It's amazing how quickly LeBron James rendered the debate between himself and Carmelo Anthony irrelevant.
Heading into the spring of 2003, James' place as the No. 1 NBA draft pick wasn't necessarily predestined. In April of that year, the New York Post's Mike Vaccaro wrote of the choice between the two, "you will probably lose less, over the next 15 years or so, if you went with Anthony."
One year into their respective NBA careers, Vaccaro's hypothesis wasn't complete heresy.
One decade later, it's about as wrong as "Dewey Defeats Truman."
Let's compare the year-by-year progression of both players to see when LeBron left Carmelo in the dust once and for all.
The Beginning (Pre-NBA Years)
The LeBron vs. Carmelo debate didn't just start on the night of the 2003 draft. As noted by ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst, James and Anthony first crossed paths at a USA Basketball development camp in the summer of 2001.
"I kept telling all my friends how good this Carmelo Anthony guy was," LeBron told Windhorst. "I did not know then that we were going to put him on our schedule."
In February 2002, the two future stars clashed in a high school showcase between Oak Hill Academy (Anthony's school) and St. Vincent-St. Mary (James' school). Per Windhorst, Bron had 36 points, eight rebounds, six steals and five assists, while 'Melo finished with 34 points, 11 rebounds, two assists and, most importantly, the win.
One year later, both players appeared to be locks for the top of the NBA draft. Anthony, a college freshman, had just led his Syracuse Orange to the 2003 NCAA championship, while James, a high school senior, was fresh off his third Ohio state title in four years.
Once the Cleveland Cavaliers won the 2003 lottery, the team couldn't pass up the hometown-hero angle with James. Then-Cavaliers owner Gordon Gund unveiled a No. 23 jersey with LeBron's name on it that night, per K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune.
However, the debate between he and Anthony, who the Denver Nuggets selected with the No. 3 pick, was only just beginning.
"If LeBron and Darko are gone [on the night of the 2003 draft], the 2004 NBA Rookie of the Year will be playing in Denver next season," ESPN.com's Marc Spears wrote.
The Rookie of the Year Debate (2003-04)
Narrative held to form in both players' debut seasons, as the 2004 NBA Rookie of the Year race boiled down to a choice between James and Anthony.
James averaged 20.9 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game that year, becoming only the third rookie in NBA history to average a 20-5-5 line, per Basketball-Reference (Oscar Robertson and Michael Jordan were the other two; Tyreke Evans joined that club in the 2009-10 season).
Anthony, meanwhile, averaged 21.0 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game but had a higher effective field-goal percentage (.449) and more win shares (6.1) than LeBron (.438 and 5.1, respectively). He also helped guide Denver into the playoffs, while the Cavaliers sat the 2004 postseason out.
Here's the side-by-side comparison of both players' first NBA seasons.
Who would you have chosen as the Rookie of the Year?
In the end, James ran away with the award. He received a total of 508 points, including 78 of 118 first-place votes, compared to Anthony's 430 points and 40 first-place votes, per NBA.com.
ESPN.com's Marc Stein explained the choice thus: "'Melo had a fabulous rookie season, but he doesn't have the multi-faceted game yet to overcome everything Cleveland was missing."
That one sentence foreshadowed the gulf between the two players that only grew wider as the years went on.
The Early Years (2004-05 through 2006-07)
While both players went toe-to-toe as rookies in terms of accomplishments, it didn't take long for James to start creating major separation between himself and Anthony.
In the second year of their respective careers (2004-05), LeBron blew Carmelo out of the water by averaging 27.2 points, 7.4 rebounds and 7.2 assists per game. Anthony's per-game stats slightly declined, on the other hand, as he averaged 20.8 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.6 assists.
James finished the season with a PER of 25.7 (sixth in the NBA) and 14.3 win shares (fourth in the league), per Basketball-Reference, while Anthony had a PER of 16.7 (tied for 57th) and 4.9 win shares (tied for 91st).
If any voters had lingering doubts about the 2004 Rookie of the Year race, James' second season should have silenced those. From that point on, Carmelo would never come close to dethroning LeBron as the league's best small forward.
Over the next two seasons, Anthony asserted himself as one of the league's preeminent scorers, averaging 26.5 points per game in 2005-06 and 28.9 points per game in 2006-07. There was only one problem: James exploded for 31.4 points per game in 2005-06, eliminating Carmelo's one major advantage over him.
In both seasons, LeBron continued to outpace Carmelo in terms of rebounds, assists, PER and win shares.
Here's the season-by-season breakdown of both players from 2004-05 through 2006-07:
James Becomes King of PER (2007-08 through 2009-10)
By the fifth year of their respective careers, the LeBron-Carmelo debate had been rendered largely moot. If your life depended upon a player creating a 25-foot jumper for himself and draining it, you might pick Anthony; otherwise, James had clearly established himself as the superior player.
The 2007-08 season marked the first time James led the league in PER (29.1), but it certainly wasn't the last. LeBron also led all scorers that season by averaging 30.0 points per game and had the highest usage rate (33.5 percent) of any player.
Anthony, meanwhile, averaged 25.7 points per game (fourth in the NBA) and finished with a PER of 21.1 (17th) in 2007-08. He shot 49.2 percent from the field and 35.4 percent from three-point range, both of which were career highs at the time, yet couldn't hold a candle to James' accomplishments that season.
During his final two years with Cleveland, LeBron put even more distance between himself and Carmelo. He posted back-to-back PERs above 30 while accruing more than 38 total win shares, leading the league in both categories each year. For his efforts, he earned two consecutive regular-season MVP awards.
In 2008-09, Anthony finished with a PER of 19.0 (tied for 31st in the league) and 5.0 win shares (tied for 93rd). He improved upon both the following season, ending up with a PER of 22.2 (13th) and 7.9 win shares (tied for 30th) but still came nowhere close to even equaling James—much less surpassing him.
Although LeBron faced an unprecedented wave of backlash for the messy way he exited Cleveland, that can't be held against him in an objective comparison. The tale of the tape, presented below, says James won each year against Anthony by a first-round knockout.
The Transition to Miami and New York (2010-11 through 2012-13)
If Anthony was ever going to narrow the gap between himself and James, the 2010-11 season presented a golden opportunity to do so.
By joining Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, LeBron effectively announced his intention to sacrifice personal statistics for a better chance at a championship. No longer would he have to carry his team on his broad shoulders on a nightly basis, theoretically.
As it turned out, LeBron still averaged nearly his typical 27-7-7 stat line during his first season with Miami but suffered a slight downtick in PER (27.3). He did shoot a career-high 51.0 percent from the field, foreshadowing the relentless emphasis on shooting efficiency that he'd soon develop.
Anthony, meanwhile, underwent his own turmoil during the 2010-11 season—being traded halfway through the season to the New York Knicks. In the 27 games he played as a Knick that year, he drilled 42.4 percent of his 4.6 three-point attempts per game.
Had that three-point shooting efficiency been sustainable, it would have given Anthony one major advantage over James, a notoriously streaky long-range shooter at the time. However, his prowess from downtown plummeted during his first full season in New York, as he knocked down only 33.5 percent of his three-point attempts in 2011-12. He also shot only 43.0 percent from the field, the lowest mark since his rookie season nearly a decade prior.
As Carmelo's shooting percentages dropped, LeBron's only continued to rise. He drained 53.1 percent of his shots from the floor and 36.2 percent from three-point range in 2011-12, both of which were new career highs at the time.
With two more regular-season MVP awards, two NBA championships and two NBA Finals MVPs in 2011-12 and 2012-13, James left Anthony in the dust once and for all (Gary Washburn's opinion notwithstanding).
The Present (2013-14)
This season, hardly anything has changed in the LeBron-Carmelo narrative. Despite Anthony averaging a career-high 8.6 rebounds per game, he still significantly trails James in terms of PER, effective field-goal percentage and win shares.
He's also lagging behind in terms of field-goal percentage on pull-up shots, per SportVU (via NBA.com/stats). Anthony is shooting 35.9 percent on his 7.2 pull-up field-goal attempts per game, while James is shooting 37.3 percent on his 4.4 pull-up attempts.
What's behind the massive disparity in their respective advanced stats?
David Berri of The Wages of Wins Journal offered his perspective back in Jan. 2011:
When we compare LeBron and Carmelo, we see two players with very similar scoring totals. But LeBron is a more efficient scorer. In other words, Carmelo can only match LeBron’s scoring totals because he is more willing to take shots away from his teammates. LeBron can score as much as Carmelo with fewer shots, and since LeBron is a more willing passer, he is able to set up efficient shots for his teammates as well. As a consequence—although LeBron and Carmelo are not much different with respect to possession factors (i.e. rebounds, steals, and turnovers)—LeBron produces far more wins than Carmelo.
B/R's Howard Beck recently echoed Berri's criticism of Carmelo:
If Anthony were a more complete player, perhaps the $129 million investment would be justified. But he is not. Eleven years into his NBA career, Anthony remains the same one-dimensional player he’s always been: a phenomenal scorer who doesn't defend and never elevates his teammates.
Once regarded as James' rival, Anthony is now fourth in the small-forward pecking order, behind James, (Kevin) Durant and Paul George.
After looking back on the respective careers of James and Anthony on a year-by-year basis, it's difficult to argue with either Berri or Beck. Anthony clearly possesses an elite ability to put the ball in the basket, as evidenced by him winning the 2012-13 scoring title. He's not elite, however, in any other aspects of his game.
Compared to James, who easily ranks as the league's best passing forward today, Anthony's lack of well-roundedness sets him apart in a negative way. At this rate, he's never going to surpass James simply because he doesn't contribute enough to his team's overall success.
Carmelo's ability to score a bevy of points can't be underrated. But when players like Paul George and Kevin Durant are clearly pushing the boundaries of their game to emulate James, Anthony's relative stagnation sticks out like a sore thumb.
At this point, the ship has sailed on the debate between Anthony and James. As Beck alludes to, it's now just a matter of where to place Carmelo in the upper echelon of small forwards.
Note: Unless otherwise noted, all advanced statistics come from Basketball-Reference.com.
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