PORTLAND, Ore. — The Portland Trail Blazers' decision last month to sign Carmelo Anthony was a half-court heave for a reeling squad with nowhere else to turn.
In the minds of Anthony's fellow players, it should have never taken those circumstances for him to find a new home in the NBA.
Over the past year, as Anthony found himself without a team after an unceremonious end to his brief stint with the Houston Rockets, players around the NBA wondered why a 10-time All-Star, former scoring champion and future Hall of Famer was having so much trouble getting a new job.
"You're talking about Carmelo Anthony," Blazers All-Star guard Damian Lillard said in November. "You'd think someone who's had a Hall of Fame career would be able to go out with some respect. You don't expect a team to just be like, 'OK, you're off the team.' It was weird."
Lillard and CJ McCollum had been pushing for Anthony to join the Blazers for several years before it came to fruition in November. They wanted him because they thought he could help them win, but also because he was one of their childhood heroes.
Lillard was in eighth grade when Anthony and LeBron James began their NBA careers in 2003. It's easy to forget 17 seasons in, as James continues to challenge for the title of greatest player ever, but his supremacy wasn't cut-and-dried in the beginning. He was the child prodigy, coming into the NBA straight out of high school with unprecedented hype; Anthony was seen as more of a finished product, fresh off an NCAA title run with Syracuse. The question of which of the two should go No. 1 in the draft was a hot debate topic on the talk shows of the day—and Lillard was a Melo guy.
"I loved LeBron, but I was the one telling people, 'Man, Carmelo Anthony's gonna be good,'" Lillard said. "I've always been a fan of Melo."
Anthony's comeback has been one of the feel-good stories of the 2019-20 season thus far, but it almost didn't happen. If the Blazers hadn't lost starting power forward Zach Collins early in the season to a shoulder injury, and his backups hadn't proved largely unplayable as Portland's season went off the rails, Anthony might still be out of work.
The move has worked out about as well as anyone could have reasonably expected. Anthony was named Western Conference Player of the Week last week. On Thursday, well ahead of the league-wide deadline of Jan. 10, the Blazers officially guaranteed Anthony's contract for the rest of the season.
When Anthony and the Rockets abruptly parted ways, fellow NBA players were perplexed and insulted that someone of his stature could be pushed out of the league like that.
Any team that wanted Anthony could have had him at any point over the past year. None did. As this summer's free agency dragged out, the chorus of current and former players on social media grew louder, wondering why none of the league's 30 teams felt Anthony could help them.
"I thought it was disrespectful," Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine said. "He's one of the greatest players ever, so you want to see that he's taken care of and being treated the right way."
Anthony wasn't good in his brief time in Houston. He averaged a career-low 13.4 points per game on 40.5 percent shooting. His goodwill in league circles had largely run out after a tumultuous ending to his time with the New York Knicks and an awkward, underwhelming 2017-18 season with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
But it was never that way with Anthony's peers.
Anthony's impact on a generation of players isn't measured by hardware. He doesn't have the rings or extensive postseason body of work of James or fellow Banana Boat-er Dwyane Wade. He's only been to the conference finals once. He never won a regular-season MVP award. Those holes in his resume will deservedly keep him outside of the upper echelon of NBA greats.
But few in the league's history have been as prolific as a pure scorer for as long as Anthony was. His ability to bully defenders in the paint and jab-step his way into open shots set him apart among a generation of bucket-getters. For nearly two decades, he's been consistently name-checked by his peers as one of the toughest players in the league to defend.
"He's a professional scorer," said Sacramento Kings forward Harrison Barnes, who won a gold medal alongside Anthony at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. "At any level, in any situation, he can always figure out a way to get a basket. He puts points on the board."
"You get him in the post, he's unguardable still," LaVine said. "One of the top three post players in NBA history, in my opinion. It's Michael [Jordan], Kobe [Bryant] and then Melo, as far as operating out of that pinch-post area."
A few factors have played into Anthony becoming as polarizing as he is, some of which were within his control and some outside of it.
At two different points in his career—when he strong-armed the Knicks into giving up a sizable package of picks and players to the Denver Nuggets for him in 2011 so he could secure a bigger contract extension, and when he passed up signing with a contending Bulls team in 2014 to take a five-year, $124 million deal to stay in New York—Anthony chose the most money over the best chance to win, which created a perception of his priorities that has persisted since then.
His success as a member of three Olympic gold-medal teams (in 2008, 2012 and 2016) has also worked against him. The version of Anthony that played a key role on those teams, known colloquially as "Olympic Melo," is a markedly different player from the one that's had so much individual success in the NBA.
Olympic Melo was far less ball-dominant and was more of a facilitator who thrived scoring on catch-and-shoot threes. League personnel have wondered for years why he couldn't adapt his NBA game to be closer to that.
Add to that the media circus that has followed him everywhere he's gone as one of the league's most high-profile stars, and most teams have come to believe that he isn't worth the trouble. His reputation in NBA circles is tough to square with his status as one of the most popular and well-liked players in the eyes of his peers.
"Once you get a label on you, it's hard to shake that, no matter if it's true or not," Los Angeles Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma said. "Once people have a perspective on you, you can't change that. But he's doing a good job of that right now."
Kuzma was among the group of players that worked out with Anthony over the summer when his NBA future was still in doubt, and he has been one of Anthony's strongest advocates over the past year. Not every superstar gets the yearlong victory lap that Wade and Kobe did, but it didn't sit well with other players that one of their own, especially one as accomplished as Anthony, wasn't afforded the opportunity to go out on his terms.
"For me, I grew up watching him," Kuzma said. "He's one of my favorite players of all time. It sucks the way the league has kind of done him in a sense, of trying to blackball him and get him out of the league. I'm happy he stayed strong and stayed with it. It's easier said than done, being out almost a year-and-a-half."
As the Blazers fight to salvage their season—a battle that will only get tougher after starting forward Rodney Hood suffered a season-ending Achilles injury Friday—they need Anthony to be more than a feel-good story. They need him to be at least a third scorer opposing defenders have to respect.
In the minds of his fellow players, he still fits that bill, and they couldn't be happier for him.
"I saw him say it's not a farewell tour," LaVine said. "I'm with him—Melo's back."