Dominant offensive displays have been an 11-year staple of the New York Knicks superstar. The consistency with which he has shredded nylon—however efficiently or inefficiently—is rivaled by few and admired by many.
Not even a longstanding reputation as a ball-stopper and postseason failure has wholly stymied his rise through the league's ranks, both past and present. But the manner in which Anthony is climbing—and continues to climb—does limit the heights he can reach.
If he retired right now, he would leave as one of the game's greatest scorers and not much else, his standing buoyed by all he's done, his memory bound to all he has not.
Points, Points, Points
What Anthony has actually done is cause for celebration.
Since entering the Association in 2003-04, he's yet to average under 20 points per game. LeBron James is the only other player who has cleared the 20-point plateau in each of the last 11 seasons. Anthony is also one of just 17 players in ABA and NBA history to average at least 25 points per game through his first 11 seasons; Kevin Durant is set to become the 18th.
His offensive longevity was punctuated by joining the 20,000-point club during the Knicks' victory over the Charlotte Hornets on Sunday. It was a three-pointer that propelled him into yet another exclusive clique:
Only 40 players have tallied at least 20,000 points. Very few have done it as quickly as him, per ESPN New York's Ian Begley:
Ian Begley @IanBegley
#Knicks F Carmelo Anthony is tied for 15th all time in number of games needed to score 20,000 points. Carmelo did it in 793 games.2014-11-3 06:37:30
Even fewer have pumped in 20,000-plus points so young:
NBA TV @NBATV
.@carmeloanthony is the 6th youngest player in @NBA history to reach 20,000 points http://t.co/5dOsjJ7SVN2014-11-3 01:55:02
"It's a great milestone to reach," Anthony told MSG Network's Tina Cervasio afterward. "I never thought I would reach 20,000 points. I used to look at people and say, 'Damn, that's a lot of points.'"
Indeed, it is a lot of points. Most players cannot even fathom such a milestone. They will never even sniff it. But Anthony is already there and within striking distance of joining the top 20 point-pilers of all time before he retires.
Catapulting himself into the top 15 or top 10 isn't even out of the question. If he appears in at least 70 games over the next five seasons—including 70 more this year—while averaging 20 points, he'll waltz into the 27,000-point club with plenty of room to spare.
More important than the scoring chase itself, though, is the career arc it technically puts him on.
Twenty-seven of the 40 players Anthony now joins are Hall of Famers. Ten more are inevitable Hall of Famers: Shaquille O'Neal, Kevin Garnett, Allen Iverson, Ray Allen, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Vince Carter, Paul Pierce, Dirk Nowitzki and James. You also won't find a member of the 25,000-point fraternity—which Anthony, assuming health, will inevitably join—who isn't already in or fated to be in the Hall of Fame.
Scoring alone should be enough to punch Anthony's ticket into that same company. If he's somehow able to crack 30,000 points, he's a first-ballot inductee. That, as of now, is a five-player list comprising only four Hall of Famers and one future Hall of Famer (Bryant).
"It's kind of hard to think about it like that," Anthony said of his Hall of Fame prospects, per NBC Sports' Brett Pollakoff. "When I'm done with this game and that time comes, we'll see what happens. But it's kind of hard there to put my mind there right now."
Understandably, Anthony isn't looking to post-career validation. He's looking toward the immediate future, living and fighting in the now. And right now, with scoring accolades being racked up in volume, there's still something missing.
Everything that has to do with Anthony comes back to championships, specifically the absence of them.
Finding fellow ringless scoring machines isn't difficult. Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, George Gervin, Allen Iverson and Patrick Ewing, among many others, failed to win a title and still manage to stand among the all-time greats.
But in so many instances, their standing is tainted by naked fingers.
Barkley isn't mentioned in the same breath as Larry Bird. Ewing doesn't incite the fervid nostalgia of an O'Neal or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Iverson's legacy is forever tied to his size more than anything else. Dominique Wilkins' career will always be revered for his scoring acumen and stained by a complete lack of playoff success. Malone is one of the few exceptions, a distinction that comes after three Finals failures, two of which came at the hands of Michael Jordan's Bulls.
Anthony's career is at similar risk. He's made it out of the first round of the playoffs only twice. He's won a little more than one-third (34.9 percent) of his playoff games (23-43). His reputation as a self-serving ball hog only began fading over the last year or so, and it has not yet vanished.
To top it all off, Anthony shirked the opportunity to completely and permanently change the scope through which he's viewed.
Free agency afforded him the chance to latch on to a legitimate championship contender. The Chicago Bulls, Dallas Mavericks and Houston Rockets all came calling, each boasting a roster that could immediately compete for a title with him on board.
In leaving New York, Anthony would have needed to accept less money over the life on his deal and, in some cases, annually. Taking the requisite pay cut would have showed him in a different light. It would have overshadowed him leaving the team he forced his way to for a squad better suited to give him what he still doesn't have.
Instead of seizing that chance, Anthony returned to the Knicks, a work in progress at best. He chose the money—a little less than the max—and uncertainty of New York over the promise of immediate contention, pinning himself to a rebuild that may not ever culminate in the boon his legacy needs.
"That's Anthony's career trajectory right now: to be known as the next 'Nique, a scoring maestro who never did anything of note in the playoffs," Bleacher Report's Howard Beck wrote over the offseason. "A name. A highlight reel. A record setter. An entertainer. But not a winner."
Impending cap space could help the Knicks bolster Anthony's playoff reputation. With Phil Jackson steering the ship and a clear plan in place, they may help Anthony reinvent himself before his career is out.
Or equally, if not more likely, the Knicks could be embarking on years-long restoration that elevates their status without improving Anthony's, forcing him to decide between seeking championship refuge elsewhere as he enters his twilight or remaining loyal to a franchise that cannot guarantee anything beyond more of the same.
Nothing other than a title would allow him avoid a fate like Wilkins or Iverson. Moderate playoff success would help, and championships aren't everything—see: Steve Nash—but there is no substitute for a ring. Anthony has the scoring records and the offensive clout. What he needs next is for those to translate into something more.
Searching for More
There is no formula for Anthony to follow as he tries to establish himself outside the scoring company he's pigeonholed to. There never has been. Not even during free agency, as ESPNNewYork.com's Ian O'Connor explained:
Either way, Anthony probably made the right call in returning to New York. He couldn't possibly gamble on Kobe Bryant's aging legs in Los Angeles, and as much as he fell hard for [Tom] Thibodeau on his recruiting visit in July, betting on Derrick Rose remaining healthy would've been a dicey risk-reward proposition.
Anthony didn't have a sure-thing alternative, so he took the extra millions the system allowed to keep his family home in the big city, and to keep alive the possibility that he could someday be to New York basketball what Mark Messier is to New York hockey.
No matter the path Anthony chose, he would have been after one thing: a title. Not a single team out there could have promised him that kind of success. There were only different directions, not ironclad certainties.
Anthony chose the more precarious path, the more challenging undertaking.
Serving as the centerpiece for the Knicks' image overhaul will pay big dividends if he wins a title. In the meantime, as the team attempts to polish off its rebuild, the victories will come in Anthony's evolution as he leaves behind the ball-stopping stigma.
That change is significant in and of itself, and it's already underway. If nothing else, Anthony has demonstrated a willingness to play more team-oriented basketball—New York ranks fourth in passes per game, according to NBA.com—and exist within a system that, while built around him, doesn't pander to his individual needs and past tendencies 100 percent of the time.
Jonah Ballow @jonahballow
The most passes by a Knick last night against CLE? @carmeloanthony with 36. Larkin 2nd with 31. #Knicks2014-10-31 14:41:06
The passes. The diving after loose balls. The towel-waving from the bench. The transformation of a player and style once deemed inflexible. It will all aid in building Anthony's legacy up even further.
Ulterior motives—so, financial motives—in mind, he is embracing and enduring a situation few 30-somethings would or even should. That counts for something, and barring catastrophic devolution, it will mean something.
It just isn't the one thing Anthony's legacy needs to stop existing in the gray area it calls home.
"I still got a long time in this league," he told Cervasio.
Long enough for him to strengthen his playoff resume and add a Finals appearance and victory to his point-totaling feats?
But the clock is ticking. It's been ticking since he left Denver, and it won't stop now.
To eradicate inconstancy and ensure he's mentioned beside James and Bryant as something more than an offensive afterthought, he needs to hope his stay in New York includes a championship.
Titles aren't everything, but for Anthony, they are a means to the end that his offensive credentials won't ever give him.
Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference unless otherwise cited.