The self-made plight of Carmelo Anthony
Carmelo Anthony is an NBA superstar. There's room - and cause - to debate his actual standing among preeminent contemporaries, but the Association's megastars are, in fact, his peers.
Yet, unlike most elite players in the league, Anthony's reputation cyclically comes under siege. Attacks focus on his obviously imperfect game, often ignoring his almost unparalleled gifts and some of the transformative changes he's made on the court over the course of his career.
In evaluating Anthony - who landed on a 17-win Denver team out of the draft - it's worth noting that he's one of only 39 players in league history to make the playoffs in each of his first 10 seasons. Even ring-keepers like LeBron James (couldn't immediately lift Cleveland the first time around) and Kobe Bryant (couldn't carry the post-Shaq Lakers by himself) cannot say the same.
Even now, with the Knicks wasting away in obscurity, Anthony is having a positive impact. The Knicks' offense is pumping in 104.5 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, compared to just 95.1 when he's on the bench, per the NBA.com database. That New York's defense hasn't been all that much better without Melo has led to a massive -11.2 points per 100 possessions margin when he's not playing (vs. -4.9 when he is).
There's also measurable evidence that Anthony is at least trying to exist within the tenets of Phil Jackson's triangle offense. He's not sapping as much time off the shot clock as he was last season when controlling the ball, according to NBASavant.com, and a greater percentage (44.0) of his made baskets are coming off assists.
Why, then, does Anthony remain the subject of unrelenting criticism? Is it the absence of a championship? Is it the failure to make an NBA Finals? Is it earning just one Conference Finals berth?
In reality, it's all those things. Mostly, though, Anthony is the victim of his own, misplaced self-awareness.
The issue has revealed itself through recycled, self-aggrandizing affirmations that paint a humanized, oft-defensive version of the seven-time All-Star. Never before, though, has "the importance of being 'Melo" been more clear than now, following a pair of pieces that ran for ESPN The Magazine by Eli Saslow and The Washington Post by Michael Lee, wherein Anthony's off-court exploits are depicted as cathartic means to a "bulletproof" end.Team Anthony, it seems, wants the world to know that he, too, is a businessman. (And a business, Man.)
Not that he doesn't want to win championships - by all accounts, he does. But Anthony's concern with legacy isn't about what happens on the court; his desire for permanence and being remembered goes beyond his ability to score the basketball. It's here where things get dicey: Anthony seems compelled to invest, to find the next big thing - all in some nigh-impossible quest to immortalize himself ... by making more money.
"People say I am all about more money, but it's not like that," Anthony explained to Saslow. "It's about having the appearance of someone with success. Image and reputation matter to me. If you're being honest, they matter to everybody. Money is about people thinking of you as someone who does well."
Those words are as telling as they are concerning. Wealth is a harbinger of success - and more athletes should be following Anthony's and others' lead by focusing on post-career well-being - but 'Melo seems to believe there is a correlation between the size of his bank account and the legitimacy of his legacy. This way of thinking is both self-limiting and destructive.
After all, money is part of the reason why 'Melo is still seeking acceptance. It was he who forewent the chance to enter free agency in 2010 with LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, among others, by signing a longer, more lucrative extension with the Nuggets coming off his rookie contract.
Then, amidst the uncertainty of labor negotiations, he forced his way to Gotham via trade (rather than wait for that summer and free agency) in order to sign the largest extension possible, costing his new team considerable assets in the form of four rotation players (Raymond Felton, Timofey Mozgov, Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari) and the rights to two first-round draft picks. That acquisition deprived New York of a realistic capacity to build a championship-caliber squad around him - the effects of which are still being felt now.
Consider this: At this writing, the Nuggets have won 56.7 percent of their regular-season contests (161–123) since trading 'Melo, while the Knicks have won just 50.7 percent (146–142). Though Denver is barreling toward a second consecutive lottery finish itself, there's something to be said about New York's inability to create positive separation with Anthony in tow, poor roster decisions and all.
Exploring free agency this past summer afforded the 30-year-old an opportunity to right all this by starting over with a more championship-ready squad. Instead, he elected to remain with the transitioning Knicks - resisting overtures from contenders like the Chicago Bulls - once again opting for more zeros. He even admitted to Lee that his mindset has always been - and probably still is - "don't leave no money on the table."
All of which is fine. Money is guaranteed; championships, no matter where you play, are not. At the same time, players must adjust to themselves. Anthony is an incomplete - albeit talented - player who has yet to wholly adjust to his own imperfections, financially or otherwise.
When that 2008–09 Nuggets squad played into the Western Conference Finals, it wasn't Anthony who led them in regular season or playoff win shares. It was a 32-year-old Chauncey Billups. When Anthony looks at his overall playoff record, he doesn't see shimmering success or tales of almost; he sees a putrid 23–43 showing (7–14 with the Knicks) and title chases that never were.
Surely, Anthony knows he's in danger of becoming this generation's Dominique Wilkins: a perennial All-Star and 25,000-point scorer with no ring or even modest playoff success to celebrate.
Yet, somehow, after more than a decade of cutting criticism over lasting shortcomings, Anthony remains on the path he's traveled again and again - that which uses financial standing as a means to solidify his perception of self-worth.
Anthony has cited the post-career success of Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan as blueprints of sorts, but his desire to emulate their seminal paths is misguided at best. Sure, the public adores Magic and MJ, but Johnson had five NBA championships to his name, and Jordan six. Their business ventures didn't turn them into icons. Staying power of that kind isn't bought; it's earned on the court. Anthony, for his part, doesn't appear to realize this:
"The thing that I don't like, I travel all over the world. We could be in the restaurant and they say, 'Who is that?' and it's, 'Oh, he's the basketball player,'" Anthony told Lee. "I mean, it's cool. But I want other things out of life than being known for being a great basketball player."
The problem? Anthony is more concerned with his "global status" and/or the circumstances under which he's being recognized than the one thing that would solve all of that: being a winner. Despite his attempts to dissociate himself from "'Melo, the basketball player," he remains ... a basketball player. And, in his occupation, championships are the ultimate currency. Talk of branching out makes little sense when he hasn't mastered his primary craft in that sense.
It's his transparent infatuation with "what comes next" that renders Anthony uniquely vulnerable, even as other contemporary stars (see: Paul, Chris) have equally vacant postseason resumes. He won a national championship in college and a gold medal at the Olympics, but has seen the second round of the NBA playoffs just twice. He seems overtly aware of his reputation, yet he's self-defeating in the way he's seemingly prioritized money over everything else. He is generally recognized as a superstar, yet there is still a widely-held belief that he's not good enough, not worthy enough, not interested enough - regardless of his on-court brilliance.
With his decision to remain with the Knicks, this perception may never change. Barring a change of heart (and waiving of his no-trade clause) or some lottery-ball magic combined with front office wizardry not seen at MSG in ages, 'Melo is condemned to be what he now is - a star on the downside of his prime who was never good enough to carry a team to a title.
Winning was the vessel through which his most enduring and valuable legacy could have been built and sustained long after he's gone, but Anthony has repeatedly chosen the path of most resistance - opting for a dollars-driven master plan that may ultimately yield precious little return on investment.
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