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TULSA, Okla. — In the 79 months since Carmelo Anthony was last a resident in the Western Conference, Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan have retired; Dirk Nowitzki is still around, but the Dallas Mavericks are no longer a threat; the Hornets are now the Pelicans; the Los Angeles Lakers are undergoing a rebuild; Kevin Durant is now a Golden State Warrior; and all but two of the players and draft picks the Denver Nuggets acquired in dealing him to New York have moved on to other teams. (Heck, Raymond Felton is now his teammate for the second time.) A lot should change in nearly seven years, but after accepting a trade to the Oklahoma City Thunder, Anthony has returned to a situation that is eerily familiar: the more difficult path to the NBA Finals remains west of the Mississippi River.
“You’ve got to want that,” Anthony told The Vertical. “You’ve got to have that edge about you. We’ve got that edge about us. That was no factor in my decision, whether it was East or West.”
When he finally realized that leaving New York would be the only way he’d ever experience winning again, Anthony’s list of three desired trade destinations only included one Eastern Conference team. After months of waiting on the Houston Rockets and, to a lesser extent, the Cleveland Cavaliers, to rescue him, Anthony settled for the next-best option when Russell Westbrook and Paul George showed up in a dinghy and tossed out an orange and blue life preserver. Immediately, the Thunder became the most fascinating of several unexpected talent combinations following an offseason of unprecedented upheaval. Several stars moved around last summer but no other team is looking to combine three high-usage scorers – including two of the past five scoring champions – who are accustomed to rolling solo.
“It will all come together. We see it in practice when Russ is with us. We see what the potential of what this team can be,” Anthony told The Vertical. “It’s lifted a burden off of me. And I’m pretty sure it’s the same off of Paul and Russ. We talk about those things. We don’t want to have to do it every single night, every single play, but we know we’re going to have to bring our games every single night in order for us to be successful.”
Having to occasionally defer to not just one, but two All-Star teammates is a challenge that Anthony welcomes. The reputation that he has earned for being a ball-stopper who likes to shoot first and ask questions later, Anthony believes, is unfair. He isn’t incapable of sharing the ball or the limelight because he once took turns lighting up the scoreboard with Allen Iverson. At 33, Anthony is at an age when he shouldn’t be asked to or expect to shoulder the scoring load. “I’m a product of my environment,” Anthony told The Vertical. “I’ve always been that. You put me in any situation, I’ll make an adjustment to that situation. That’s what I’m going to do, regardless of where I’m at.”
Those record three Olympic gold medals are often used as an example of how Anthony can play more efficiently and unselfishly when surrounded by superior talent. Anthony created “Hoodie Melo” while training in sweats during the offseason and he has brought that persona with him to Oklahoma City, slipping that signature look under his practice warmups. But one version of Anthony that he said he isn’t bringing to the Thunder is the so-called Olympic Melo, because, according to him, that version doesn’t exist.
“This is just me. This is Melo having fun again. This is Melo being motivated again. This is Melo having pieces around him who he can play off of and who they can play off of,” Anthony told The Vertical. “This is something that I’ve always wanted. At the end of the day, it’s basketball for me. With basketball, you make adjustments.”
Anthony had other chances to escape New York and its unending dysfunction. But in 2014 he rejected free-agent overtures from Chicago and Houston — teams that would’ve better positioned him for contention — to remain with the Knicks after then-team president Phil Jackson gave him $125 million and a no-trade clause. Anthony gave the Knicks more than a five-year commitment; he entrusted the organization with what remained of his prime, only to see the team get stripped down in a rebuild that was in stark contrast to what he needed at that stage in his career. Jackson made the situation worse, handing out insults like an internet troll, which greatly diminished Anthony’s trade value and turned daily interactions with reporters into therapy sessions without the comfortable couch. Though he had two years remaining on his contract, Anthony knew that he couldn’t spend another season in New York, a feeling that was unchanged even after Jackson was dismissed.
“It was a little bittersweet because I knew that chapter was over and everybody else knew that chapter was over. People didn’t want to believe it. It didn’t feel right but after a while it kicked in,” Anthony told The Vertical. “The situation made it easier for me, but it also made it harder for me. Because at the end of the day, everybody knows how I feel about New York and being there and being in the city. Everybody knows that. So, for me, it was like, I needed something to push me forward to be definitive with my decision. Like, ‘OK, this is what it is,’ and I never want to go through that again. Because everything I had to deal with and to be motivated to play basketball and still be there for my family, still be there for my teammates, and still represent the actual city, that was very difficult.
“It takes a lot for me to get to that spot where it’s enough is enough. I got to almost be selfish a little bit, with what I want right now — winning,” Anthony told The Vertical. “I have to figure this out. I have to figure this out. That was my out. They gave me that out. New York gave me that out. Phil gave me that out. And though I really didn’t want to get out of there, I thought the timing of everything was almost perfect.”
Oklahoma City might not have been his first choice but he considered it an option before general manager Sam Presti made the stunning trade for George, and before Westbrook committed to the largest contract in NBA history. Anthony had been telling those close to him about the Thunder as last season came to a conclusion. “It wasn’t always mentioned,” Anthony told The Vertical, “but believe it or not, it was always a situation where it was like … ‘I’m looking but I’m not too sure. I’ll keep y’all in the back for right now, but y’all offer something that’s worth it, then we can look at it.’ ”
Anthony told The Vertical he doesn’t regret his decision not to join another team as a free agent three years ago. The teams he could’ve joined have already been completely revamped or had the rosters altered. Chicago is currently undergoing a rebuild and, oddly enough, two prominent members of that Bulls team — Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah — joined him last season in New York on a lottery team. The Rockets abandoned the James Harden-Dwight Howard experiment and have now moved on to the playmaking backcourt pairing of Harden and Chris Paul. A lot should change in more than three years. The Thunder certainly aren’t the same team — and a desire to become a Western Conference contender in the post-Durant era has led to a need for Anthony.
“All of the ducks were laid in order this time,” Anthony told The Vertical. “Before, I could’ve left. I could’ve went here, went there. Who knows if things would’ve been different? Right now, I knew the timing was right for everything. Timing is everything, isn’t it? Timing is everything.”