In one of the NBA's most talented eras of all time, Carmelo Anthony stands out as one of the game's brightest stars. He's won an NCAA title, Olympic golds and just recently missed out on postseason play for the first time in his 10-year career.
By all measures, Anthony is a remarkable talent and has thrived on winning teams—even ones in a premier market.
But still without the postseason acumen that means so much when evaluating 30-year-old stars, Anthony is set to decide next month on where he'll spend the remainder of his peak years. And save for a Phil Jackson short-order miracle this summer, the New York Knicks don't seem able to supply him with the success his legacy is so desperate to see.
That's not to say they're long shots in this race, though. With Jackson as team president, it's difficult to imagine the Knicks' direction being guided by a sharper basketball mind—a notion that has flipped upside down in a matter of months. With Derek Fisher signing on as head coach—an 18-year vet and five-time NBA champion who has always garnered his teammates' respect—Jackson's voice and ideologies will likely have a direct path to MSG hardwood.
Despite being late in the game, the Knicks are desperately trying to patch together the framework of a functional organization.
Though Jackson's aura may be the most mesmerizing of any active NBA exec, it falls short of wiping Amar'e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani's combined $35 million off the books for next season and doesn't reacquire any draft picks the Knicks have shipped away in trades over the last half-decade.
In short: Jackson's regime is doing everything it can to disguise the team's unattractive dilemma to Melo, but when the facts are laid bare and compared to those of other destinations, New York's past mistakes may prove impossible to work around.
When you consider Anthony's personal struggle in the current NBA landscape, it's easy to understand why his looming career decision—unlike his last one—is so largely influenced by the lone vacancy in his trophy case.
Court of Popular Opinion
Rightly or wrongly, Anthony has been subject to more than a fair share of vitriol over recent years. Validity of the claims vary case by case—"He isn't a plus defender" holds more weight than "He doesn't try hard enough," for example—but Melo isn't nearly as publicly heralded compared to players of similar class.
Plenty of subjective arguments factor in, but one objective, measurable predicament has surely weighed on Anthony's mind over recent months and years.
Since his notorious move to the Big Apple, he's seen his 2003 draft brethren (LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh) nail down hardware. Players of the same generation either have rings to their name already (Tony Parker), or seem destined to compete for one in the near future (Chris Paul and Dwight Howard).
Since his New York arrival, Melo has watched Blake Griffin ascend to stardom, while Kevin Love is another mid-20-year-old who occasionally finds himself regarded more highly than Anthony, depending on the season.
During Paul George's hot stretches, Melo tends to fall outside of the generally agreed upon "Top Three NBA Small Forwards," per ESPN.com's Ian O'Connor. Of course, Kevin Durant, just 25, superseded him long ago.
O'Connor wrote this after the Knicks' November loss to the Indiana Pacers:
Paul George, age 23, has become a better player than Anthony, age 29, and that's a problem. A big problem. It's one thing for LeBron James to be the superior Eastern Conference talent, quite another for George to have hurdled Melo in the power rankings, too.
What sets Anthony's name apart from most of these generally praised peers can be found in team output, rather than any individual stat line.
Miami's Big Three have competed for rings ever since they united. Durant passed Anthony in playoff wins two years ago. Paul and Howard found new destinations that figure to be in the mix for years to come. George's Pacers have marched to the Eastern Conference Finals two years running, while the Clippers' laughingstock reputation began to crumble the day Griffin debuted in 2010.
These members of the NBA elite have all played prime roles in a franchise's rise to prominence.
Never falling flat on his face, but never leading a conference powerhouse for an extended period, the 30-year-old Anthony has fallen somewhere in the middle for a decade.
Which brings us back to Anthony's current Knicks, who are arguably in a worse spot now than the day before they acquired him in 2011.
When Melo defected to basketball's biggest market to join the Knicks as a mercenary star—much like Paul did with Los Angeles, James Harden and Dwight Howard did in Houston and Miami's trio did before them—it was thought to be the boost New York needed to regain admission to the league's forefront. But unlike the high-profile moves of his high-profile colleagues, Anthony's hasn't won the Knicks more than a single playoff series in four years.
What should be more alarming than the Knicks' modest 141-117 record since the trade with Denver: It's hardly Melo's fault.
Those who watched him gut through 45 losses last season can attest. While averaging a career-high 8.1 boards and shooting a career-best 40 percent from three-point range, Anthony looked like the only Knick who cared through most of the season.
Considering how miserable the Knicks were despite a career season from Anthony and the lack of support around him during his New York tenure, what could Melo possibly see in the Knicks's future?
He'd be signing away the remainder of his prime to a team that—with him or without him—is essentially an afterthought next season, with many of the same salaries still on the books. Jackson will sell Anthony on 2015 and the possibilities of a free-agent pairing next summer, though that plan would require Melo to throw away yet another prime season with the Knicks next year.
A Way Out
Anthony's career exemplifies just how difficult achieving and sustaining NBA superstardom truly is—and just how much timing and luck factor into the equation.
In a league moving away from isolation tendencies, Anthony's nearly unstoppable one-on-one prowess would be even more valuable in any other era.
Had the league's collective bargaining agreement not expired the same summer as Anthony's contract with the Nuggets, he likely would have been more willing to sign with the Knicks outright in free agency, rather than force them to trade four starters for him.
If Stoudemire's health held up more graciously, perhaps the Knicks would have been going toe-to-toe with Miami for the East title these last few years.
In an era less packed with talent as this one, Anthony would be valued differently, for sure.
But this summer, he'll have the chance to erase his legacy's blemishes and find a title-contending home. A championship addendum later in a legendary career goes down just the same as any other—ask David Robinson and Jason Kidd.
After securing himself the maximum salary at every possible chance to this point, this decision surely won't revolve around a dollar sign.
"At this point of my career, I’m not concerned with money. The contract will be the contract. I like to consider myself financially stable," he told reporters.
The contract will be the contract, and it'll be agreed upon with the team that presents Anthony the best chance at a championship. If Phil convinces him that the Knicks are that team, mark it down as the team's biggest victory of the Melo era.
Follow me on Twitter at @JSDorn6.
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