First, it was Paul Pierce on the ESPN studio show complaining about “so much iso ball” on the Thunder. He did not single out Anthony by name, but in effect he was pointing to a common narrative throughout Anthony’s 15 seasons in the N.B.A.
Next came Doris Burke, the astute analyst, commenting during the game that removing Anthony from a starting lineup with three ball-dominant stars to fortify what has been an unproductive Oklahoma City bench is a logical sacrifice for Anthony to make.
At this stage of his career, Burke said, “it should be about winning for him.”
Anthony has always said that team goals override all, but doing what’s necessary after such bold declarations has been a challenge for him. Personal branding is a concept he has better embraced, and so agreeing to the bench role that Dwyane Wade has accepted in Cleveland is almost certain to play into the persecution complex Anthony developed — fairly or not — as the failed savior in New York.
In defense of the Thunder’s critics, fingers haven’t pointed only at Anthony. Westbrook’s cyclonic game has fallen off some from his league most valuable player season in 2016-17, and he was never the easiest of point guards to play with. George hasn’t even matched the numbers posted in Indiana by Victor Oladipo, one of the players the Pacers acquired for him.
And then there is Sam Presti, the respected general manager of the Thunder, who put this star puzzle together while persuading Westbrook to sign a five-year, $205 million extension in September.
“In theory, it all made sense,” Jeff Van Gundy, the television analyst and former Knicks and Houston Rockets coach, said in a telephone interview. “But they made two two-for-one deals that shortened their bench, changed their identity, and the stars they put together don’t necessarily complement each other. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t a shot worth taking.”
Appeasing LeBron James upon his 2014 return to Cleveland with a trade for Kevin Love, among lesser moves, helped bring the Cavaliers their first N.B.A. title and three consecutive trips to the N.B.A. finals. Trying to make Deron Williams a long-term Net in advance of a franchise move to Brooklyn from New Jersey set off a chain of devastating deals and falling dominoes.
In Indianapolis on Wednesday night, the Thunder’s Big 3 had a miserable shooting night, a combined 10 for 45. Van Gundy is correct — thus far, Westbrook, George and Anthony have looked like three solo artists taking turns jamming on lead guitar.
But Westbook and George are younger, fitter and more versatile than Anthony. George’s defense on Oladipo and Westbrook’s frenzied dashes to the rim helped the Thunder move within a game of .500 at 13-14 heading into Friday night’s game at Philadelphia. They also spared Anthony more grief for having a late jump shot blocked on tired legs, bricking a left-side drive and being targeted in pick-and-rolls by a penetrating Oladipo.
Presti may have to consider dealing George if the Thunder do not significantly improve in order to avoid the risk of losing him to free agency next summer without compensation. Victories over Golden State, San Antonio and a hot Pacers team suggest the Thunder can get better, and will.
But the glaring incompatibility of the Big 3 along with the Thunder’s thin bench may compel Coach Billy Donovan to make a less dramatic strategical move first. That would be stationing Anthony with the second unit, where he could theoretically operate more with the ball and shake a serious marksmanship decline — he has made 28 percent of his shots over the last 10 games while averaging slightly over one assist.
Asked about Anthony, Van Gundy said, “I don’t think anyone expected when Melo left the Knicks that he’d be better than he was in New York.”
“Father Time is undefeated,’’ he added.
At 33, Anthony could use having his burden lessened, his minutes shortened. But he clearly is sensitive to suggestions that he is no longer a starting player, much less an All-Star, and uncharacteristically blew off reporters after a recent, depressing, home-court loss to Charlotte.
On Wednesday, George was the target in Indianapolis, booed all night in his homecoming, after which Anthony forecast a happier one for himself in New York.
“I got a different feeling with New York, different relationship, different bond with the city, with the fans, with the people,” he said. “So it’ll be special for me. I’ll be lying if I say I’m not ecstatic to go back to be playing there.”
In the case of the 27-year-old George, Indianapolis won’t forgive him for abandoning the small-market city in his prime. In New York, Anthony agreed to waive a no-trade clause and hit the highway after enduring the low-road approach that the former Knicks president Phil Jackson used in an effort to drive him out of town.
Seeing a better future with Kristaps Porzingis as their marquee man, most long-suffering Garden fans are thrilled to be rid of Anthony, or at least happy for him that he found his way to what should be a better team.
A proper reception on Saturday would be warm, if not adoring. Appreciative for Anthony’s willingness to try — albeit his way — to build something in his native New York. Sympathetic for the meanspirited way that management eventually convinced him to go.
At the end, Jackson made Anthony into more of a victim than an antihero, a card Anthony played well. If the bench does eventually beckon for him in Oklahoma City, he can’t expect to effectively play it again.