It is the go-to comparison in N.B.A. circles whenever the subject turns to the much-debated Carmelo Anthony experiment in Houston. For years, Anthony’s critics have wondered: How much longer will it take for him to embrace off-the-bench duty, as Bob McAdoo did at 30?
No less an authority than Rockets Coach Mike D’Antoni drew that precise parallel on opening night, volunteering to reporters that he hoped Anthony would ultimately accept it, in the same reputation-changing manner that McAdoo famously did with the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1980s.
“I know it’s tough,” D’Antoni said of the role Houston has asked Anthony to adopt at 34. But D’Antoni quickly added that McAdoo’s having become a two-time champion as a Lakers reserve “kind of softens it up a bit.”
But does it? For certain? Are we maybe underestimating the size of the challenge involved when a former scoring-machine first option, like Melo or Doo, is asked to change his mentality so drastically?
The obvious answer: Seek out Mr. McAdoo and ask him.
I have always been upfront about my Buffalo Braves fandom, having lived in Western New York for nearly all of the Braves’ existence, so I naturally enjoy speaking to McAdoo whenever the opportunity presents itself. Yet this conversation was not about paying homage to the greatest Brave of them all. To get a sense of the adjustment Anthony is facing with the struggling Rockets, there is perhaps no more qualified expert in the field to talk to than McAdoo.
He’s still a scout with the Miami Heat at 67, after many years on the Heat bench as an assistant under Pat Riley, Stan Van Gundy and Erik Spoelstra. So he is precluded by league rules from discussing Anthony or his situation directly. But McAdoo didn’t hesitate to tell me, nearly 40 years since he joined the Lakers on Christmas Eve in 1981, that he had had no advance warning that he would not be a starter in Los Angeles — and that his three-plus seasons with the Lakers’ second unit were harder than he had ever let on.
“It was a great opportunity for me to play with Kareem and Magic,” McAdoo said. “For the first time in my career, I had a chance to win a championship.
“But I had no thoughts at all in my mind about coming off the bench. It just happened. To me, it was a wrap I would start. They didn’t have anyone who could stick with me at that position.”
Yet Riley, then coaching the Lakers, repeatedly found a forward to start ahead of McAdoo, who had established a league record by winning three scoring titles in Buffalo before he turned 25 — but who had also found himself increasingly painted with the “selfish” label as injuries and ringless seasons piled up. The famed Boston Celtics patriarch Red Auerbach, in one instance, told The New York Times: “Bob was more concerned with personal achievements than team achievements.”
Checkered stints with the Celtics, the Detroit Pistons and the New Jersey Nets led McAdoo to the Lakers — only for Jim Brewer, Mark Landsberger and ultimately Kurt Rambis to get turns starting ahead of the league’s 1975 most valuable player.
“But I dealt with it,” McAdoo said, “because I had never been on a championship team. And I’ve never been one to cause disruption or anything like that. I wasn’t happy about it. But what could I do? I was frustrated for four years, but I dealt with it. I never said anything. But I was frustrated with the whole deal.”
During the 1982 playoffs, his first postseason with the Lakers, McAdoo was quoted by The Washington Post as saying: “That championship is the one thing I don’t have … I’ll do whatever I need to … get it.” By consistently biting his tongue in the moment and only expounding on that frustration years after the fact, McAdoo highlighted the mind-set that not only won Riley’s eternal respect for his sacrifice but also led the game’s historians to view his career with the sort of appreciation and reverence that Anthony has only found on the international stage.
Olympic Melo has won plaudits for his role in helping U.S.A. Basketball secure gold medals in 2008, 2012 and 2016, but he’ll have to be a positive force on an N.B.A. title team like Eighties McAdoo if he hopes to really change his on-court legacy.
Pinning the Rockets’ 1-5 start on Anthony, mind you, would be grossly unfair. For starters, there have been no indications that he’s putting up any resistance to what D’Antoni has asked to him to do. Furthermore, Chris Paul has missed two games because of a suspension, while James Harden remains out with a hamstring strain as the most notable of multiple Houston injuries. In the wake of losing the savvy wing defense provided by Trevor Ariza, as well as guidance from the freshly retired defensive coordinator Jeff Bzdelik, Houston was ranked a feeble 27th in the league defensively when D’Antoni awoke Tuesday morning.
The fact that the Rockets are allowing nearly 17 points more per 100 possessions with Anthony on the floor only fuels the perception that Melo is the one dragging them down. Ditto for the fact that Anthony’s best offensive game — 24 points in Sunday’s home loss to the Los Angeles Clippers — came after he filled in for the ailing Harden in the starting lineup.
Talking to McAdoo, though, made me wonder if us know-it-alls on the outside underestimate the scale of the experiment. It’s something to think about, at the very least, if the player routinely credited for giving Melo his blueprint makes that case.
“It was worth it,” McAdoo said. “But still, looking back, I think we would have been even better with me starting. You say all kinds of things like that in your mind.”
As for sharing such thoughts with Riley, McAdoo said he largely held off until they were working side by side in Miami — long after the sweet-shooting 1970s precursor to Kevin Durant had stopped playing.
“He knows,” McAdoo said with a chuckle. “We’ve talked about it. He knows I didn’t like coming off the bench behind Kurt.”