OKLAHOMA CITY -- If Carmelo Anthony returns to the Oklahoma City Thunder next season -- and that sounds like a bigger "if" than previously thought after his exit interview Saturday -- it will not be in a bench role.
"Yeah, I'm not sacrificing no bench role," Anthony said. "That's out of the question."
Anthony's answer was consistent with the way he felt on his first day with the Thunder, famously saying, "Who, me?" when asked about moving to the second unit, and telling Paul George as he walked by, "Hey, P! They want me to come off the bench!"
Anthony is owed $28 million on the final year of his contract, but he can opt out with an early termination clause. The expectation from nearly everyone around the league was that Anthony would opt in to the final year and remain with the Thunder. (He also maintains his no-trade clause.) But while declining to talk specifics about financials, Anthony said he's going to have to weigh his basketball happiness with whatever he decides.
"I think for me, my focus would be on kind of figuring out what I want out of the rest of my career, what I want in my future, what am I willing to accept, if I'm willing to accept that at all," Anthony, 34, said. "I think everybody knows that I've sacrificed kind of damned near everything, family, moving here by myself, sacrificed my game for the sake of the team, and was willing to sacrifice anything and everything in order for this situation to work out. So it's something I really have to think about, if I really want to be this type of player, finish out my career as this type of player, knowing that I have so much left in the tank and I bring so much to the game of basketball."
Asked how he thought this season went, Anthony lowered his voice a bit.
"Interesting," he said.
From day one, the Thunder asked Anthony to change, starting with his position. He made a full-time move to power forward and slowly integrated himself as a catch-and-shoot option rather than an isolation-heavy volume scorer. Anthony struggled adapting to not having the ball in his hands consistently and didn't shoot nearly as well from the perimeter as the Thunder expected.
"I think the player that they wanted me to be and needed me to be was for the sake of this season," Anthony said. "As far as being effective as that type of player, I don't think I can be effective as that type of player. I think I was willing to accept that challenge in that role, but I think I bring a little bit more to the game as far as being more knowledgeable and what I still can do as a basketball player."
Anthony saw his role significantly reduced in the postseason. He was seen campaigning to get back on the court in Game 5 against the Jazz as the Thunder went on a 32-7 run, and he remained on the bench for the majority of the fourth quarter in Game 6. Utah clinched the first-round series 4-2 on Friday. Anthony averaged 11.8 points in the series, shooting just .375 from the field and .214 from 3-point range. His 16.2 points per game this season was a career low.
"I became who I am by playing the way that I've played and establishing a style of play and a type of play throughout my career," Anthony said. "So now it's about figuring out what is the best way to implement that game into something that we're trying to create, and it's not taking away nothing from Russell [Westbrook] or Paul or anybody else, or myself per se. I think we just all have to figure out how we're going to play and what's the style of play and what's most effective in the way that we're going to play. I think that's something that we have to figure out."
Anthony isn't the only Thunder player with an uncertain future and an offseason decision. George, who will become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, spent his time Saturday reiterating many of the talking points he has used throughout the season.
"I haven't been in a position to be a free agent or know what that is like, and then to have the chance to go where you want to go," George said. "That's always been, I feel with players, they want that option. But then you go into an organization where they kind of check the boxes on all the things that you want out of an organization, and then immediately they become a candidate to where you want to play long term.
"So that was the case. That's been the case here. They honestly check the boxes where I needed those boxes to be checked from what a player wants and needs out of a front office, out of a medical group, out of teammates, out of coaching staff. I mean, honestly, they can't say it anymore (than) that. They checked the boxes on what needs to be checked."
George also mentioned multiple times that it was his "first year" with the Thunder. He said the draw of playing at home in Los Angeles, where he has been linked, won't be the only deciding factor in free agency.
"I would say almost everybody in this league would have loved to play at home," George said. "I won't say that's a lie. Everybody would love to play for their home in one way or another. But that won't be -- that's not like the only option for why I want to go somewhere is because it's home. Not at all."
George was asked about what priorities he'll set in making his decision, and he perhaps revealed some of the long-term outlook of the team. In listing core parts, one was suspiciously missing.
"I think the biggest thing is just trying to keep a relationship with [GM] Sam [Presti], continue to talk with Sam," he said. "Continue to talk with [Coach] Billy [Donovan], with Russ, and figure out the direction we want to go as a group, more so than anything. I think that's option one, or that's the first thing I want to do before free agency or any of that, before we get to that point.
"I want to be, you know, I want to know or be on the same page with those guys. That's first and foremost. Because we do have something special, and we have something that we can accomplish here, so that's first and foremost."
Westbrook, who was at the heart of the recruitment to bring Kevin Durant back to Oklahoma City, said the two situations with George and Durant are different.
"Two different relationships," he said. "You know, and I think two different -- totally two different things. Obviously, Kevin was here for many years and then decided to leave, and Paul's only been here for some months. That's a decision that Paul will eventually make.
"But like I said before, our friendship and our bond we've created together is more important to me, and that's what I truly care about. Me knowing Paul, like I said before, he definitely wants to be here. Through free agency or for any player, it's always a decision up to them, what's best for their family."