Taught a Hard Lesson in New York, Melo Has a Chance to Reclaim His Legacy in OKC

Ken Berger@@KBergNBAFeatured Columnist IOctober 19, 2017

DENVER, CO - OCTOBER 10:  Carmelo Anthony #7 of the Oklahoma City Thunder smiles before the game against the Denver Nuggets on October 10, 2017 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images)
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In different shades of blue and orange, Carmelo Anthony will suit up Thursday night in his new home, Oklahoma City. As is all the rage now in nationally televised season openers, the opponent will be his former team.

But not just any former team. This would be the New York Knicks, with whom Anthony finally achieved closure in an ugly breakup that was a long time in the making.

Perhaps Anthony's New York experience went sideways before it even started, given the assets and riches surrendered (four players, plus two first-round picks and two additional second-round picks to Denver) under orders from Madison Square Garden chairman James Dolan in 2011. The fateful, blockbuster trade with Denver yielded exactly three winning seasons and one journey past the first round of the playoffs before the wheels came offif they were ever secure in the first place.

It also left a parade of brilliant-turned-bewildered basketball minds in its wake: Donnie Walsh (one of the most respected executives in league history); Mike D'Antoni (who went to L.A. and Philadelphia and then finally to Houston, where he went on to win Coach of the Year honors last season); and Phil Jackson (perhaps the greatest coach in NBA history, who left Manhattan and the Melodrama behind, muttering all the way to the bank).

After allowing himself to be seduced by the allure of fame and fortune in a glamour market, Anthony, now 33, has voluntarily deposited himself in the NBA's hinterlands. The grass, no doubt, will be greener than concrete. The rewardsboth personal, professional and competitive—almost certainly will be superior, too.


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"This is the most talented team, top to bottom, that he's ever been a part of," a Western Conference general manager told Bleacher Report. "He's going to get more open looks than he's ever gotten in his career."

Anthony tried to follow LeBron James' example, forcing the Nuggets to send him exactly where he wanted to go, and on his timetable. In that way he could not only maximize his surroundings, but also his bank account. And look what it yielded: years of losing like he'd never before experienced, a battered ego and embitterment.

Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

In an interview with the New York Times' Marc Stein this week, Anthony professed to hold "no grudge" against the Knicks. His words suggested otherwise.

The 10-time All-Star revealed that he spoke face-to-face with Jackson "maybe twice" last season, and that he felt "no support from the organization." Jackson, Anthony deduced, had become so hellbent on "forcing me out" that he was willing to trade Anthony for "a bag of chips."

No reading between the lines required there.

It was all of this water under the Triborough Bridge that prompted Anthony to waive his no-trade clause (and his trade kicker, costing him $8 million, according to a league source) and "take geography out of it," he said. Though OKC may be lacking in skyscrapers and Madison Avenue marketing, it checks all the boxes in the current definition of an NBA superpower.

The trade teamed Anthony with Russell Westbrook and Paul George, forming the minimum trio of stars required to have a chance to compete. It also landed him with an organization that is the polar opposite of the Knicks, whose never-ending search for quick fixes and luxury-tax largesse stands in stark contrast to the Thunder's perennial opportunism—not to mention almost unmatched success.

Since the 2009-10 season, only the San Antonio Spurs have a better regular-season record than the Thunder (418-222), who have also attended four conference finals and one NBA Finals during that span.

They've won almost as many games in the past eight seasons as the Knicks have in the 14 years Anthony has been in the league, a tenure that began in 2003-04. You have to go back to 1992-93, when Pat Riley roamed the Madison Square Garden sideline, to count four conference finals appearances on the Knicks' resume.

Not that the Knicks are the litmus test for success and organizational stability, which is something that Anthony now understands all too welland learned the hard way.

"He had to stand there every day and take the criticism and answer the questions," the Western Conference GM said. "Not a lot of people in his position would've been able to do that."

Mike Groll/Associated Press

Anthony's exit from New York was a no-brainer for all sides. The Knicks, with a new GM in the respected Scott Perry, now move on with Kristaps Porzingis as their leading manwithout having to look over his shoulder or wait for Anthony to pass him the ball. But it was an even better move for the Thunder, who are justifiably elated with how they've recovered so quickly and thoroughly from Kevin Durant's slap-in-the-face departure for Golden State in 2016.

The recent list of teams that have lost their biggest star against their will is long and depressing: the Nuggets (Anthony), Magic (Dwight Howard), Hornets (Chris Paul), Cavs (LeBron James, when he left in 2010), Raptors (Chris Bosh) and, of course, the Thunder (Durant). Few, if any, recover within five years. Oklahoma City won 47 games last season and captured the sixth seed in the uber-competitive West.

Now, they're loaded again.

During this decade of unprecedented small-market success (save for the mighty Spurs), this may well be one of the best teams that GM Sam Presti has ever assembled. And the way he did it dovetails nicely with the example of how not to do it, set forth by the team entering the building Thursday night to face Melo and his new friends.

Presti was able to add two All-Stars, George and Anthony, this summer without surrendering a single future first-round pick. The goods that got the George deal done with the Pacers, Domantas Sabonis and Victor Oladipo, came courtesy of his pre-emptive move to send Serge Ibaka to Orlando in 2016.

So Thursday night's season opener at Chesapeake Energy Arena offers a firsthand look at two teams at opposite ends of NBA glamour, market size and resourcefulness. And maybe, just maybe, it also presents an opportunity to take a fresh look at Anthony, one of the most talented but polarizing figures in the NBA's era of team-hopping and superstar power plays.

Does he have his flaws? Of course; what athlete doesn't? But is there any truth in what the talking heads on TV will have you believe, that Anthony's failure in New York proves you can't win when he is your best player? The Knicks couldn't, but they haven't been able to win consistently for more than two decades.

In Denver, Anthony did something that Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook weren't able to do: lead their team to the playoffs as a rookie. Anthony made the postseason every year during his seven full seasons in Denver, and he was the best player on the team the whole time.

Amy Sancetta/Associated Press

But that's not even the point, since Anthony will enjoyfor the first time in his NBA careernot having to be the best player on his team. The Thunder get him on the back end of his prime but with a game that will age well.

In 2016-17, even on an abysmal Knicks team, Anthony shot 43 percent on catch-and-shoot three-point attempts. With Westbrook and George commanding so much attention, does anyone doubt he'll get a few more of those looks to knock down?

"He's a great fit, basketball-wise," another Western Conference executive said.

When was the last time you heard someone say that about Carmelo Anthony?

        

Ken Berger covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KBergNBA.