honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way. There’s something painfully wonderful about setting yourself up for emotional implosion year after year. Belief in the face of all evidence is part of what makes sports so wonderful in the first place. You know better. You just consciously choose to reject reality in favor of blissful, annual ignorance.
Last season’s Thunder was sold as a team that would take time, affording itself a certain amount of understanding when stumbling out of the gate. But after an 8-12 start, the Thunder went 22-8 over the next 30 contests — including an 8-game winning streak between January 13 and January 28. Switch: flipped.
For his part, Melo certainly looked like he was getting the hang of his new role. He scored 27 points on 10-of-15 shooting in a January 17 win against the Lakers. The very next day, he told ESPN’s Royce Young:
“Once you accept something, regardless of what it is, I think you become comfortable with it. You start putting your all into it, you start working on that role and on that acceptance, and it becomes fun. I think right now, after accepting that role, I think early in December, the game is starting to become fun again for me, fun for us as a team. Any time you get to making shots and winning basketball games, it makes it that much more fun.”
Two days later in Cleveland, he dropped 29 points on 11-of-19 shooting in a blowout win over LeBron James and the Cavaliers. Perhaps the proverbial light bulb had come on.
But as was the eventual story of the entire season, the good times didn’t last. When Andre Roberson went down on January 27 in Detroit, the Thunder immediately stumbled and began reverting back to the style of play that aroused so many questions in the beginning. In what felt like the blink of an eye, the Thunder was drained of its momentum and failed to secure a playoff spot until the second-to-last game of the season. Melo, who averaged 13.8 points on 35 percent shooting from deep after Roberson went down, became a lightning rod for criticism and blame. By the end of the first round loss to Utah, he had been relegated to watching the game’s most important moments from the sidelines.
Was it fair? It depends on who you ask.
Ask anyone not named “Carmelo Anthony” and there is plenty to point at. For one, his 40 percent clip from the field was the worst of his career. His 16.2 PPG was the same. And despite a three-point percentage (35.7%) that was a shade higher than his career average, he never magically transformed into the Olympic Melo superhero many expected playing alongside Westbrook and George. The Thunder wanted to play quickly, Melo doesn’t really do anything quickly, and the team jab-stepped its way into frequent bouts of offensive nothingness.
Things were even worse on the defensive end.
While Melo has never been known for his stopping power, his shortcomings were glaring in the Thunder lineup. He proved to be limited/disinterested in providing help defense, and he was absolutely destroyed in the pick-and-roll. On a team stacked with exceptional defenders, Melo was regularly and routinely targeted by opposing coaching staffs — all of whom knew he couldn’t stop the ball handler, protect the rim, or simply move quickly enough to survive situations in which he was forced to switch. It was sometimes possible to hide but teams like the Rockets and Warriors (the teams you have to beat) feasted on his delicious inadequacies.
All told, he wrapped up the season with a -1.23 Defensive RPM — good for 80th in the NBA among power forwards. In the playoffs versus Utah, the Thunder was 11.5 points per 100 possessions worse with Melo on the floor. Remember that 25-point comeback in Game 5? As you’ll recall, Jerami Grant was playing the 4-spot at the time. In fact, Melo was somewhere on the bench arguing with the coaching staff as it was all unfolding.
However, to hear his side is to hear a completely different story altogether.
When Melo sat down for his exit interview in the wake of the first round exit, he unleashed a season’s worth of frustration over the course of 18 tell-all minutes. Rather than taking responsibility for his play, or acknowledging an age-related decline in ability, he shifted the focus to the Thunder’s strategy — or lack thereof.
“I think the player that they wanted me to be and needed me to be was for the sake of this season, should I say, because it was just so — like I said, everything was just thrown together, and it wasn’t anything that was planned out. It wasn’t no strategy to me being here, me being a part of the actual system and what type of player and things like that.”
And as far as accepting a bench role should he remain in Oklahoma City?
“Yeah, I’m not sacrificing no bench role, so you can — that’s out of the question… I think everybody knows that I’ve sacrificed kind of damned near everything, family, moving here by myself, sacrificed my game for the sake of the team, and was willing to sacrifice anything and everything in order for this situation to work out. So it’s something I really have to think about, if I really want to be this type of player, finish out my career as this type of player, knowing that I have so much left in the tank and I bring so much to the game of basketball.”
Though nearly three months would pass between the end of the season and his eventual trade to Atlanta, the Melo/Thunder marriage all but officially ended there at his exit interview. On one side, you had the Thunder hoping for a Paul George miracle and a pivot toward a faster style of play. On the other, you had Melo grasping at days gone by and claiming he could still throw a football over them mountains like an expensive, hoodie-clad Uncle Rico. As you know, it’s difficult to find a resolution when you can’t first agree on the problem.
Despite all the hype surrounding the birth of the “OK3”, the experiment had failed and looked capable of shutting what little remained of the Thunder’s window. The Basketball Gods were laughing at my expectations yet again, as visions of a “summer of internal development” danced in my head.
For all the horror stories you’ve heard about Melo over the years (coach killer, locker room cancer, etc), the most surprising twist in this particular saga is how perfectly it came to an end. Despite it looking like a doomsday scenario for the Thunder, Paul George shocked the world and signed a 4-year deal to remain in Oklahoma City, Sam Presti snagged a much-needed backup center in Nerlens Noel, and on July 10, Melo himself agreed to waive his no-trade clause in order to facilitate his exit. Wait… what?
No summer of internal development? PG isn’t a Laker? Our pets’ heads aren’t falling off?
When Melo was finally traded to the Hawks (where he was promptly waived) on July 25, the narrative surrounding him among Thunder fans completely changed. Twitter was full of messages thanking him for his service, wishing him well, and remembering the good times — like when he said “mother f******” and “sh*t” live on Fox Sports Oklahoma. That was hilarious.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s easy to feel good about things when everyone gets exactly what they wanted. No one isn’t entirely self-serving here. It’s just… how often does that happen? Melo was traded, waived, got to keep most of his $28 million payday for the 2018-19 season, and signed with the Rockets — which is exactly where he wanted to be. The Thunder got rid of a piece that wasn’t working, found some needed much tax relief, and added a legitimate backup point guard and an athletic 3-&-D wing that hasn’t been able to shoot to save his life — a prospect you know is directly out of a Sam Presti fever dream based on that description alone.
An amicable breakup in today’s NBA? Preposterous!
After signing with Houston earlier this week, Melo built on the goodwill he’s been accumulating by releasing a “Thank You” letter to the Thunder organization and its legion of followers. You know — the type of thing that shouldn’t (but definitely does) get people really fired up around here.
“Thank You, OKC.
I know it was only one season, but from the time I arrived in OKC, I was greeted with so much love from The Team, The Organization, and of course the INCREDIBLE fans of this amazing city. Throughout the entire season, game after game, you cheered me on and rooted for us as a team. That is something I will always cherish and never forget. That genuine support kept me going all season long.
IN LIFE, I’ve learned that things don’t always turn out how you want. I wanted nothing more than to make it work here & help bring this city a championship. I’m sorry it didn’t work out while I was here.
Thank you to Russ, PG, Sam Presti, Coach Billy Donovan, my trainers and the entire staff who work so hard and diligently at Chesapeake Energy Arena and the practice facility. I appreciate you all very much. Last but not least, Thank You to (Thunder part-owner and chairman) Mr. (Clay) Bennett for believing in me.
This chapter of my career may be coming to an end, but my story is far from over.
A graceful exit if I’ve ever seen one.
As the Thunder moves forward without Melo, I think back on Media Day and wonder just how embarrassed I should feel about buying into the hype of the moment. I mean, it was an unmitigated disaster that resulted in countless hours writing recaps about losing efforts. Then again, given the way it all worked out in the end, it’s difficult to feel too bad about it all. In 10 years, this entire story will be reduced to brief exchanges between friends where sentences like “Do you remember that season Carmelo Anthony played for the Thunder?” are muttered, then met with “Yeah, that was cool” before moving on to the next thing. In a season we’d all given to the Warriors before it started anyway, I’m comfortable with taking away something worth remembering.
And to be honest, there was something so fascinating about Melo (in my eyes) that remained through all the frustration. Even at the end, there was part of me that thought every contested midrange jumper he took was going in. And you know who else believed it? Carmelo Anthony. It’s easier to say now that he’s in a different jersey, but something about that was always endearing to me. I mean, his official motto is “Stay Melo“, so his lack of evolution should come as no surprise. He makes it very clear he’s intent on remaining the exact same, even if he’s physically unable to do so.
The thing about the past is that it lingers long after the reality of the present, clouding your vision with ghosts of what was — but probably never will be — ever again. We’re all guilty of it, too. I’m reminded of this every time I try to drink as many beers as I could in college, or throw my back out attempting a flip on the trampoline. Melo’s defiant self-belief is frustrating but it’s also what makes him human. Everyone is waging war with Father Time in some way or another.
In the end, I’m appreciative of Melo and our one quick journey around the sun — if only because it was satisfying for the part in almost all of us that wants to see their heroes up close. You could call it a loser mentality, or maybe I’m just softening with age, but all is well that ends well. As far as I can tell, that’s the case here.
The writer in me is obligated to say Melo’s delusional, generally ineffective, and better off on someone else’s roster. The fan in me, however, will always think the entire thing was pretty cool. I’m comfortable enough to admit that.
Plus — can’t be too upset when next year is the Thunder’s year, anyway.