As the years pile up and he gets closer to the finish line of his career than he is to its beginning, the possibility grows ever greater that Carmelo Anthony — currently serving as both the elder statesman of the U.S. men’s national basketball team and its on-court leader, and the newly minted leading scorer in U.S. Olympic basketball history — will not win an NBA title. That’s not the way he drew it up coming out of Syracuse in 2003, and it’s not the way he plans for things to shake out, but as Anthony told reporters in Rio de Janeiro this week, he’ll be able to make his peace with it if that’s the way it breaks … provided, of course, Team USA finishes its job in Brazil over the next 10 days.
From ESPN.com’s Marc Stein:
In an interview with ESPN at the Rio Olympics, Anthony insisted that the prospect of becoming the first U.S. male to win three gold medals in basketball more than eases the sting of an NBA playoff history that, to date, includes only one trip to the conference finals and just two trips total beyond the first round.
“Most athletes don’t have an opportunity to say that they won a gold medal, better yet three gold medals,” Anthony said. “I would be very happy walking away from the game knowing that I’ve given the game everything I have, knowing I played on a high level at every level: high school, college, won [a championship at Syracuse] in college and possibly three gold medals.
“I can look back on it when my career is over — if I don’t have an NBA championship ring — and say I had a great career.”
More from Anthony, via Sean Deveney of the Sporting News:
“I don’t know why people think that a gold medal is any different than winning an NBA championship. At the end of the day, you’re winning something and I think this is the pinnacle of anything you could want, to win a gold medal, be the world — this is really the world championship, to the rest of the world.” […]
“I still have time in the NBA to make [a championship run] happen,” Anthony said. “But for me to be out there and have a chance to win three gold medals, I have proven I can win at every level, high school, college — unfortunately not yet in the NBA as far as winning a championship — but three gold medals playing at the highest level of basketball. At the end, in 10 years, I’ll be satisfied with that.”
Anthony’s NBA club, the New York Knicks, should be better this season than they were last. Reasonable misgivings about their health and at-this-stage ceilings aside, Derrick Rose and Brandon Jennings profile as upgrades at the point guard spot over the combination of Jose Calderon, Langston Galloway and Jerian Grant. Center Joakim Noah, if healthy, could provide the kind of galvanizing spark, defensive activity and secondary playmaking that would make him an improvement over steady-as-she-goes Robin Lopez.
Courtney Lee could be the stalwart 3-and-D shooting guard that Arron Afflalo wasn’t. New head coach Jeff Hornacek could prove a superior sideline presence to reputed locker-room chaos-agent Derek Fisher and the overwhelmed Kurt Rambis. Kristaps Porzingis could take a leap forward from “unicorn” to “whatever is more rare and magical than a unicorn” in his sophomore season.
Even if it all breaks right, though, and even if New York replicates its league-best 15-win improvement from 2014-15 to 2015-16, turning last year’s 32-50 mark into a 47-win campaign, the Knicks would likely slot in as a middle-of-the-pack team rather than a legitimate contender to challenge LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers for Eastern Conference supremacy and a spot in the NBA Finals. Even if Anthony’s able to make it past the opening round of the playoffs for just the third time in 14 NBA seasons, it’s unlikely he’ll play for a title … and these latest comments suggest that he’s coming to accept that this could be the way it continues to play out.
In the “ringzzz over everything” environment of analysis and evaluation, that bit of honesty will probably rankle some fans. One fairly common response to Anthony’s comments I’ve seen is something along the lines of, “Oh, man, I bet the Knicks/Knicks fans will love hearing that.” (That reading, of course, seems to ignore the part where Melo’s not willing to concede that a title is beyond his grasp, or to suggest that he’s not going to try everything that’s in his power to win the one collective prize that’s eluded him.)
In the broader context, though, this is Anthony honestly assessing the situation in front of him — it’s always more likely that you won’t win it all than that you will, his number of potential bites at the apple dwindles by the year, and the Knicks as presently constituted are not a title contender, “super-team” status or otherwise — and staking a claim to pride in what he has accomplished rather than eternal regret over what he hasn’t. That’s a pretty sound and healthy position!
Reasonable people can argue over whether Anthony’s professional career should have been greater and more successful than it’s been thus far — whether his insistence on pushing for situations in which he’d make the top dollar submarined his best chances at maximizing his chances for deep postseason runs, whether his predilection toward jab-step-heavy isolation attacking was really the best offensive prescription for every team he played for, etc. Context matters, though, and for the most part, Anthony’s squads have entered their postseason matchups as underdogs against stronger, deeper opponents.
Only three of Anthony’s 10 NBA postseason series losses have come when his team was the higher seed:
• A first-round defeat to the Los Angeles Clippers in 2005-06, his third year in the league, in which Anthony’s 44-38 Denver Nuggets snagged the No. 3 seed by winning the Northwest Division but faced a better 47-35 Clips team that finished second in the Pacific. Anthony missed two-thirds of his shots, his teammates shot a combined 39.4 percent from the field, and George Karl’s club had no defensive answer for the interior work of Elton Brand, the perimeter playmaking of Cuttino Mobley and Sam Cassell, and the slashing of key reserve Corey Maggette.
• A six-game loss to the Utah Jazz in 2009-10, a series in which Anthony averaged nearly 31 points, nine rebounds and 3.5 assists per game, but couldn’t overcome Denver getting overwhelmed inside by the tandem of Carlos Boozer and Paul Millsap while peak Deron Williams (who was really, really good) outdueled Chauncey Billups.
• A second-round exit at the hands of U.S. teammate Paul George and his Indiana Pacers in 2012-13, a series in which Anthony averaged just under 29 points and eight rebounds per game and got virtually no offensive help, as Knicks coach Mike Woodson made the tactical error of going away from New York’s most successful lineups in hopes of matching up with Indiana’s size. (It didn’t work.)
A dearth of postseason fortune aside, you’d be hard-pressed to argue that Anthony’s career itself hasn’t been a success. He’s earned nine NBA All-Star selections, made six appearances on the All-NBA Second or Third Teams, and ranks 29th on the NBA’s all-time scoring list (with a legitimate shot at cracking the top 20 with a couple more mostly healthy seasons).
This season, he’ll likely become the 21st player ever with at least 23,000 points, 6,000 rebounds and 3,000 assists in his NBA career. The 12 eligible for enshrinement in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame have already been voted in. Seven of the eight who aren’t yet (Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, LeBron James, Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen) surely will be. The eighth (Vince Carter) has a very strong (if not necessarily open-and-shut) case.
Basketball-Reference.com’s Hall of Fame Probability Index ranks Anthony’s chances of enshrinement at just over 95 percent … but B-R’s model is based solely on NBA achievements. The combination of Anthony’s NCAA championship, recognition as the Most Outstanding Player of the 2003 Final Four, status as Team USA’s top scorer, and four Olympic medals, which would tie him with Gennadi Volnov and Sergei Belov of the Soviet Union for the most ever among men’s basketball players — including three golds, which would be the most ever — stamp him as a surefire Hall of Famer.
Whether or not you agree that winning Olympic gold and winning an NBA championship are equivalent accomplishments, given the ultimate stacked deck of playing for Team USA — newly minted NBA champion and Anthony’s teammate Kyrie Irving thinks they’re equal, for what it’s worth, but your mileage may vary — it’s indisputable that while lots of basketball players have won NBA championships, no man has ever won three Olympic gold medals in basketball. Thirteen years into a career spent being defined in comparison to the friends drafted just before and just after him, Carmelo Anthony has a chance to stand alone, without peer and without rival, and to make history.
Doing so, and completing four Summer Games of serving as what NBA.com’s John Schuhmann aptly called “the most lethal weapon in Olympic basketball history,” would add a glittering touch to an all-around résumé of which Anthony should justifiably be proud when all’s said and done, whether or not he gets jewelry for his hands to complement what’s on his neck. If Anthony himself can make his peace with that, the rest of us should be able to, too.
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