Whether he likes it or not, Carmelo Anthony's career will forever be inextricably linked to that of LeBron James. They played against one another in high school and in AAU tournaments as teenagers. They came into the NBA as top-three picks in the vaunted 2003 draft. They battled for Rookie of the Year honors. They've gone toe-to-toe in multiple All-Star Games. They play the same position.
Yet, for all their congruities, the chasm between Carmelo and LeBron has never been wider. While Melo became a top-notch scorer on a Nuggets team that flamed out in the playoffs every year, LeBron established himself as an all-around force of basketball brilliance, winning MVPs and carrying the Cleveland Cavaliers into the Eastern Conference Finals and beyond.
Shortly after LeBron took his talents to South Beach in the summer of 2010 to play with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, Carmelo forced his way out of Denver to join the New York Knicks in February of 2011.
Since then, LeBron's been to two Finals, won his third MVP, established a new "rivalry" with Kevin Durant and captured his first ring. Carmelo, on the other hand, has endured two early playoff exits, been tagged as a selfish and one-dimensional player, been alternately praised for the rise of Linsanity and blamed for its departure, and (inevitably) savaged by fans and media in New York at every turn.
Not unlike how LeBron became a villain all on his own on the national stage and in his hometown, though hardly among those who support the team for which he now plays.
What can 'Melo do to keep up with the Jameses? Or, at the very least, extricate himself from the Big Apple's athlete dog house and, perhaps, return to the path to greatness that his talent would dictate?
Why not play power forward? It worked pretty well for LeBron, didn't it? He worked on his post game with Hakeem Olajuwon, adjusted (quite seamlessly) to defending bigger opponents and led the Miami Heat to the title in the process. Now, ESPN's Michael Wallace reports that LeBron's adding a skyhook to his arsenal.
Surely, Carmelo should follow suit...right?
Not if Anthony has anything to say about it. As he told Ian Begley of ESPNNewYork.com on Tuesday:
"Right now, we have guys in that position. We want to keep it like that. I'd rather play my natural position than go down there and play the 4, the 5 and things that I don't really want to do. So with the guys that we have now, I find that we're definitely that much more effective."
Tough to teach an old dog new tricks, I suppose, even if said dog is already good (if not great) at those tricks and would benefit his team tremendously by performing them.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Knicks scored 8.5 points more per 100 possessions with Anthony at power forward than with him at his more "natural" position of small forward last season. Furthermore, two of New York's most effective five-man units in 2011-12 featured 'Melo at the "four" (per Basketball Value).
To be sure, putting 'Melo at power forward would create something of a logjam in New York's front court. The Knicks already feature Amar'e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler, two players whose games don't comport well in their current alignment. Moving 'Melo and bumping STAT might be good for the latter, who did his best work at center last season (per 82games.com).
Unless, of course, that means less time on the floor for Chandler—the reigning Defensive Player of the Year and the league leader in field goal percentage—which it inevitably would.
Still, there's no denying that the Knicks were better off with Anthony at power forward last season and may well be going forward should they convince him to stick there.
But let's ignore the Knicks' team success for a moment. Let's assume, as so many of Carmelo's detractors have, that he's only concerned about his own output, that he couldn't care less about making sacrifices for the "greater good."
Even if the only interest Carmelo has is his own, it'd behoove him to at least entertain the thought of playing power forward on a regular basis.
The statistics certainly back it up. According to 82games.com, Anthony registered his highest player efficiency rating (PER) at power forward—29.5. That would've placed him second in the NBA behind only (you guessed it!) LeBron James.
Anthony's PER at small forward? A solid-but-unremarkable 17.3, which would've ranked eighth at his own position.
Per ESPN, Anthony shot 50.5 percent from the field and scored 30 points per 36 minutes in 13 games as the Knicks' starting power forward last season while Amar'e was out. He spent most of April playing "out of position"...and averaged 29.8 points on 49.4 percent shooting on the way to being named the league's Player of the Month for the first time in two-and-a-half years.
A less statistically-inclined argument would also push Anthony to power forward. It's not at all unusual for a player of Carmelo's ilk to prefer life on the wing, where physical contact tends to be minimized. Big men have been floating out to the perimeter for years, even before Europeans started flocking stateside.
What 'Melo's ignoring in his preference, though, is just how good he is in the post, and how much more dominant he can be there if he sets his mind to it. At 6'8 and 230 pounds, he's rather bulky for a small forward as is, but can be a matchup nightmare if utilized properly—too big for opposing wings down low and too quick for fellow pivots away from the hoop.
He's never been particularly speedy for a wing, and at his age and with his vulnerability to injury, it makes imminent sense to encourage Carmelo to play in such a way that allows him to lean on his strength and size, while de-emphasizing and de-pressurizing his feet and legs.
Staying closer to the cup would also enable Anthony to accentuate his abilities as a rebounder, a role in which he ranked eighth among small forwards last season (per ESPN's John Hollinger). He'd still have his opportunities to face up and jab step into oblivion from time to time, though cutting down on 'Melo's midrange shots and long twos—on which he combined to shoot 35.2 percent—would be a boon to his statistical and reputational bottom line.
Especially in a league that's seems to be shifting toward smaller, faster, more versatile lineups, in which Anthony may well thrive.
Likewise, a switch to power forward would be all too natural for Carmelo on the defensive end. He's long been derided for his perceived inability to keep pace with smaller, quicker wings on that side of the court.
So, why not let him pick on players his own size and bigger? Why not have him guard opposing power forwards? They might be marginally bigger and stronger than he is, but at least he'd have little trouble staying with them and could put his height and weight to better use.
By doing so, he'd be following in LeBron's footsteps again, and not just from a pure X's and O's standpoint. LeBron may prefer emulating a guard or a wing, but willingly and successfully sacrificed that aspect of his game (to some extent) for the benefit of his team.
In that regard, 'Melo has his work cut out for him. To become a true champion like LeBron and rise to the challenge as his gifts suggest he would, Anthony must demonstrate that his interests are one in the same with those of his team, that he's ready, willing and able do whatever it takes to win, even if the thought causes him some discomfort.
A move to power forward would be a good start to that end, if not a necessary step in his never-ending quest to close the gap with LeBron.
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