BARCELONA – The United States Olympic basketball program has always been the perfect refuge for Carmelo Anthony, liberating him of leadership and leaving him to shoot the basketball. These summers in the red, white and blue have cleansed him of missteps and embarrassments in his NBA career, but he's never used proximity to the world's most driven and complete players to finish a transformation into a full-service franchise star.
For everything that Anthony has given USA Basketball as a talent, he hasn't always been able to sustain the world-class conditioning, deference on offense and determination on defense. And all these leaders surrounding him … well, they never made him one, too. His flaws have shown themselves within the Denver Nuggets and the New York Knicks, but Team USA is constructed to take all of 'Melo's good, and never been burdened with the bad.
[ Photos: Carmelo Anthony in action ]
For the needs of USA’s Olympic team, Anthony plays the part of the perfect FIBA forward: An impossible matchup on the perimeter for power forwards, the beneficiary of Kobe Bryant and LeBron James to attract defenders and genius point guard talents to deliver passes.
When the amazing Palau Sant Jordi was busting with Spanish passion and pride on Tuesday night, the formidable frontline of Pau Gasol and Serge Ibaka delivering damage, there was Anthony playing pop-a-shot on Spain to re-gather the American’s footing with 23 of his 27 points before halftime of a 100-78 exhibition victory over Spain. For all the issues that Spanish frontline gives the Americans --- and they’ll be bigger, with Marc Gasol on the floor in London --- this is still a global basketball community that understands that the biggest matchup nightmares lay with the Americans.
Team USA goes to the Olympic Games understanding two things: They're the absolute gold-medal favorites, and they're just vulnerable enough to lose in a one-game, winner-take-all scenario to a Spain or an Argentina. If the U.S. plays well, it won't lose in these Olympics, and there's no better barometer to this program's success over the past several summers together than Anthony. When he's rolling, Team USA is unbeatable. Spain had come into this madhouse thinking victory, and Anthony left them dazed and defeated.
Suddenly, this Mike D'Antoni offense was 'Melo's benefactor. No Olympian needs the cleansing agents of wearing red, white and blue on the way to a gold medal the way that Anthony does. He's been in the NBA a decade, and yet he didn't come out of the lockout in great shape. James, Bryant, Kevin Durant – they'd never show for training camp the way Anthony has sometimes. Trouble is, you never know what you'll get with Anthony, and that's a frightening proposition a decade into his career.
Still, he said on Tuesday: "Look at what happened the year after we won the gold medal. In 2009, I had one of my best seasons with Denver and we went to the Western [Conference] finals. My body … my mind felt great. And that's something I keep in the back of my mind coming out of USA Basketball."
As a young diva out of Syracuse, Anthony fit perfectly into the knucklehead crew embarrassing themselves on the way to a bronze medal in the 2004 Athens Games. 'Melo and James were too young and too enabled with the likes of Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury running roughshod over that nightmare in Greece. When Anthony departed for Beijing in 2008, he had been pinched on a drinking-and-driving charge late in the season, with the Nuggets pushing for the playoffs.
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Anthony was right: He did come out of those Games and have a tremendous 2008-09 season. Still, the arrival of Chauncey Billups in Denver played an immense part in elevating Anthony and the Nuggets. Billups took over the team's leadership, which Anthony desperately needed to happen.
Now, Anthony has to be that player with the Knicks, and he's never proven that he can do the job. He's equipped to score points in New York, but lead and win? That's different. He had the chance for a beautiful partnership with Jeremy Lin, and it all fell apart with the Houston Rockets' offer sheet. Because Anthony never wanted Lin, it was probably forever doomed anyway. Lin's indoctrination to 'Melo would come watching him ignore the coach's wishes and running whatever he wanted to run. Anthony and J.R. Smith resented Lin's attention, his salary, and convinced themselves that Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd can replicate what Lin had going with the Knicks. The rest of the Knicks' roster loved Lin, wanted him, but Anthony and Smith never had the chance to build a chemistry with him.
Perhaps Team USA will play a part in delivering Anthony back to training camp in shape, making him a standard on the Knicks. And maybe that gets the Knicks on the kind of post-Olympic run the Nuggets found for themselves with Anthony four years ago. There's so much New York needs out of him, but it's different here with Team USA. The U.S. needs 'Melo to play pop-a-shot and sometimes use his muscle playing the power forward and even center spots on defense.
Nevertheless, the Americans don't need Anthony to be a leader, nor a complete talent. Sooner or later, the New York Knicks will need all that to advance in the playoffs. Beyond these Olympic Games, beyond the cleansing colors of red, white and blue, Carmelo Anthony will be made to answer for those flaws that keep chasing him deeper and deeper into his career.
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