Is Carmelo Anthony a Disappointment or Victim of Unrealistic Expectations?

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Is Carmelo Anthony a Disappointment or Victim of Unrealistic Expectations?
USA Today

Perhaps Carmelo Anthony isn’t who we thought he was.

There was always this sense that he belonged in the same conversation as Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, but the evidence suggests otherwise. Through no fault of Anthony’s, he was labeled a superstar despite the fact he’s never done anything worthy of the title.

The masses put that on Carmelo because he looked the part.

 

Championship Pedigree

ED REINKE/Associated Press

Prior to joining the NBA, Anthony had already been anointed because of his NCAA championship as a freshman.

Basketball-Reference.com tells us Anthony averaged 22.2 points and 10 rebounds on his way to guiding Syracuse to a national title in 2003. He consistently rose to the occasion in the NCAA tournament, which earned him the Most Outstanding Player award.

Anthony was projected to be a top-three pick in a draft that was headlined by some random dude named LeBron.

Interestingly enough, there was a debate as to which player was the better talent. James was merely a high school player who had yet to compete against college talent, while Anthony had just wrapped up a season where the best universities in the country failed to contain him.

It’s easy to see in retrospect why some viewed Carmelo as a superior player. Ultimately, the Cleveland Cavaliers picked James with the first pick given his Ohio roots. The Detroit Pistons selected Darko Milicic with the second pick, and Anthony fell to the Denver Nuggets at No. 3.

Denver “earned” its spot in the lottery by winning 17 games during the 2002-03 season. Anthony made an immediate impact in his rookie season with the club. He had the highest scoring average (21.0) on a team that won 43 games and qualified for the postseason.

Consider the 26-game turnaround puts him in terrific company among first-year greats like Larry Bird (32-game) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (29-game).

JOHN MARSHALL MANTEL/Associated Press

Given how hard it is to lead a team in scoring as a rookie and spearhead a 26-game turnaround while leading a team into the playoffs (the Chicago Bulls only improved their win total by 11 games during Michael Jordan's rookie year), it was easy to forgive the five-game playoff elimination in the 2004 playoffs at the hands of the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Little did we know it at the time, but the first-round defeat to Minnesota was a harbinger. It just didn’t seem that way because Anthony looked like a superstar.

In ensuing seasons, he made it all appear effortless. Carmelo got his points seemingly on command and did it all with a smile reminiscent of Magic Johnson’s.

Anthony always looked like he was in control of the situation, which only reinforced the idea he might overtake the league. He improved his jumper, became a post-up threat and delivered late in games.

With each passing year, the 82-game schedule became Carmelo’s showcase. He increased his point production and was a permanent fixture among the scoring leaders. Anthony had only one blemish on his curriculum, but it was a pretty big one: lack of playoff success.

Have a look at Denver’s playoff record per season with Anthony:

Nuggets Playoff Record by Season with Anthony
Season Wins Losses
2003-04 1 4
2004-05 1 4
2005-06 1 4
2006-07 1 4
2007-08 0 4
2008-09 10 6
2009-10 2 4
Total 16 30

Basketball-Reference.com

That’s a brutal postseason record, and one can theorize it was the impetus for Anthony’s departure from Denver.

 

Is It About Winning?

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Although it’s a harsh question to ask, it would be hard to ignore it in the context of Carmelo. How much does winning truly matter to him?

Anthony’s answered that question already, but perhaps some people failed to notice.

His response occurred during the 2010-11 campaign. Armed with an opt-out clause in his contract, he informed the Nuggets he would sign an extension only if he were traded to the New York Knicks, according to an ESPN.com report by Chris Sheridan.

In February 2011, Carmelo’s use of his leverage resulted in Denver agreeing to a deal with New York in a nine-player swap. Anthony could have waited until the offseason to join the Knicks via free agency but passed. It was more important for him to sign an extension as a member of the Knicks, which allowed him a bigger earning power than joining New York in the summer.

That condition compelled the Knicks to send players to Denver as part of the trade, which ultimately weakened New York despite the acquisition of Carmelo. He chose money over quality teammates. I don’t begrudge him for this, but the fact remains that when presented with two options, he chose the one that stripped him of having solid contributors around him.

I ask again: How much does winning mean to him?

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

It’s entirely possible that Anthony thought that his skill level would catapult the Knicks into championship contention alongside a healthy Amar’e Stoudemire.

“I think now, with the help of Carmelo and Chauncey [Billups] and the rest of the guys, we have a great shot at it,” Stoudemire said back in February 2011 to Howard Beck, then of The New York Times.

It’s probably worth mentioning the Knicks were swept in the opening round of the playoffs by the Boston Celtics, thanks to a formula that’s been successful against Anthony-led teams: force Carmelo into tough shots while his teammates watch.

Anthony has always been a terrific talent, but he’s never been the kind of player who can simply carry a unit throughout a postseason run. He doesn’t consistently elevate the game of his teammates, which is what superstars do.

“Carmelo Anthony is definitely better than your typical All-Star, but he’s not quite a superstar,” said Grantland’s Bill Simmons in July. “You know what that makes him? An almost-but-not-quite-superstar.”

Think of someone like Tim Duncan, who covered up everything on the defensive end for the San Antonio Spurs during his prime and created opportunities for his teammates on offense by drawing and passing out of double-teams.

The same can be said about LeBron and Kobe.

Carmelo? Not so much.

He’ll get his points against tough playoff defenses, but Anthony will do so at the expense of his comrades and his individual efficiency.

Anthony Career Stats Per 36 Minutes
Stat Regular Season Playoffs
Points per 36 Minutes 24.9 23.6
Rebounds per 36 Minutes 6.5 6.7
Assists per 36 Minutes 3.0 2.6
Field Goal% 45.5 41.7

Basketball-Reference.com

These issues didn’t magically disappear in New York, and the Knicks’ playoff record since acquiring him is indicative of that.

Knicks Playoff Record by Season with Anthony
Season Wins Losses
2010-11 0 4
2011-12 1 4
2012-13 6 6
Total 7 14

Basketball-Reference.com

And then there’s this damning stat: Anthony has been part of three playoff series victories during his 11-year career.

That’s it.

Things haven’t gone according to plan for Anthony during the postseason, but his teams have always been able to count on him to get them to the playoffs...until last season.

With Anthony suiting up for 77 contests, the Knicks won 37 games in a putrid Eastern Conference. One could have forgiven the win total had he been injured, but he was there for all of it.

I suppose one could point to the cast of players that has surrounded him during his career, but that misses the larger point. LeBron carried a subpar Cavs team featuring the likes of Eric Snow, Drew Gooden and Anderson Varejao to the 2006-07 NBA Finals. That Cleveland unit was incredibly flawed, but James got them to overachieve.

That’s what superstars do, and the evidence seems to indicate Carmelo cannot inspire such team-oriented feats.

 

Anthony Strikes Out…Again

Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

The decision to remain with the Knicks was a disappointing one, and it signaled that winning wasn’t the priority he said it was.

As a fan, I wanted to see Carmelo join the Chicago Bulls. It was the perfect landing spot for his talent.

A healthy Derrick Rose coupled with Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler should win north of 55 games and compete for a berth in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The team’s lone weakness? Generating offense.

Even at the peak of Rose’s pre-injury powers, the Bulls simply could not score enough to get past balanced playoff teams, like the 2010-11 Miami Heat

That’s what makes Carmelo picking the Knicks such a letdown. He would have given the Bulls exactly what they were lacking.

Anthony would have been playing into May and possibly June for the next few years alongside an elite performer. What’s more, Rose probably would have been the best player with whom Carmelo had ever played with in the league, and that includes the 2006-09 version of Allen Iverson.

Considering how great and successful Carmelo has been during international competitions—playing with the likes of Dwyane Wade, Kobe and Kevin Durant—teaming up with a great player seemed like a foregone conclusion.

Heck, Anthony unintentionally fueled this idea by downplaying the importance of his future earnings.

“The contract will be the contract. I’d like to consider myself financially stable,” Carmelo said in April, according to the New York Post’s Marc Berman “For me, it’s more day-to-day stuff, competing at a high level, night in, night out, having a chance of reaching my ultimate goal of winning that championship.’’

I thought that was a breadcrumb.

Free agency then kicked in, and the decision reportedly came down to Chicago or New York.

I understood the appeal of winning in New York. Walt “Clyde” Frazier and Willis Reed are immortalized in that city because of two titles won during the early 1970s.

But it’s impossible to toss away these facts: three series wins and two second-round berths in 11 years. Keep in mind, Anthony will be 30 by the time training camp opens, which means he won’t have many cracks left at winning a title.

Chicago should have been the call, but Carmelo wanted no part of it. Instead, he re-signed as a free agent and earned a five-year, $124 million deal with the Knicks, per the New York Daily News’ Frank Isola.

Gary Dineen/Getty Images

The Knicks faithful were probably ecstatic, but basketball fans couldn’t help but feel cheated. Joining the Bulls likely would have cost Anthony around $30 million in guaranteed money, but it would have given him something money can’t buy: a shot to be legendary.

That opportunity certainly exists in New York, but it looks as though it might be a few years away at best. Sham Sports tells us the Knicks will have roughly $25 million in cap space in the 2015 offseason, which sounds great in theory.

However, the biggest free-agent acquisition in the Big Apple over the last 10 years is none other than Stoudemire. Anthony and New York don’t appear to be attractive options for top-tier stars.

According to Yahoo Sports’ Marc J. Spears, Rose refused to recruit Anthony, which gives that notion some credence. “It’s not my job,” Rose shared. However, Rose was certainly eager to woo Pau Gasol, because “[Gasol is] someone that I knew I could play with,” the Bulls guard said, according to the Chicago Sun-Times’ Joe Cowley.

This paints a fairly gloomy picture as it pertains to the outlook of the Knicks going forward. Perhaps New York makes a blockbuster trade that brings in a stud player in return, but that requires assets, and the Knicks are short on those.

That’s what makes the refusal to join Chicago such a big deal. Anthony had the power to alter the landscape of an entire conference and become worthy of mention in the same sentence as Durant (who has a Finals berth on his resume) and perhaps even Kobe and LeBron.

"Carmelo Anthony is an incredible talent," said Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck. "He deserves elite teammates who can elevate his game and his stature. Those teammates were there, waiting for him in Chicago. The opportunity was there. Carmelo had the chance to make something more of his career. He turned it down."

As a result, I can’t help but view Melo as anything else other than a disappointment despite his terrific scoring skills. It feels like his path is that of someone who will entertain and put up numbers in postseason losses for the remainder of his career.

Anthony tried to tell us who he is, but no one listened. It’s better to wonder what Carmelo could have been, because the reality falls short of expectations.

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