Melo was destined to be one of the greats. Armed with a knife of a jab step, a buttery jumpshot and two first names (think: Michael and Jordan, Kobe and Bryant, LeBron and James) Melo could score like few other players in the history of the game. In what was probably his most successful year individually, 2012-2013, he hung a cool 50 on LeBron James’ Heat, nearly exclusively scoring on jumpshots. That game was his crowning achievement. He shot the shots he wanted, and he was so good it didn’t matter that they were all well-defended. He was a master artist who came of age a little too late, like a ragtime drummer born just at the tail-end of jazz’s heyday. I can’t say I’m an unabashed Melo fan. I’ve long criticized him, including getting into a fight with my high school point guard about how Paul George was better because he played defense. I eventually conceded my point out of deference to the Knicks, but deep down I still thought I’d rather have George. Blemishes will stain Melo’s career when it’s all said and done, which is increasingly appearing to be closer to fruition than I expected. And that’s okay. It’s what he deserves.
Let’s start where we always must start — the end. It seems mother nature didn’t take too kindly to our midterm election results and decided to express her white-hot fury in sprinting blaze and choking smoke. I’m no earth sciences major, so I can’t tell you that the fires devastating California are caused by a universal imbalance (perhaps, even, injustice) in the way humans interact with one another and our planet. Earth science folks, please help me out. Likewise, I cannot tell you that the Rockets’ struggles are caused by Melo’s lackluster play. Or even that his lackluster play is caused by his stubborn insistence on shooting his long two’s and playing defense if and only if he feels like it. But I have to use the information I have available to me. And that information, combined with what I saw last year on the Thunder, tells me that Melo is no longer a positive contributor to a good basketball team.
Current Melo is a flawed player, not a team killer. The Rockets’ struggles this year reflect a roster hurting from the loss of two of its top defenders and diminished play from their new $40 million man Chris Paul. The only reason Melo is under such scrutiny is because of last season’s debacle on the Thunder. Despite trying to change his game to fit a new stretch-four role, Melo couldn’t up his efficiency and gel the way GM Sam Presti had hoped. So he was traded (to get waived), and added to a team that finished a few bricked threes away from making the Finals last year.
Melo has never been the consummate teammate. He doesn’t do the little things, he’s not in top-notch shape and able to out-hustle or outwork other guys. He hasn’t updated his game as quickly or innovatively as other players. He has largely settled for what he is — a very, very good basketball player. To me, that will be Melo’s legacy.
I went to a talk last week on Facing Hate in America. In it, on the topic of racism and anti-semitism, panelist Rabbi Kirschner said that sometimes it’s better to have things stay under the surface. There are words and phrases pulsing so strongly with hate that their existence itself is violence. Let them sit unspoken, so that they might not hurt anyone but their holder. (Stick with me right now, here comes a leap of a connection). Melo has never been one to keep things under the surface. When he felt dissatisfied, he let his team, and the media, know. Sometimes, that was wrong. Sometimes, it hurt his team and himself. At the end of the day, he has always been true to who he is and has not tried to front as something that he isn’t.
Melo the star is meeting his ignominious end. He was never good enough to lead his team to the promised land. He racked up all-star appearances in tandem with first-round flameouts. It is sad to see him go, yes. But at least he has that New York chip still stuck on his shoulder. Faced with the choice of drastically changing his role on a team to survive or doing the best he can in his unique style, he has picked the latter. Like Sinatra said, he did it his way. His is a mantra that I liked, then hated, and now finally understand: Stay Melo.
Contact Jack Golub at golubj ‘at’ stanford.edu