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Is Carmelo Anthony on Crash Course to Become NBA's Next Superstar Villain?

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Is Carmelo Anthony on Crash Course to Become NBA's Next Superstar Villain?

Carmelo Anthony wants to be a free agent, as he recently "revealed" to Rafi Kohan of The New York Observer:

I think everybody in the NBA dreams to be a free agent at least one time in their career. It’s like you have an evaluation period, you know. It’s like if I’m in the gym and I have all the coaches, all the owners, all the GMs come into the gym and just evaluate everything I do. So yes, I want that experience.

According to the profile, 'Melo also wants the experience of being a Wall Street broker, a business mogul and a Big Apple sophisticate.

Those other opportunities will come to him, if Anthony so chooses. Once he retires, he'll have all the time and money in the world to pursue whatever experiences his heart desires, acting included.

For now, though, the focus is on basketball—namely, how well he'll play it for the New York Knicks during the 2013-14 NBA season and where he'll be playing it after that. Anthony can opt out of his current contract with the Knicks after the upcoming campaign and enter free agency for the first time as a pro.

Surprising, isn't it? That a guy who's been one of the top 10 to 15 players in basketball over the last decade hasn't been in complete control of his own destiny even once since 2002, when he chose to play at Syracuse after finishing up at the famed Oak Hill Academy?

Until the occasion comes for Anthony to put pen to paper (or stylus to iPad), he'll be faced with a much bigger problem, one that's daunted and confounded some of his most celebrated peers—the prospect of becoming a "villain" to the NBA-watching public.

 

Dealing with Demons

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images
Knicks owner James Dolan poses with Carmelo Anthony after acquiring the superstar swingman from the Nuggets in February of 2011.

Announcing his intention to opt out would appear to be Anthony's next big step down the road to you-know-where.

I say his next big step because he's trod down the path of ill will before. Back in 2010-11, Anthony drew the ire of the Denver Nuggets, their fans and just about anyone else who followed the day-to-day dealings of the NBA with a drawn-out saga that ended with him precisely where we all thought he'd be: in New York, at Madison Square Garden, in a Knickerbockers uniform.

For months, 'Melo and his people pushed for a move out of the Rocky Mountains. They pulled strings behind the scenes, going so far as to put the then-New Jersey Nets and then-new owner Mikhail Prokhorov through the wringer in order to pressure the somewhat reluctant Knicks to surrender half their roster to bring Bernard King 2.0 back to his place of birth.

(Or close to it, anyway. Anthony was born in Brooklyn and lived in the Red Hook projects until he was eight, when he moved to Baltimore with his family.)

The aftermath of that blockbuster trade didn't do Anthony's Q rating any favors. Without Anthony, the Nuggets became one of the most likable teams in the NBA. Their uptempo, egalitarian style of play was hailed as a model for superstar-less teams to follow, and their cast of characters, led by head coach George Karl, became the envy of the Basketball Internet.

Meanwhile, in New York, 'Melo's adjustment to his new digs didn't go so smoothly. His presence spelled Amar'e Stoudemire's demise (coincidentally?), encouraged the signing of Tyson Chandler (who's now falling apart physically) and was both prologue to and part and parcel of the rise and fall of "Linsanity" in New York and the ouster of Mike D'Antoni.

In short order, then, 'Melo managed to become a killer of joys and of coaches, fairly or unfairly. He gouged any good will he might've had with his first NBA fanbase, he undercut another top talent in Stoudemire, who'd come to New York thinking he'd be the leader of his own outfit, and he fought through the highs and lows of being a superstar athlete in New York City.

Last season was somewhat redemptive for Anthony. He won his first scoring title, with career highs in points (28.7) and three-point percentage (.379), while leading the Knicks to their first Atlantic Division title in nearly two decades and their first playoff series victory since 2000. For his efforts, Anthony was named to the All-NBA second team and became the only player not named LeBron James to snag a first-place vote on the MVP ballot. 

 

Knickers in a Twist

Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sportsss

But that iteration of the Knicks, which also featured Sixth Man of the Year J.R. Smith, may well have peaked at 54 wins. The additions of Andrea Bargnani, Beno Udrih and an aging Metta World Peace don't figure to do much to improve a defense that slipped from nearly elite in 2011-12 to patently average last season.

And it's not as though the Knicks and their new GM, former MSG executive Steve Mills, will have much wiggle room with which to upgrade the roster—not yet, anyway. According to Hoopsworld, New York will be on the hook for upwards of $86 million in guaranteed salary during the upcoming campaign. That'll leave the Knicks knee-deep in luxury taxes and the multifarious roster restrictions that accompany said taxes.

Come summer of 2014, the Knicks could see their financial commitments reduced to about $27.3 million, with plenty of cap room to spare for free agents. But that won't happen unless Stoudemire and Bargnani opt out, which seems highly unlikely at this point.

Nor does that number include what could be owed to Anthony. If 'Melo re-ups with the Knicks next summer, he'll probably see his yearly salary skyrocket, even from the $23.3 million he'd earn in 2014-15 by opting in. According to ESPN cap guru Larry Coon (via Ian Begley of ESPN New York), Anthony will be eligible to sign a max contract with the Knicks worth approximately $129.1 million over five years or seek out a four-year deal in the $96 million range elsewhere.

That extra cheddar (more than $33 million worth) may well be enough to convince Carmelo to stay put. Then again, to hear him tell it, Anthony might not be so inclined to leave New York in the first place (via The New York Observer):

I came to New York for a reason. I’ve been with you all my life, almost to a fault. I wanted to come here and take on the pressures of playing in New York. So one thing I would tell my fans: If you haven’t heard it from me, then it ain’t true.

When asked later about his free-agency plans, Anthony added (via Ian Begley of ESPN New York):

Guys would like to have that situation and just see what it's about. It doesn't mean that just because somebody wants to be that that they're going to leave. Me leaving would never came across in my mind. It was just an experience that I thought would be an experience I'd want to experience.

There he goes with those "experiences" again. Maybe Anthony will enjoy the experience of playing with this year's tweaked Knicks squad. Maybe he'll perform even better now that he doesn't have to be the team's nominal power forward, with Bargnani stepping into the starting five.

Or perhaps the experience of starring on a sinking ship in the ever-deepening Eastern Conference—which now features the Chicago Bulls, the Indiana Pacers and the Brooklyn Nets ostensibly ahead of the Knicks in the race to catch the Miami Heat—will sour 'Melo on a future in New York. It's possible he'll then be wary of the team's lack of cap flexibility with which to improve until 2015, when Anthony, at 31, will be entering the tail end of his athletic prime.

 

Friends Don't Let Friends...

We could see a scene play out that's eerily reminiscent of the most recognizable elements of the quagmires in which LeBron James and Dwight Howard found themselves during their respective first forays into free agency.

If Anthony does, indeed, ditch the Knicks for, say, the Los Angeles Lakers, he wouldn't just be leaving behind his hometown team, as James did with his "Decision" to dump the Cleveland Cavaliers. He'd also be "abandoning" a star-studded, cash-strapped squad that had high hopes for championship contention after having moved Heaven and Earth to get there, not entirely unlike what happened during the so-called "Dwightmare."

James and Howard were both branded as pariahs upon picking new places to live and work, but "achieved" such infamy more as the result of the style of those choices rather than of the substance behind them.

LeBron was largely justified for leaving Cleveland. The Cavs had failed to find and attract the sort of talent that James needed to do more than just pile up regular-season wins. Signings like those of Larry Hughes and Donyell Marshall fell flat, while later trades for Mo Williams, Shaquille O'Neal and Antawn Jamison proved too little, too late to satiate James' thirst for a championship-caliber club.

Likewise, Howard found himself displeased and on a team devoid of proper talent after Magic GM Otis Smith shook up the roster not once but twice in the year and a half immediately following Orlando's trip to the NBA Finals in 2009. The Magic were still competitive after that, but misstep after misstep by management left the organization capped out and without a coherent plan to contend going forward.

As right as Dwight and LeBron were to seek greener grass elsewhere, they didn't help themselves by going about their business the way they did.

In July of 2010, James announced that he'd be taking his talents to South Beach during an ill-conceived prime-time special on ESPN, which effectively humiliated the city of Cleveland on national TV and which James himself later admitted was a mistake.

This, following a final season with the Cavs in which LeBron initially claimed that he wouldn't make a big deal about his impending free agency before mugging for the fans and the media during stops in those cities most desperate for his services (i.e. New York). His apparent choke job against the Boston Celtics in the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs didn't help his public persona either. 

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

As for Howard, he could've been on hand for the Nets' move to Brooklyn (his reported preference) but didn't after caving in to his own desire to be loved and exercising the option on his contract with the Magic in early 2012. Howard hurt his back, and the Nets used up most of their trade assets that summer to acquire Joe Johnson (and convince Deron Williams to re-sign), leaving Orlando to deal Dwight to L.A.

Assuming you weren't living under a rock all of last season, you probably remember how poorly that brief courtship turned out. Howard was hampered by his bad back and didn't help himself by clashing with Kobe Bryant, complaining about the Lakers' early-season coaching change and generally coming across as a spoiled brat who demanded to be the center of attention at all times.

All the while, the Lakers collapsed from a preseason title contender to the seventh seed in the West, swept out of the first round of the playoffs by the San Antonio Spurs.

The free-agent frenzy over Howard this past summer wasn't particularly flattering either, though such a circus is both to be expected with a player of Dwight's stature and beyond even that caliber of superstar's control.

Fortunately for 'Melo, he'll have some measure of control over whether or not he becomes a bad guy league-wide. Bringing up his plans for free agency might not seem like the smart move for Anthony, but he was bound to be dogged by those questions if he didn't address them.

Moreover, by spilling the beans through a carefully crafted (and beautifully written) feature, 'Melo was able to not only mention the elephant in the room but also contextualize it in such a way as to (ideally) keep the New York sports media from sending the city into a full-fledged panic.

(Then again, that might happen anyway. There's only so much anyone can do to tame the Big Apple's basketball fervor.)

 

The Fine Line Between Good and Evil

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

To be sure, Anthony will probably be reviled in New York if he leaves the Knicks. He might even find himself resented by fans elsewhere should he decide to chase championships with another team, though you can be sure there will be some who gleefully soak up the Schadenfreude of seeing and hearing MSG moan and groan again.

That doesn't mean Anthony has to become the next Public Enemy No. 1 in the basketball world, just as James did three years ago and Howard has over the last two. 

The key rests with 'Melo's PR savvy. To avoid the scrutiny and shame that befell his superstar peers, Anthony should follow the example set last season by another close friend of his: Chris Paul.

The All-Star point guard for the Los Angeles Clippers could've been the eye of an ongoing media firestorm over his impending free agency, one that might've torn apart an otherwise fragile 2012-13 season. He'd forced the New Orleans Hornets to trade him after the 2011 lockout, not unlike Anthony had months earlier, and could've left the door wide open for yet another change of scenery.

But instead of subjecting an emerging Clips squad to his own professional chaos, CP3 addressed concerns about his future from the get-go and hardly said another word about it (publicly) until he'd signed a new contract this past July. As Paul told NBA.com's Scott Howard-Cooper in October of 2012:

At the end of the season, I'll evaluate everything. But it's no secret. Everybody knows I love it here. I love our team, I love everything that's going on.

On trying to keep the madness to a minimum, Paul added:

Everybody's situation is different. For me, I just try not to think about it. I feel like I have so much going on on a daily basis that I can't think about what's going to happen at the end of the season.

Paul even went so far as to avoid talking about his future with those friends of his who'd been through the gauntlet before and to feign ignorance about the start date of free agency:

When asked "What do you think happens on July 1st," Paul answers "July 1st?" as if it's a date that is supposed to mean something to him.

"When?" he says.

"Next summer."

"I don't know," Paul says. "It's a good question. July 1st. I don't know. What's that, the first day of free agency?"

As if someone entering his eighth season and who is a member of the board of the players' union didn't know.

"I didn't," Paul says. "I didn't. So, July 1st. Hopefully I'm getting prepared to sign a new contract."

 

The Challenge Ahead

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Anthony doesn't have to "play dumb" with the New York media if he wants to quell concerns. Chances are, the throngs of reporters, columnists, studio analysts and talk radio hosts wouldn't let him off that easily anyway.

He's already put himself a bit behind the proverbial eight-ball. Smart and refreshing as it was to see Anthony speak honestly and candidly about his desire to essentially audition for other teams, doing so lent credence (unintentionally or otherwise) to those who'd seek to spin 'Melo's free agency into a developing story. He didn't squash any talk about leaving New York; he reinvigorated it by essentially substantiating existing rumors.

This needn't doom Anthony entirely, though. What he can do now, as far as damage control is concerned, is refuse to address further questions about his imminent free agency during the season.

Rather than drop "twistable" sound bites for the masses, he can put this Knicks team and this season first in his mind and insist that those with the microphones and recording devices in hand do the same. Instead of feeding the media beast that came to engulf LeBron and Dwight, he can starve it by ignoring it publicly.

(And by running a tight ship privately, if that's even possible with the perpetually leaky Knicks.)

What should Carmelo Anthony do?

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Better yet, he can do all that while making his on-court performance the real story. He can put together a season that matches (if not exceeds) his career-best output from 2012-13 and mount a legitimate challenge to LeBron's MVP supremacy. He can help the Knicks exceed expectations and prove that their No. 2 seed this past spring was no fluke. He can keep New York in the conversation with Chicago, Indiana and Brooklyn among those best suited to unseat the Heat.

Even then, there's no guarantee that Anthony won't be swallowed whole and spat back out as the Knicks' antagonist. The team has rarely (if ever) had an incumbent free agent of Anthony's impact, skill, star power and stature within the league. Predicting how the city handles it, then, may be as futile as trying to prevent whatever maelstrom should come.

But at the very least, Carmelo can try. He can learn from the successes and failures of his professional friends and rivals. He can study the do's and don't's that recent NBA history has been kind enough to lay out before him.

Or he can fall victim to the same, tired follies. He can condemn himself to a repeat of history by ignoring it, as the Spanish philosopher George Santayana once famously warned.

Ultimately, Carmelo can't choose how people perceive or react to what he says and does. The media will write and spout what it wants, and the public will believe what it wants to believe.

What Anthony can do, though, is take (and keep) charge of his own words and actions.

Just as he will when he hits free agency next July.

 

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