Carmelo Anthony and the New York Knicks will find themselves in an unfamiliar spot on Thursday night when they play host to Kobe Bryant and the struggling Los Angeles Lakers at Madison Square Garden. For the first time since the 1990s, it'll be the Knicks who lay claim to the brighter NBA title prospects of the two coastal powerhouses.
Likewise, it'll be the first time in their respective careers that Carmelo enters a head-to-head contest with Kobe as (arguably) the superior player of the moment, at least as far as the discussion of the league's MVP is concerned.
On the surface, Carmelo and Kobe wouldn't appear to have much in common as basketball players. One is a 6'8 forward who uses his size and strength to punish opponents in the post. The other is a slender, 6'6 guard with a knack for hitting impossible shots in the mid-range. One wouldn't be caught dead playing defense, while the other has been named to one of the NBA's All-Defensive teams on 12 occasions.
They've won two Olympic gold medals together, though Kobe's shifted roles—from go-to guy in 2008 to elder statesman in 2012—while Carmelo has remained relatively consistent as an efficient-but-secondary scorer for Team USA. And while the former has five professional titles on his resume, the latter has yet to so much as sniff the NBA Finals.
At the core, though, Carmelo and Kobe are more alike than either might admit. They're both scorers, first and foremost, with lethal inside-out games and no shortage of tricks up their respective sleeves. Anthony can't match Bryant's two scoring titles or even claim to have one, though he regularly ranks among the league's elite point producers.
They're both also polarizing figures in the basketball world. Both have been derided for playing selfishly and for reflecting that attitude in their dealings in the locker room. Both have thrown their teammates under the proverbial bus and publicly agitated for trades, though only Anthony saw his dream of a new home through to fruition.
Bryant, on the other hand, simply had the team around him renovated.
If not for the help of Shaquille O'Neal during his early years with the Lakers, Kobe in his 12th NBA season might well have been precisely where Carmelo finds himself in his 12th—ringless, but on the cusp of a breakthrough. It was then, at the age of 29, that Bryant won his first and only MVP on the way to carrying the Lakers to the Finals sans Shaq. As it happens, 'Melo too will be 29 soon enough and may be able to celebrate his birthday (May 29) on the hardwood if the Knicks translate their early-season success into a deep playoff run.
At this point, Anthony and the Knicks have the prerequisites to follow in the footsteps of Kobe's Lakers from not so long ago. New York has succumbed to Eastern Conference rivals during the first round of the postseason in each of the last two years—to the Boston Celtics in 2011 and to the eventual champion Miami Heat in 2012.
Not unlike the Lakers, who were undone by the Phoenix Suns of Steve Nash and Mike D'Antoni in 2006 and 2007.
Kobe's first "solo" sojourn to the Finals came shortly after an injury to one big man (Andrew Bynum) cleared room for the arrival of another (Pau Gasol). 'Melo's Knicks have found similar success this season with Amar'e Stoudemire sidelined by knee problems. New York has thrived on both ends of the floor in STAT's absence, with Tyson Chandler manning the middle and Anthony sliding over as a "stretch four."
Of course, the Lakers didn't finally hoist the Larry O'Brien Trophy until Bynum came back during the 2008-09 season. His presence forced Phil Jackson to find a workable solution between LA's three bigs (Pau, Bynum and Lamar Odom), one that relegated Odom to the bench, albeit in a crunch-time role.
The same conundrum will be brought before Knicks head coach Mike Woodson when Stoudemire is fit to play again. All signs point to an untenable logjam on the court whenever 'Melo, Amar'e and Chandler share the floor. Stoudemire and Chandler tend to occupy the same spaces, while Anthony, though fully capable of playing on the perimeter, is at his deadliest as a scorer when ensconced toward the middle of the floor.
According to NBA.com's stats database, the Knicks' most effective five-man, 'Melo-centric lineups last season slotted him next to Chandler while Stoudemire was on the bench. Amar'e can certainly play the pivot on offense, especially after spending a good chunk of his summer refining his post game with Hakeem Olajuwon.
But Stoudemire is a sieve on defense. A pairing of Amar'e and Melo is an open invitation to the Knicks' opponents to go to town on the interior.
Luckily for Woodson, he should have the necessary "political capital" to convince Amar'e to accept a more specialized role with this squad, just as Odom did with the Lakers once upon a time. Stoudemire could come off New York's bench upon his immediate return as a "precaution" against further harm.
And if Amar'e thrives in his role as a sixth man—and the Knicks with him in it—then the $100-million man just might accept the move as a worthwhile step toward championship success.
In any case, the ultimate decision won't be 'Melo's to make, but it will be his to influence and eventually live with. Whatever the outcome, Anthony, like Bryant before him, must adapt himself to his circumstances and do whatever he can to help his team win.
Which superstar is having the better season so far?
If the Knicks need Carmelo to float on the perimeter, then he should gladly spot up from the three-point line. He's currently hitting a career-high 44.9 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc, including 45.7 percent (43-of-94) above the break, per NBA.com.
If the situation calls for Anthony to dominate down low, then he should lodge nary a complaint about it. After all, his attempts at the rim are on the rise (per Hoopdata), and he's thus far done a masterful job of facilitating with back to the basket, though the assist stats don't necessarily reflect his new-found giving spirit.
And if for whatever reason, the Knicks ask Anthony to vanquish his foes in isolation from the outside, then...well, they needn't wait on a reply, since that's usually 'Melo's bread-and-butter to begin with.
The Knicks are 'Melo's team, just as the Lakers are, and have been, Kobe's. But owning a squad means more than having it built around you; it also means bearing the brunt of the responsibility for its successes and its failures alike, and stepping up in different ways when the occasion calls for doing so.
Bryant figured out as much well after Shaq had won his first title without him. He went from being a single-minded scorer who felt his team's needs were always better served with him shooting to a central superstar who, while still prone to taking over games, seemed to grasp at last the importance of getting his teammates involved and picking spots for himself.
That appears to be the path along which Carmelo has traveled through the first 21 games of the 2012-13 season. He's playing with a purpose and a focus never before seen, and his Knicks are sitting atop the Eastern Conference with a record of 16-5 as a result.
A convincing victory over Kobe's hapless Lakers would be just the latest—and in a way, the most meaningful—milestone Carmelo will have encountered in a campaign that may come to define his NBA career.