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Kobe Bryant Is Cautionary Tale for Carmelo Anthony

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Kobe Bryant Is Cautionary Tale for Carmelo Anthony
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

If you were to guess which of today’s NBA players grew up with Kobe Bryant’s poster on his wall, Carmelo Anthony would probably be a good candidate.

From the shoot-first-ask-questions-later mentality to the camera-ready smile, Melo is in many ways a next-generation byproduct of the 21st-century basketball persona Bryant himself helped create, though the latter’s aloof, sometimes surly demeanor doesn’t seem to be in the former’s DNA.

Between the handful of rings and legend status, there’s plenty about Kobe for Anthony to emulate.

Bryant’s business instinct just shouldn’t be one of them.

On July 1, Anthony is expected to officially opt out of his final year with the New York Knicks and become an unrestricted free agent, positioning himself—one month past his 30th birthday—for a second max contract.

Since announcing his intentions last fall, Melo’s future has been the source of unending speculation, both in New York and in every city that fancies itself a serious suitor.

And rightly so: Without Anthony, the Knicks face the nightmarish prospect of jerry-rigging a roster around Tyson Chandler, Amar’e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani—a trio of expensive, fundamentally flawed players whose basketball ceilings have long been breached.

Matt Slocum/Associated Press

Owing to the finer points of the new collective bargaining agreement, the Knicks would be able to offer Anthony a longer, more lucrative contract than anyone else—a year longer and tens of millions larger, according to ESPN’s Larry Coon (via ESPN New York’s Ohm Youngmisuk).

For months, the Carmelo conversation has pivoted around a strict dichotomy: Either he wants the money and will stay in New York to collect, or he wants to win, in which case, so long Madison Square Garden.

Nuance needn’t apply, apparently.

Until Melo himself, speaking to reporters before February’s All-Star Game, squashed any notion of his upcoming summer being scarce more than a cynical money grab:

Without a doubt. Any opportunity I have to build that up in New York, Id do it. I told people all the time, always say, ‘If it takes me taking a pay cut, Ill be the first one on [Knicks owner] Mr. [James] Dolans steps saying take my money and lets build something strong over here.

Dolan apparently got the message. Last week, the Knicks announced the signing of Phil Jackson as the team’s new president of basketball operations—a stunning, out-of-nowhere coup many saw as the pivotal first step in ensuring Melo remains garbed in orange and blue.

Front-office signings do not a champion make, of course—at least not right away.

Still, according to Fred Kerber of the New York Post, the move seemed to at least plant a seed in Melo’s mind that, with a bit of patience, happier days could be well within his reach:

The big picture, absolutely, for the big picture this is definitely more attractive. ... As far as knowing what it takes to win, Phil is the best to ever do it. So for me to be able to have the opportunity and have him by my side, for him to teach me — I’m still willing to learn the game of basketball. And I haven’t won anything.

Kobe Bryant has won plenty: championships, MVPs, Olympic gold—the only thing missing from Mamba’s mantle is a few more stints to support the weight.

That is what makes Bryant’s recent two-year contract extension—worth a purported $48.5 million, according to ESPN Los Angeles—a bird of an entirely different financial feather from the one Melo faces.

Undertones of avarice and selfishness aside, Kobe has literally nothing left to prove—save, perhaps, that he can match Michael Jordan’s half-dozen titles.

But even if you believe Bryant is being overpaid—and at 35 years old coming off a second season-ending injury, he most certainly is—the Los Angeles Lakers have proven time and again that seldom an expense will be spared when battling for another banner.

Unlike the Knicks, when the Lakers make it rain, the foundational soil is healthy enough to support whatever grows.

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

The two’s respective basketball makeups make for an equally interesting case study. Yes, both Bryant and Anthony are score-first assassins trained seemingly since infancy to believe the best offense is the one that ends with their wrist extended. But that might be where the comparisons end.

Jackson was able to compel Bryant—much like he did Jordan a decade earlier—to at least function in the confines of a sustained, consistent offense. The result? A surprisingly high per-36-minute assist rate of 4.7, a full 1.7 higher than Anthony’s through the two’s careers thus far, per Basketball-Reference.com.

Perhaps he can do the same—either personally or by proxy—with Anthony, a player Jackson believes still has “another level he can go to,” according to ESPN New York's Begley.

Whether the Zen Master’s discursive wizardry will be enough to push Melo past his own financial self-interest is a different question entirely. Even if it is, however, James Dolan still owns the team, a reality ESPN’s Ian O’Connor thinks should be enough for Melo to leave any Manhattan money behind:

Only as hard as it might be to picture any superstar taking a home-team discount, its harder to picture Dolan and his men building Melo a roster that will win him his ring. So yes, he should leave for Chicago or wherever, just like LeBron left Cleveland for Miami. If he does decide to stay, and does decide to take the max deal after all, Melo should at least tell the public the truth about why the Knicks made the most sense.

Had Jackson returned to the Lakers, might he have convinced Kobe to take a pay cut in an effort to secure a better supporting roster? It’s impossible to say.

That’s exactly what he’ll try to do with Melo, however. Three weeks ago, no one would’ve been surprised if the organization offered every last penny to ensure Melo retired a Knick. With Jackson at the helm, that level of largess might no longer be possible.

Should Anthony decide the haircut amounts to a financial follicle too far and walks, Jackson and Dolan will at least have the cover of their public-relations honeymoon to hide them.

Mortgages and Maseratis aside, Melo—like Kobe—has all the money he could ever want or need. What he lacks is Bryant’s championship clout and cultural cachet, two things Anthony is never liable to land, no matter how good his next situation is.

If Melo truly cares about his legacy, winning a title, be it in New York or another, more stable situation, is the best thing he can do.

Anthony will never be able to tout “da ringz” Kobe can. But so long as 35 doesn’t find him counting extra coin with nary a championship band to show for it, Melo can rest easy knowing his chase was for a purer kind of payment than what his twilit hero pursued.

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