Photo: Ed Ornelas/Getty Images
Shortly after the New York Knicks traded for Carmelo Anthony in February 2011 — after a month of stumbling all over themselves in negotiations, ultimately leading them to squander all their leverage and giving up far more in the trade than they should have had to — I received a call from someone from Anthony’s management team, asking if I wanted an interview with Carmelo at the Red Hook West housing projects where he was born and grew up. Later that day, I received in no short order four different phone calls from four different people, all employed by the Knicks, chiding me for setting up the interview without their input, asking me who I’d talked to, grousing about Carmelo’s “people” always getting in their way. This led to another week of protracted discussions of who said what to whom. When I finally met Carmelo, I joked to him that cutting a swath through the people standing in front of him was as difficult as getting to interview the president. He looked totally confused. He had no idea what I was referring to and, indeed, didn’t seem to know a single one of the people I’d been talking to. He just shrugged. “Man, people just freak out here. It’s mostly funny. I just play basketball, you know B.”
Carmelo Anthony, once the savior of the Knicks franchise, is now just a broken-down old basketball player no one wants anymore. Just a season after flaming out in a complementary role in Oklahoma City, Anthony is about to be waived by the Houston Rockets — a team that came within one win of unseating the vaunted Golden State Warriors in last year’s playoffs but has, this year, with Carmelo, started 5-7. Carmelo was supposed to be their last championship piece; it looks like he’s not going to even make it 13 games. There’s a possibility that his old pal LeBron James may throw him a bone and bring Anthony to his Lakers on a minimum contract, but this is as precipitous a fall as any in recent NBA memory. After one legendary, championship-winning season in college, Anthony arrived in the NBA seeming like as sure a Hall of Fame bet as they come. Now he’s being brushed out of it as unceremoniously as a player possibly could be. What happened?
Part of what happened to Carmelo is what happens to every athlete, and, sad to say, folks, every human: He got old. Anthony has never been a committed defender, but he always had such unique athleticism and size that he could fake it a bit, particularly when he was such a ferocious, unstoppable scorer. But when he lost his first step, he lost what made him special, that born scoring ability that allowed him to dominate at Syracuse — and win his lone championship — and be the centerpiece of both Denver and New York’s teams for more than a decade. Old Carmelo is just another guy.
But that’s really not what killed Carmelo. What killed Carmelo were the two primary changes in the NBA from the time he entered the league until now: the dual, not necessarily unrelated emphasis on efficiency and on transparency of personality. Carmelo Anthony, for all his talents, was uniquely situated on the wrong side of history, by being both inefficient and inscrutable.
Even at his best, Carmelo was not an efficient player, and there was little need for him to be: When he entered the NBA, “efficiency” was a term used only by stat nerds and wonky bloggers. Carmelo was a scorer first, second, and third, and in 2003, the age of Kobe and Iverson, this made him the heir to their kingdom. Carmelo could score, man, and that was how players were valued, marketed, and sold. You were supposed to be able to carry a team on your back by virtue of your scoring ability, like Kobe, like Iverson, like Jordan, and had Carmelo been born five years earlier, that might have worked — or looked like it worked enough, anyway, that no one would have ever doubted his value.
But Carmelo wasn’t born five years earlier; more problematically, he was born just one year before LeBron James. Which meant that, in addition to the growing conviction among stat-heads that all the best measures of court value showed Anthony really lacking, even the casual fan was likely to think less of Carmelo because of just how much better LeBron was. The problem here wasn’t that LeBron, who was drafted two picks earlier, was just better than Carmelo; the problem was how he was better. LeBron could score and do everything else (and kept challenging himself to do more each year), and Carmelo could merely score. LeBron’s genius constantly shone a spotlight on Carmelo’s deficiencies; it made the thing that Carmelo did brilliantly, a thing that the league had traditionally valued exclusively, look insufficient.
LeBron’s all-around otherworldliness, along with increased understanding of efficiency statistics and analytics, changed the league, and the changes turned it away from Carmelo. Teams were designed for shooters and passers — both of which Carmelo did well but not fantastically — constructed to maximize ball movement rather than feeding the star, which Carmelo preferred, having been raised in a sport that had previously valued only that. Carmelo’s “hero ball” was out of vogue right when he, in a previous generation, would have been ascending to the pinnacle of his sport. Unlike James, Carmelo struggled with the transition. In a perfect world, Carmelo could have become in the NBA the unicorn he seemed briefly to be on the Olympic team, where he could just sit back and shoot three-pointers while James and others did the hard work. But in the NBA, his teams relied on Anthony to do everything, even though that was no longer how teams were structured. Things got worse with the Knicks — as always, one or two steps behind everybody else. Carmelo took the brunt of the criticism: As usual, when your team is losing, it’s the best player, not the schlubs surrounding him, who gets the most heat.
Which brings us to the inscrutability, and the drama it brought. Carmelo partly asked for the pressure of being a superstar, not just with his perpetual insistence on taking the most money he possibly could and figuring out the roster situation later, but also in his inability to alter his game to fit the changing nature of his sport. Carmelo as a three-point specialist could have worked theoretically, especially in Houston. But Carmelo was raised in a hero-ball, one-true-star culture and could never adjust: The game passed him by. And it did off the court, too. Carmelo came in at the tail end of the tabloid print era, and his successes and failures were always filtered through however it read in a New York Post headline; he became the ideal stand-in for all his team’s struggles on the front and back pages of the paper. Players make headlines now for their Instagram accounts; Carmelo was still tied to the old “overpaid superstar” narrative that is slowly dying out today.
In many ways, Carmelo should have been a model for the modern NBA star. He is politically active in a way that was actually ahead of his time, and hearkened back to the activist days of Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar before it was as widely embraced in the NBA as it is now.
He also was much more comfortable as a celebrity-athlete, with his lovely reality-star wife, a fashion line, and a would-be acting career, though, once again, here he was usurped by LeBron, who was a lot better in Trainwreck than Carmelo was in this episode of Nurse Jackie.
But for all the outward publicity campaigns, fans never really got to know Carmelo, who was more removed, cautious, even mechanical, whether he was in a postgame press conference, on a red carpet, or showing up in a Lonely Island video. His strategy of being a multi-platform star with a built-in team maximizing his brand may have made sense when Carmelo entered the league. Unfortunately, “having a PR team” is a 2012 NBA star move, not a 2018 one. Now, young turks like Joel Embiid tweet circles around Anthony, and he, along with the other young NBA stars, are much more like Instagram celebrities than Anthony and his army of handlers. This has been pivotal to the NBA’s rise in recent years: You feel like you know all these personalities and how they careen off each other off the court as well as you do on the court. How well do you know Carmelo Anthony? Anthony felt like a constructed brand rather than a full-fledged personality, which is ironic, considering Anthony himself is so interesting and politically motivated. He was like a presidential candidate who focus-grouped himself into a person that no one ever felt like they really knew.
In the end, none of this is really Anthony’s fault. To become a superstar, a once-a-generation athlete requires transcendent talent, unfathomable dedication, and the right mentors, coaches, and caregivers to help carve a path along the way. Carmelo just landed at the exact wrong time in NBA history to become the player he was always promised to be. But even with his unceremonious exit from Houston — as with his unceremonious exits from Denver, Oklahoma City, and New York — it is best to remember that he’s anything but a failure. He’s one of the top 20 scorers of all time; he made ten All-Star games; he won three Gold Medals; he’s a shoo-in for the Basketball Hall of Fame. Maybe getting him back with LeBron can help him get that ring that has eluded him. But: Probably not. (LeBron’s Lakers are further away from a title than the Rockets are.) This is probably going to end in frustration and disappointment again. And then he’ll call it a career: forever in between, forever falling just short, and, mostly, forever not LeBron.