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Carmelo Anthony: The Square-Peg Superstar

Category: Basketball,Sports

Maybe it all would have turned out differently for Carmelo Anthony, produced a narrative arc with more illustrious inflection points, had Joe Dumars done Anthony and the Detroit Pistons the pleasure of drafting him with the second pick of the celebrated 2003 N.B.A. draft.

Fate can be forbidding. A team’s general manager can be foolish. Dumars followed Cleveland’s no-brainer selection of LeBron James by going big for Darko Milicic, the 7-footer from Serbia who seldom escaped Coach Larry Brown’s bench and doghouse as the already formidable Pistons rolled to a championship the following June.

Chauncey Billups, the adult in Detroit’s locker room and the pilot of its egalitarian offense, addressed this issue of an alternative Anthony history a few years ago with my former colleague, Howard Beck. He was as blunt as he was convinced.

“That ball-stopping mentality that Carmelo has?” Billups said. “He wouldn’t have had that if he was a Piston. We wouldn’t let him play like that. He would have been a much better player than he is now — and he’s a great player now.”

Not great enough to please the many critics of Anthony’s total game, the 15-year summary of which would be: tantalizing sizzle, not enough steak. And not willing enough at age 34 to adapt and stick with a Houston team he begged the Knicks to trade him to over the 2016 summer.

A Houston team, by the way, with a close friend, Chris Paul, who surely had a private say in the Rockets’ decision to part ways with Anthony after what amounted to a 10-game tryout.

Like Anthony, Paul wasn’t all that special as the Rockets stumbled early. Yes, James Harden was hurt. But when your best pal — who, in Paul’s case, is an outspoken leader and president of the players’ union — isn’t publicly decrying this ouster as a miscarriage of N.B.A. justice, something clearly went terribly awry, no matter what spin-room platitudes were recently mouthed by the Rockets.

Hours after the official statement of separation was released Thursday night, the Rockets responded by routing the Stephen Curry-less Golden State Warriors.

Houston, we read you, between the lines.

Instead of joining those Pistons in 2003, Anthony was selected third over all by the Denver Nuggets, a team that had won 17 games the previous season (coached by Jeff Bzdelik, who coincidentally, or not, is returning now to the Rockets as defensive coach after a brief absence). Anthony was immediately given the latitude to isolate and jab-step his man on the wing to his heart’s content. The Nuggets won 43 games and he was hailed — not wrongly — as the franchise savior.

On a national level, he was included in many conversations of Next Gen transcendence. As explosive a scorer as he was, Anthony didn’t belong in that category then, or ever, because historic-level greatness requires full recognition of what makes the team, not just you, excel.

“Melo doesn’t get an A in that department — maybe not much more than a B minus,” George Karl, who coached Anthony for the majority of his time in Denver, told The Times in 2014. “It is, in a sense, the A.A.U. mind-set: We worked hard yesterday, maybe we can take a day off today. That’s why he really needs that player — the point guard or someone who takes on that role — to be the bridge from the coach to him.”

That player in Denver turned out to be Billups, whose arrival from Detroit helped Anthony and the Nuggets end a string of first-round playoff defeats along the way to the 2009 Western Conference finals.

The argument over whether Anthony’s teams — mainly Denver and the Knicks — failed him with substandard personnel during his prime, or whether he was not up to the task of pulling others along, will rage forever. It isn’t the fairest evidence by which to measure, or judge.

For the most part, Anthony’s teammates adored or appreciated him. As an N.B.A. ambassador, he was among the first to speak up on social issues, a now popular trend.

Every contemporary N.B.A. star, with the obvious exception of Tim Duncan, works on his brand, but Anthony often seemed preoccupied with it when he might have been more focused on his game, or his team.

When he leveraged the Nuggets to trade him to the Knicks in February 2011, he missed the memo — authored by LeBron James and Chris Bosh when they joined Dwyane Wade in Miami — that happiness was not to be found with a team stripped of talent in order to make room for you.

Playing for Mike D’Antoni in New York, he made a mountain out of the Jeremy Lin molehill. Wanting to participate in the 2015 All-Star Game at Madison Square Garden, he seemed to care more about a glorified exhibition than making the earliest return possible from looming surgery.

When given the opportunity to flee the Knicks after their 17-win disaster of a 2014-15 season, he deluded himself into thinking things would quickly improve because he relished being the man in New York. When the team president at the time, Phil Jackson, turned on him, blaming Anthony for Jackson’s own miscalculations on almost everything, including Anthony, he comfortably embraced the martyr within instead of taking on Jackson.

As his body rebelled, as the league moved away from his style of isolation play, victimhood became Anthony’s fallback position.

The experts postulated that he would work well with Oklahoma City last season, a cool-hand sidekick to Russell Westbrook and Paul George, reprising the role he played on three Olympic gold-medal teams. But being part of one big happy family is much easier when the competition lives on other continents.

In the evolving N.B.A., land of high-screen-and-roll, offenses relentlessly targeted Anthony, attacked him off the dribble. How the Rockets convinced themselves that Anthony would fit after the Thunder’s first-round playoff series loss to Utah last spring is the mystery of 2018.

Lateral movement is one thing. Lousy attitude on display is another. Did Houston’s front office not see Anthony arguing on the sideline with the assistant coach Maurice Cheeks — to re-enter a playoff elimination game in which the Thunder were rallying from 25 points behind without him?

“I’m not sacrificing no bench role,” he said when that series was over. “That’s out of the question.”

A little more than a year ago, Anthony was grousing over ESPN’s rating him the league’s 64th-best player. Now he’s a full-fledged journeyman, Vince Carter with a weaker grasp on reality.

No doubt the Melo redemption tour, thus far fruitless, will continue. He will sign somewhere soon, most likely with a team that is longer on expectation than on roster depth. Maybe this latest Rockets episode and rejection will trigger a necessary introspection that allows him to yet be a useful scorer on a playoff team.

Until it does, until he is, it’s all wishful thinking, like a reimagined version of the 2003 draft.


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