Born Ready? Not Melo

On a sad Friday night in Los Angeles, Carmelo Anthony didn’t play but teammate Trevor Ariza did. Neither were on the Blazers roster at the start of training camp but were added to booster weaknesses. Both Anthony and Ariza, one year apart in age, were friends of Kobe Bryant. While Ariza won a title with Bryant and had an off court friendship when the two were teammates, Melo and Bryant’s relationship transcended basketball. After hearing of Bryant’s death, Melo didn’t answer phone calls or texts for two days.

When Blazer GM Neil Olshay, who used to be the Clippers GM and was familiar with what Bryant meant to the city, gave Anthony and Ariza the option of staying in Portland and not playing in Los Angeles, Anthony took it and Ariza didn’t.

As far as careers go, Anthony and Ariza are on different plateaus. Anthony is a superstar who for seven years in a row averaged 25+ ppg.  His career high during the 2012-13 season was 28.7 ppg. He was an All-Star for 10 straight years.

Trevor Ariza has never been an All-Star. While Melo enjoyed a glorious rookie season with the Denver Nuggets, Ariza was the whipping boy of Larry Brown. The first time he averaged in double figures was the year after he left the Lakers. He left because he wanted to monetize his contribution in the NBA Finals but Dr. Buss low balled the offer. Houston didn’t. That year (2009-10) Ariza averaged 14. 9 points. Two other seasons he averaged 14 ppg, with the Wizards in 2013-14, and when he returned to the District in 2019 via a trade; he played 43 games.

Ariza is a wing role player who pays dividends for a playoff team. He scores and defends, even as he isn’t the shot maker and ball stopper he was in his prime.

Ariza has played in 30 more playoff games than Carmelo Anthony. It’s no secret as to why. Carmelo’s insistence on staying with the Knicks cost him playoff opportunities. If Damian Lillard continues his Superman ways, both Anthony and Ariza will be in the playoffs in a couple of months.

But why did Ariza, a role player, suit up in Los Angeles while Carmelo stayed behind?

It’s a complicated answer, as complicated as both Ariza and Melo. Ariza is a L.A. native. A Westchester High product, UCLA. He’s one of us. In the 2009 Finals, in games 3, 4 and 5 in Orlando, Ariza scored 13 points, 16 points and 15 points respectively. In all three games, he played more than 41 minutes and in game 4 he had the highest plus/minus (+15) of all the Lakers.

Ariza was an anchor in the second phase of Bryant’s championship career and when Dr. Buss refused to reward him for his playoff performance a lot of us were stunned and a little pissed.

Native to the city, Ariza understands all the Bryant suffering. In a city of movie stars Bryant’s  example of hard work, no excuses, competitiveness, and fiery dominance seeped into the culture like water seeps into a rock. How could Ariza not play in his hometown that is so broken? However, the rendition of Amazing Grace via an arrangement by Usher sent Ariza into the locker room until introductions. He just couldn’t handle the funereal melancholy.

Anthony talked to Bryant last week. Bryant was supposed to attend Friday night’s game. The memory of that, of an empty chair and a woeful serenade by those Bryant left behind to grieve was more than Anthony could handle. He needed distance.

Anthony has been criticized for leaving his team in a bind, for not wanting to be there for them. Team leader Damian Lillard understood. It wasn’t an ordinary game. Lillard needs Melo for more important games than Friday night. If the Blazers are going to make a playoff push, Melo has to be part of it. Give him the night off to grieve. The Nets allowed Kyrie Irving the same courtesy and there wasn’t much pushback.

But Melo’s choices bring out the worst in fans. He is expected to be as robotic in life as many assumed Bryant was. Carmelo is the human metaphor for everything that doesn’t make any sense, such as professional athletes don’t have a human soul, that they can compete in spite of everything. Melo just can’t be that cartoon guy, he can’t fit into expectations that are vapid and cartoonish. Bryant meant too much to him. LeBron means too much to him. One living, one dead, one weeping, one absent, Melo couldn’t clear his head enough to focus.

In Friday’s game, Ariza was particularly competent in guarding LeBron James who couldn’t score when Ariza guarded him. Ariza is an important piece for the Blazers. Morph Ariza and Melo together and you have a composite of  the perfect player, one offense, the other defense. Separately, they give the Blazers more ammunition and free up a little bit of the Lillard workload.

Carmelo recently stated he wanted to retire with the Blazers. Before that, a playoff opportunity looms while Melo is grieving. Ariza is grieving too but on a Friday night he was back home and home is where the heart is.