Portland Trail Blazers President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey had tried to get Carmelo Anthony in trades with the New York Knicks, tried to get him as a free agent post-Oklahoma City. Now, they were together on a call Thursday morning. Time had passed, circumstances had changed.
“You need us,” sources said Olshey told Anthony. “And we need you.”
Out of basketball for a year, one of the game’s great scorers needed someone to believe in him again. This time, Portland made an offer Anthony couldn’t refuse — a non-guaranteed contract, a chance to revitalize a reigning Western Conference finalist fighting injury and inconsistency, an NBA job.
Anthony is 35 years old and the Trail Blazers can’t be confident in what he has left — nor how much he can impact them after a sluggish 4-8 start with a six-game road trip looming. Of what Portland can be confident: Anthony was probably the best of limited options.
After six straight trips to the Western Conference playoffs — including two conference semifinals runs and a West finals appearance a season ago — Olshey knew this: The Blazers needed a player capable of commanding the respect of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. They needed a presence to roust the spirit of an unnerved locker room.
The Blazers wouldn’t find that in the NBA’s G League, nor with a journeyman veteran out of a job. Trades are difficult. Approximately 40% of NBA players are signed to offseason free-agent deals — including several Blazers. Those players are ineligible to be moved until Dec. 15.
Olshey and coach Terry Stotts had heard McCollum say throughout the summer that his New York workouts were convincing, that Anthony could still be useful to a franchise. Yes, circumstances changed for Portland, too. Like the rest of the NBA, they wouldn’t sign Anthony to sit on the end of the bench.
They’d sign Anthony only to play — and they need that now.
Zach Collins, the starting power forward, is out until March with shoulder surgery. Center Jusuf Nurkic is still rehabilitating a fractured leg. It remains unclear when Pau Gasol will make his debut. Fourth-quarter Trail Blazers leads kept disappearing as teams blitzed and trapped Lillard and McCollum — and those two guards need someone they trust to deliver passes for big shots. The Blazers are No. 2 in volume of offensive isolation plays this season, and that fits Anthony’s style.
Olshey had stayed in touch with agent Leon Rose of CAA Sports, and in recent days they started to talk more seriously about the possibility of Anthony joining the Trail Blazers. The reasons kept piling up, and Olshey kept discussing the possibility with Stotts. The non-guaranteed contract gives the relationship a chance to evolve, because the Trail Blazers won’t owe the full-season minimum salary unless Anthony remains on the roster after early January.
Portland had nothing to lose, except time. It’s dangerous to fall back too far in the Western Conference. Anthony flew from Los Angeles to New York, took a physical on Saturday and could be on the court as soon as Tuesday night in New Orleans, league sources said.
The Trail Blazers need a threat on the floor, a player with poise who can get to the free throw line late in games. Anthony is a long way from a decade of All-Star seasons, but no one expects that anymore — and that needs to include him, too.
Anthony still considered himself a star upon arrival in Oklahoma City two years ago — that played a part in his resistance to embrace what was expected of him. Houston was different. There was still Knicks scar tissue with Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni, which left little benefit of the doubt after a slow start.
Anthony’s no victim, though. He contributed to the circumstances — the perceptions — that kept him out of the league. Unless Anthony accepts that he needs to adapt to stay in the NBA, there’s no guarantee this stop with the Trail Blazers has staying power.
No one signed Anthony after the 2019 trade deadline, nor in the buyout market, nor during a long summer of free agency. Olshey and Stotts took turns talking to Anthony on Thursday, and were told what they needed to hear. Olshey has known Anthony since his days as a camper at the old ABCD All-American camp in northern Jersey, and knew he had always been a gym rat.
This hadn’t changed in the past year, and that was important, because the Trail Blazers need him to get into game shape rapidly.
They want him on the court as soon as Tuesday’s game in New Orleans. Before agreeing to a deal on Thursday, Olshey needed to hear Anthony eager to play ball and impact winning — not simply reenlist into the NBA lifestyle or take a goodbye lap.
Sources briefed on the call suggested that Olshey’s message was this: Anthony needed a home where he could have a definitive role for a winning organization, needed the best players to respect and embrace him. And the Blazers needed someone with stature to walk in the door and shake up the locker room.
This isn’t a perfect partnership, and this sure isn’t five years ago. For a franchise and a declining superstar, there’s an unmistakable desperation in the air. That’s reality. And so is this: Once more, the Portland Trail Blazers needed Carmelo Anthony. Finally, he needed them, too.