In this 24/7 era of basketball coverage, legacies are always on the line. Even though LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony have established themselves as elite players in the NBA, every decision they make shapes how they'll be remembered down the road.
Playoff performances are impactful enough, so just imagine what joining the Los Angeles Lakers after the 2013-14 season would do for the two superstars.
Both James and Anthony have the ability to opt out of their contracts once they play another season with their current teams, and they'd be the highlights in a loaded free-agent class. Rumor has it that joining the Lakers is a distinct possibility, at least according to ESPN's Ramona Shelburne and Brian Windhorst:
The Los Angeles Lakers, whose plan to re-sign center Dwight Howard did not pan out this offseason, are poised to rebuild fast by focusing on the two biggest free agents of 2014—LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, front office sources have told ESPN.
Opinions are split on whether the Lakers can actually land James or Anthony, with one source calling it "realistic" and another saying it was "far-fetched at this point." Nonetheless, the Lakers have made it clear they are positioning themselves for a run at one and perhaps even two of the superstars who could become free agents in 2014, by refusing to commit to any contract past this next season, multiple sources have said.
Should the Lakers manage to land both forwards, they'll pair them with Kobe Bryant to form the Associaton's newest superteam, completely upsetting the current power structure. Doing so would make L.A. the clear title favorites for the 2014-15 season, but it would also dramatically affect the legacies of both players involved.
One's would be greatly aided. The other's...not so much.
Now that 'Melo has added a scoring title to his individual resume, he needs to start working on the whole "team accomplishments" thing. The small forward advanced to the Western Conference Finals once with the Denver Nuggets, and 2013 saw him get out of the first round for only the second time in his career.
Anthony is a lot of things.
He's a fantastic scorer with the quickest dribble-to-release ability in the NBA. He puts up monstrous stats and isn't afraid to take the final shot in a game. Often times, he drills that last attempt.
In fact, he's gained a clutch reputation, whether deserved or not. At least during the regular season.
However, despite all the positives, he hasn't become a winner during his professional career.
His teams have underachieved, and he's never been able to mesh with teammates in a way that's conducive to winning basketball. Postseason flameouts have become the norm, to the point that they're almost expected once 'Melo is done dominating the regular-season action.
This, even if it comes at the expense of individual numbers, is what needs to change for the former Syracuse standout's legacy to move in the positive direction.
It was supposed to do so when he was traded from the Nuggets to the New York Knicks. Anthony, Amar'e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler were considered a "Big Three," and they were supposed to seriously contend for a championship. Little did we know that Stoudemire's knees thought they were in Portland (sorry, Blazers fans, but Brandon Roy and Greg Oden's careers make that joke too easy) and Chandler would experience a sudden decline.
Anthony's shot betrayed him during the 2013 postseason, possibly because he needed to shoot 25.8 times per game, and a premature exit was the result. But hey, at least N.Y. advanced past the first round for the first time since George Washington was in charge of the country.
That's an exaggeration, but only slightly.
For Anthony's legacy to survive the rigors created by the passage of time, he needs to start winning during the most important part of the season. It doesn't matter how he does it, as he wasn't in the same situation LeBron experienced while leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers. That is to say, he's a superstar, but he's not considered the best player in the league, a guy capable of single-handedly spurring his team on to victory.
A move to the Lakers would be in his best interest, and there wouldn't be too much hatred spewed in his general direction. Sure, the vitriol would pop up because he'd be taking the easy way out and leaving behind his hometown, but it would die down eventually.
The Knicks simply aren't in a position to win championships, unless Iman Shumpert takes a massive jump forward and Stoudemire's knees remember how they're supposed to work. And even then, it'll be quite difficult to get through a vastly improved Eastern Conference gauntlet that features the Miami Heat, new-look Brooklyn Nets, Indiana Pacers and the Derrick Rose-led Chicago Bulls.
What would moving to the Lakers do for 'Melo's legacy?
If there's no championship in 2014, there won't be in 2015 or beyond, either.
New York doesn't have much financial flexibility, especially because it's highly unlikely that Amar'e and Andrea Bargnani decline their exorbitant player options. It's simply going to be hard—maybe even impossible—for the Knicks to make the necessary improvements.
Joining the Lakers might be considered the "easy way," but it's still the best chance for Anthony to shape his legacy in a more aesthetically pleasing manner.
At this point in his career, one that's now over a decade old, it's championship or bust.
While Carmelo would be greatly aided by donning a purple-and-gold jersey, LeBron simply couldn't afford to join him. Well, I'm pretty sure LeBron has enough money to afford anything, but his legacy couldn't afford it.
It was tough enough for him to recover from leaving the Cavs behind when he took his talents to South Beach. His jersey was burned in the streets of Ohio, and the public seemed to turn against him. Winning is generally a panacea in the NBA, but there's still a faction who refuses to purge the hatred coursing through their veins.
Here's the crazy part, though: Leaving Cleveland was understandable.
Even if "The Decision" was questionable, the decision was not. LeBron escaped from a toxic situation, one produced by a front office that just couldn't surround him with anything but veteran players clearly past their primes. He found two superstar teammates, including one of his closest friends. From a basketball perspective, it was a perfectly justifiable choice.
Duh. He's won two championships since then.
And that's exactly what would make taking his talents away from South Beach inexcusable.
LeBron would presumably only be leaving the Heat if they cooled off during the playoffs, losing before he had an opportunity to lift the Larry O'Brien Trophy for a third time. But even if that unfortunate result came to pass, he'd owe Miami more than an immediate exit.
The city has completely embraced him and allowed for his career to transition from the path Anthony is currently on to a track leaving him en route to the top of the historical rankings. At the end of the 2013-14 campaign, LeBron will have played enough years that he could legitimately retire and be considered one of the 10 best basketball players of all time.
I hesitate to say this, but the arc of his career has left him aiming at Michael Jordan. Is he better than the GOAT right now? Certainly not, but it's not out of the realm of possibilities that he could be in a decade.
Players contending for that type of legacy can't afford to bounce around from team to team in pursuit of championships. While it was fine for him to leave the Cavs in hopes of a first, he's an established champion now.
What would joining the Lakers do for LeBron's legacy?
Ring chasing isn't the right strategy.
Plus, the hate would return with a vengeance should he choose to join Kobe and Carmelo in Tinseltown. But this time, it would never leave.
Just as the New York Yankees are the team that everyone loves to hate in baseball, the Lakers fill the role in basketball. It's a sign of respect and jealousy. No one really hated the Heat before LeBron formed the newest Big Three, but the same can't be said about the Lakers.
Winning another title might be easier in the Staples Center, but establishing a lasting legacy that keeps its positive flavor would be impossible.