Carmelo Anthony failed, but he's not a failure.
After reaching the second round of the NBA playoffs for just the second time in his career, 'Melo and his New York Knicks failed. Some would say miserably. They were supposed to be better than the Indiana Pacers...they were supposed to be better than this.
But they weren't. And the onus is on Anthony, because it has to be. Mike Woodson took responsibility and so did J.R. Smith, but 'Melo is the superstar. This is going to be put on him, even if it's not right. And believe me, it's not right.
In conjunction with being traded to New York, 'Melo was immediately held to a self-imposed unfair standard. That's what happens when you play in the Big Apple. First-round exits don't suit the fans or city as a whole. Neither do second-round exits like this. Reaching the conference finals likely wouldn't have appeased his naysayers, either.
Because of when he was drafted and the class of athlete he has been compared to (and the team he now plays for), every season that doesn't culminate in his first NBA title is going to be construed as a lost year. He doesn't have a ring. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and even Darko Milicic all do.
Until that changes, 'Melo will be portrayed as a failure and potential team cancer, which will aid in tainting what is already perceived as an unworthy legacy. If Anthony was like LeBron or Wade, he would have a ring by now. If he were like them, he would have willed the Knicks past the Pacers and into the Eastern Conference Finals.
"Overall, we still had a hell of a season, a hell of a year," Anthony said after falling to the Pacers (via Alan Hahn of MSG Networks). "We took some steps forward as a team, as an organization."
LeBron would have never said that. Wade would have never said that. Kobe Bryant has said the exact opposite. But they're not 'Melo, and he isn't them. Nor will he ever be. It's time to accept that. Like we have with Kevin Durant.
Anthony isn't the Durantula, either. He's never going to shoot 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from deep and 90 percent from the free-throw line. That's not him. Like Durant, though, he's also not going to admit that his legacy is impure or his experience a waste.
“I’ve grown so much as a man since the beginning of the season," Durant said of the Oklahoma City Thunder's concluded season (via Royce Young of Daily Thunder). "I’ve grown so much as a leader. Nothing is ever wasted."
Let that sink in and envelop you. Then look at 'Melo in the context we should see him now.
Often one of Anthony's most obstinate of critics, my perception of him has changed. Like you, I'm disappointed in New York's elimination, both as a fan and an objective being who understands the league is a more exciting place when a team like the Knicks contends for a championship. But I see a change.
'Melo still toes the line of inefficient. Most wouldn't hesitate to call him a volume shooter, but he's eluded the same ranks that include J.R. Smith because he scores consistently and rarely hovers around the dreaded 40 percent mark for an entire season.
There are no delusions when it comes to his proclivities, though. He's not a consistently engaged defender, is far from the offensive catalyst fellow forwards LeBron and Durant are, and he's never reached the NBA Finals.
The latter is the most damning of his faults. Those ringless fingers are an encumbrance his reputation not only can't carry, but is also defined by.
Anthony exists to score, to shoot. Not pass or win more than anyone in particular. Just score. Like an overrated facade, a self-centered albatross whose stardom has been forged thanks to random stretches of star-like competence, not out of genuine merit.
To that end, much of 'Melo's most recent campaign was complacent with what is still a prevailing acumen. He's not a winner. Or leader.
From chasing Kevin Garnett to the Boston Celtics team bus to a selfish midseason Western Conference vendetta that jeopardized the Knicks' standing in the Eastern Conference, 'Melo lacked emotional wherewithal to constructively carry and represent his teammates.
The playoffs came and nothing changed. Anthony didn't pass enough and was shooting too much, and the Knicks squandered more of a 3-0 lead in the first round than they should have.
His errant shooting followed him into Round 2 as well. He was deferring more but wasn't shooting at a high clip. Two stellar performances (Games 2 and 6) propelled his shooting percentage above 45 percent for the series, yet he converted on just 40.6 percent of his shots during the playoffs overall.
That's just 'Melo. Once again, that's who he is. He's not the most economic of scorers, but he is one of the most dangerous. Which isn't going to change.
His ability to lead, though, has.
Blame New York's collapse on 'Melo. Hold him accountable for this entire season and what are now broken dreams. He'll welcome it, because that's who he is now—a legitimate leader.
Anthony didn't point fingers at anybody this season. He stood behind Amar'e Stoudemire and J.R. Smith, and acknowledged his role in what suddenly became a feeble-minded offense. His campaign was not without pitfalls—Garnett, continuity on defense, etc.—but it wasn't a waste. And it wasn't something he won't recover from. It wasn't a part of the problem—it was a part of the solution.
The Knicks remain imperfect, Anthony included, but this isn't his fault (entirely). Not even close. Look to New York's historically old roster or the roller-coaster seasons of Raymond Felton, Smith and Tyson Chandler. Look to the oft-absent Stoudemire, Anthony's injuries and the Knicks' musical chair-esqe rotations.
Then look at 'Melo the player, at all these Knicks were able to accomplish with him, and what he was able to do with a flawed design. He played them into second place in the Eastern Conference, spurring optimism the Knicks hadn't garnered since the mid-'90s.
And now look at Anthony, the man. Imperfect as ever, but more apt to leading and adjusting, more inclined to doing whatever it takes to claim the ring that has eluded him.
"It's a learning curve for us and we'll be back better and stronger," 'Melo said.
For 'Melo, vowing to come back better and stronger than before is merely the continuation of a path he has already begun to travel. One that will inevitably erase what is now a misconception between the player and man he once was, and the one he now is.
*All stats for this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference and NBA.com unless otherwise noted.