Victors are determined decisively on the court, but one great joy of fandom outside the lines has no clear winner. We love to weigh the merits of our favorite players against each other, and yet a taproom full of basketball fans can never unanimously agree on the GOAT. In this series, we attempt to settle scores of NBA undercard debates — or at least give you fodder for your next “Who is better?” argument.
[Previously: Dwyane Wade vs. Dirk Nowitzki]
THE MATCHUP: Carmelo Anthony vs. Vince Carter
The start and end of Anthony’s prime are fairly subjective, considering he entered the league averaging 20 points per game with ease and hit that mark all the way until the end of his New York Knicks tenure, but we’re probably safe picking Year 3 as the moment he arrived as a perennial top-10 scorer and Year 11 as the start of his slippage. In that nine-year span, Anthony averaged 26.3 points (46.1 FG%, 35.3 3P%, 81.7 FT%), 6.7 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.6 combined blocks/steals.
Sharing rosters with post-prime stars Allen Iverson, Chauncey Billups and Amar’e Stoudemire, among others, Anthony was always the best player on his teams in that span. During that nine-year run, he led the Denver Nuggets and Knicks to the playoffs each season, save for the last of those years, and he finished top-10 in MVP voting twice, including a third-place finish on a 54-win team in 2012-13.
Likewise, the end of Carter’s prime is up for debate. He still put up numbers while wearing out his welcome at a second stop before the end of it, but his absence from the 2008 All-Star Game signaled he had run his course as a Guy That Mattered. So, we’ll peg his prime from 1999-2007, when for an eight-year run on the Toronto Raptors and New Jersey Nets he averaged 24.6 points (44.6 FG%, 37.9 3P%, 79.4 FT%), 5.4 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 2.1 combined blocks/steals.
Carter was the man during his Raptors tenure, even though he shared the court with pre-prime Tracy McGrady and Chris Bosh. When he was traded to the Nets, that was Jason Kidd’s team. Carter’s teams made the playoffs in six of his eight prime seasons, missing them in 2003, when a knee injury cost him half his season, and again in 2004, which signaled the beginning of his end in Toronto. (His knee injury also cost him the final 22 regular-season games and the playoffs in 2002.) He never climbed higher than 10th in the MVP voting, finishing exactly there in 2000.
Both Anthony and Carter developed reputations as less-than-committed stars in their rocky careers, and neither earned a reputation as a shutdown defender. They were primarily me-first scorers and carried themselves as such. Carter’s diva label has softened in the latter years of a 21-year career, as he accepted diminished roles to varying degrees of success in Phoenix, Dallas and Memphis. Obviously, Anthony has chosen another route, and their career numbers are now closer as a result. They hold the final two spots in the top 20 on the NBA’s all-time scoring list, and Carter — should he return next season and Anthony stay home — could pass Melo.
With all due respect to Anthony’s 2009 playoff run — when he averaged a 27-6-4 line with two steals per game and led Denver to series wins over Chris Paul’s New Orleans Hornets and Dirk Nowitzki’s Dallas Mavericks before losing the last two of a six-game Western Conference finals set to Kobe Bryant’s eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers — Anthony’s career apex came with the Knicks in 2012-13.
Anthony’s 28.7 points per game led the league that season, and he finished third behind LeBron James and Kevin Durant in the MVP voting, famously robbing LeBron of unanimity. The Knicks finally surrounded him with a team that made sense, and he capitalized, leading them to their only 50-win season and sole playoff series victory since 2000. His Knicks drove a stake into the heart of the Kevin Garnett-era Boston Celtics before losing in six to Paul George’s Indiana Pacers.
Carter’s apex came early. It was probably 2000, when he submitted the greatest dunk contest performance in NBA history, led the Raptors to the franchise’s first-ever playoff appearance (albeit a three-game first-round sweep by the Knicks) and went on to win a gold medal that summer. He averaged 25.7 points (40.3 3P%!), 5.8 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 2.4 combined blocks/steals per game that season.
Statistically speaking, Carter’s next season might have been his best. While his other numbers remained fairly consistent, his 27.6 points per game in 2000-01 (on 55.1 percent true shooting) climbed to a truly elite level. It was also the only season in which he was the best player on a team that won a first-round playoff series.
Few would ever call Anthony or Carter especially clutch in the NBA, although both lay claim to several handfuls of game-winners. (Shoutout to Anthony’s Game 3 winner against Dallas in 2009 and Carter’s Game 3 winner for Dallas in 2014.)
On a grander playoff scale, Anthony has averaged 24.5 points (41.5 FG%, 30.9 3P%, 82.4 FT%), 7.1 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.7 blocks/steals in 72 playoff games over 10 appearances (nine straight from 2004-13). His teams twice got out of the first round, reaching the aforementioned 2009 West finals and 2013 East semis. In his prime, Anthony twice lost as a favorite — to Utah and Indiana teams that probably should not have been underdogs in 2010 and 2013, respectively.
Carter has averaged 18.1 points (41.6 FG%, 33.8 3P%, 79.6 FT%), 5.4 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.6 blocks/steals in 88 playoff games over 11 appearances, although those numbers include six playoff bids in his post-prime years. Carter has played past the first round on five occasions in his career (once when he was his team’s top dog), reaching the 2010 Eastern Conference finals as a second (or third) option on an Orlando Magic team with Dwight Howard at the top of his game.
• Anthony: 10-time All-Star; six-time All-NBA selection (2x Second Team, 4x Third Team); 2013 scoring champion; three-time Olympic gold medalist (2008, 2012, 2016); three-time USA Basketball Male Athlete of the Year (2006, 2008, 2016).
• Carter: Eight-time All-Star; two-time All-NBA selection (1x Second Team, 1x Third Team); 1999 Rookie of the Year; 2000 slam dunk champion; Olympic gold medalist (2000).
Anthony’s status as the most accomplished player in Olympic basketball history deserves special mention, because it spawned a brand all its own — Olympic Melo, the efficient scoring machine on a star-studded roster we all hoped to see in the latter part of his career. Or, had he not signed a five-year rookie extension in 2006 when James and Dwyane Wade signed for three, on stacked Miami Heat teams.
That is classic Melo, though. He always took the bird in hand to the detriment of a potential more illustrious career path, including the five-year extension he signed with the Knicks in 2014. Even still, he was an All-NBA talent for six seasons over an eight-year stretch, while Carter never made an All-NBA roster past the age of 24.
For the culture
Anthony’s legacy is a complicated one, especially if there is not another chapter to be written. Given how quickly his play has plummeted over the past few years (hard to imagine he was an All-Star, albeit an injury replacement, as recently as 2017), Anthony is probably underrated at this point. He was, at his peak, the game’s most prolific scorer, a top-three talent behind two of the 10 best players ever and the best player on a team that might’ve had a real chance to unseat Kobe’s 2009 Lakers in the Western Conference finals had he gotten a little more help in Game 5.
He also won an NCAA title and three gold medals as a bona fide phenomenon, which makes the defining characteristic of his career — that he always seemed more concerned with individual achievement than team success — so puzzling. His late-career refusal to accept less than a star’s role on Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets teams that had real designs on rings if he could have ever accepted that Olympic Melo role in the NBA only reinforces this reputation.
For as big a star as he was (and still is in name recognition) — in New York, no less — his stardom has not quite transcended the game. Anthony’s work on behalf of hurricane relief in Puerto Rico and social justice back home is commendable, but the broader Melo brand is better known for his shortcomings and eccentric style choices. It’s easy to imagine an alternative universe where he’s an all-time legend.
Carter’s legacy is coming into clearer focus as he has moved into his forties. Once considered a similarly underachieving superstar who burned multiple bridges, he has aged more gracefully. He is actively not chasing rings, opting instead to mentor rebuilding teams. Productive stints in Dallas and Memphis prolonged his career for another decade, and with it there is almost another entire legacy to his name.
Regardless of how long he continues playing, though, we will always remember Carter as the greatest dunker who ever lived. The 2000 dunk contest is immortal, and his dunk over Frenchman Frederic Weis in the Olympics that same year is considered the greatest in-game slam ever. We will talk about these things forever.
THE DAGGER: Carmelo Anthony is better.
If you have an idea for a matchup you would like to see in this series, let us know.
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