A Meditation On Melo: Where He Is, Where He's Been, And Where He Might Go

Carmelo Anthony's been a superstar since college, but as he enters the prime of his career, he's on the verge of getting traded, bickering with groupies on twitter, and prompting the question: "Is Carmelo worth the trouble?" So let's answer.

The thing about Carmelo Anthony is, nobody understands him. So before we talk about where he's going, we probably need to talk about where he's been.

Carmelo has been a National Champion in high school and then college. He's been an Olympian twice and a gold medalist once. He's never led the NBA in scoring, but he's been in the top 10 for practically his entire career. He plays for one of the best teams in the entire league. He's a perennial All-Star. And on and on and on.

In name and pedigree, "Carmelo" is bonafide basketball royalty.

The numbers and accomplishments only tell half the story. Carmelo Anthony is so good, so smooth and so surgical, that you can't really comprehend his genius as it happens. LeBron James will power through an entire team for an earth-shaking dunk, Dwyane Wade will dribble around an entire team for a twisting and-one and Kobe Bryant will hang in the air above an entire team for a backbreaking game-winner. Carmelo? He'll just hit 18-foot jumpshots all night and beat people with a deadly first step, then a deadeye jumper, falling away, and go smiling his way back down the court.

He's like all the other true superstars in this league—numbers, highlights, wins, responsibility—and yet, like any other "true" superstar, he's unique. Carmelo's the one that kills you softly before you realize it. He's Bernard King 2010, and when he's hitting jumpers, you're not going to beat him. At least that's how the myth goes.

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And then there's this latest drama, and you have to wonder. In case you missed my notes on this yesterday, we'll delve back into the saga to provide context. It's not quite Romeo protecting Juliet's honor, but there's certainly something Shakesperian about it all, and if everyone involved happens to die at the end... Well, I won't make that joke.

Here's what happened. A famous hip-hop/NBA groupie named Kat Stacks tweeted "at" Carmelo Anthony and his wife, Lala Vasquez, asking Carmelo whether he tastes like caramel. It led to a back-and-forth between Lala, Melo, and Kat Stacks, a love triangle that had everyone looking stupid almost immediately. Like I said, sorta Shakesperian.

Then Carmelo took things up a notch, and the rest of the world clued in:

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He later posted a picture of $5,000 on his bed, proving to his followers that he was serious, and implored someone out there to upload a video of the attack on Ms. Pigeon Face. It was a team effort between Carmelo and his wife, as Lala announced: "My husband is on a Twitter roll right now." Of course, making someone like Kat Stacks look bad is like Carmelo winning the MVP of the Special Olympics. She tweeted this around 6 a.m. EST Tuesday morning:

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At 6 a.m. on a Tuesday, is that the "groupiest" tweet of all time? I say yes.

For his part in all of this, Carmelo claims his Twitter account was hacked, and the hacker just happened to attack the same woman that was attacking his wife. For her part, Ms. Stacks is filing federal charges against Carmelo Anthony, claiming he endangered her safety. And from a broader perspective, here's what happened:

"An NBA superstar and his wife responded to a heckler by threatening her, and offering $5,000 to anyone that would physically harm her, then denied any of it happened, somehow insulting our intelligence just a little bit more than they already had."

So, yeah: I don't understand Carmelo either.

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Is he the tough kid from West Baltimore, or the guy that ran away from Nate Robinson? Is he the guy who did away with his cornrows in the name of leadership, or the guy who feuds with groupies and skeptical reporters on Twitter? Is he one of the top five players in the league, or a glorified gunner wearing a superstar's cape?

On that last question, ESPN statistician Tom Haberstroh sheds some light (Insider only):

Aside from scoring, Anthony doesn't have many other bankable weapons as a player. His rebounding (career 6.2 rpg) is only slightly better than what we'd expect from a small forward, and he doesn't create opportunities for his teammates like Paul Pierce, Wade and James can. Furthermore, he hasn't shown the intensity and dedication on the defensive end that you'd want from a max player.

In the end, Anthony's game demonstrates why it's important to strip away the biases that color our perceptions of elite players. In Anthony's case, the excessive shot volume, his team's stat-padding tempo and the lack of a true 3-point game makes his 28.2 ppg seem far less impressive than his sparkling reputation would suggest.

Haberstroh cites inefficient shooting percentages and high-volume shooting to make the case that, while Carmelo scores on par with some of the best players in the league, he does it by using a much higher percentage of his team's possessions and making less shots. So he's not as good as his the others, right? Maybe.

Statistically, he's definitely closer to Amare Stoudemire than LeBron James or Dwyane Wade.

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And for all his complexity as a player and a person, I understand this much about Carmelo: the whole "misunderstood" alibi is wearing thin. You can only be "misunderstood" for a certain amount of time. At some point, a person has to make the rest of the world understand.

Carmelo hasn't done that, and today, there's more questions than ever.

We've reached a tipping point, I think. Where he's either going to become a less mature version of Dirk Nowitzki, or a more explosive version of Paul Pierce. Would you want to anchor a team around the first guy? Of course not. Better question: If you're looking for a superstar to anchor a team, would you take the chance that Carmelo can become the second guy?

It's a question that everybody in the NBA is asking right now. But implicit there is this: Carmelo, in his current form, just isn't good enough. On and off the court, he's incomplete. That's where he is.

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So now that Carmelo looks like he's getting traded—especially given his little social media dustup this weekend—it's probably a good time to discuss what a change of scenery might mean for Melo himself and for the NBA landscape at large. According to Yahoo's Adrian Wojnarowski, his representation all but demanded not just a trade, but the right to dictate where he's traded. To wit:

Denver was furnished with a short list of teams and told to get to work. ... This wasn’t a productive, nor particularly pleasant, meeting and multiple sources said it could turn out to be the point of no return for Anthony and the organization. Sources insist it’s no longer a matter of if the Nuggets trade Anthony, but when, where and for whom he’s traded for.

Basically, Anthony has made it clear he wants out, and the Nuggets are ready to oblige, mainly because trading him now makes more sense than losing him for nothing next summer. And before you chastise Carmelo for demanding a trade, it's really a matter of common sense. If he's traded now, he can agree to a contract extension with a new team before the NBA's next collective bargaining agreement. And it makes sense for the Nuggets to trade him now. 'Melo's representatives are just removing any potential for misunderstanding, and hoping to get a deal done in 2010.

So where could he go? ESPN's Bill Simmons has thrown out a few suggestions on Twitter recently, and they're all pretty compelling. First, the Knicks land Melo in exchange for Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and Eddy Curry's Expiring Contract, plus $3 million and 2014/18 draft picks. Denver gets rid of 'Melo AND Chauncey Billups, allowing them rebuild from scratch almost overnight, and Orlando lands Billups, a durable veteran to and possible upgrade to Jameer Nelson in the backcourt.

Seeing as that's a four-team trade, it's probably a long shot. More realistic? A proposal that would put Carmelo on the Clippers, giving L.A. the chance to grab a superstar, sending Chris Kaman to the Pistons and giving Tayshaun Prince's expiring contract to the Nuggets. If you throw in L.A.'s unprotected no. 1 pick from Minnesota in 2012, that's pretty sweet. Plus, you can also throw in a more forgettable 2011 L.A. pick that figures to be in the low-first round if they get 'Melo (though it's never a bad idea to trade for a Clippers draft pick).

The Nets could offer an intriguing package as well, provided they include Derrick Favors, Terrence Williams and either Devin Harris or Brook Lopez. And then there's Houston, another team highlighted by Simmons, who could make a play by sending Shane Battier's Expiring Contract, Kevin Martin, Jordan Hill, and the Knicks' 2012 no. 1 pick. Another deal that'd save Denver more than $20 million, and expedite the rebuilding process.

(There's also the Washington Wizards, who could send Gilbert Arenas to a team like Cleveland or Golden State in exchange for bad contracts, then use their remaining cap space to nab 'Melo in exchange for Javale McGee, Andray Blatche, picks, and cash. Oops, my Wizards traded for Kirk Hinrich in exchange for an extra eight wins and a spot at the bottom of the lottery. So ... the Wizards don't get to play this game.)

The way I see it, those are Carmelo's most likely destinations (in no particular order):

  1. Los Angles (Clippers)
  2. New Jersey
  3. New York
  4. Houston
  5. Washington Again, the Wizards traded for Kirk Hinrich instead of a shot at Carmelo Anthony.

There's an outside chance that Chicago could sneak in and parlay Luol Deng into Carmelo, but that would be a modern-day miracle, so we'll leave them out of the contenders. Now the question becomes ... should NBA teams be clamoring to make this trade?

And the answer is yes. Err ... hold on.

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Should teams be trying to trade for Carmelo Anthony?

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To put this in perspective, here are the teams that shouldn't trade for Carmelo Anthony. Sacramento (good foundation without him, Melo wouldn't re-sign) Cleveland (Melo wouldn't re-sign), Memphis (ditto), Indiana (ditto), Toronto (ditto) Los Angles Lakers (too much risk), Oklahoma City (Melo and Durant would be redundant), Miami (LOL... seriously?), Minnesota (there is a plan in place, people... Wouldn't want to disrupt Kahn's vision) annnnd.... That pretty much covers it. Everyone else should try to trade for Carmelo Anthony.

New Orleans? Pair him with Chris Paul, give your franchise new life.

Boston? Meet your superstar for the next generation.

Atlanta? It would be like when they signed Joe Johnson to a max contract, except good.

Portland? Pair him with Brandon Roy, and start playing with the big kids on the playground.

Milwaukee? At worst, Jennings and Carmelo start a uStream channel and videotape themselves getting tandem tattoos, with Melo getting "F**K" across his back, and Jennings getting "HATERS" across his. Ideally, they'd convince Erslan Illyasova to join in on the fun, and he'd get "THE" on his back. (At best, Melo makes Milwaukee the third best team in the Eastern Conference, and because Milwaukee's secretly awesome, he might enjoy the atmosphere enough to re-sign.)

San Antonio? Switch the jerseys in the following photo, let Popovich light a fire under 'Melo, and watch him extend the Spurs dynasty by another five years.

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... and on and on. None of those teams has a realistic chance at landing Carmelo Anthony, but when you think about what his addition might mean to any of them, you get a sense for the player we're talking about. Put Carmelo Anthony on 75 percent of the teams in this league, and each of those teams has a brighter future.

Nobody totally understands Carmelo at this point, but some things are self-explanatory.

Points-per-game may not tell the whole story as far as someone's value, but neither does the scoring efficiency mentioned in that ESPN Insider article. Think of the five players you'd want if your team had one possession to win a game. Kobe, LeBron, Dwyane Wade ... then Carmelo.

He's not getting bodied out to the three point line like Kevin Durant, he's got a faster first step than Paul Pierce, he's got more range than any of the superstar big men and he's proven he can take and make big shots. Carmelo is probably the fourth-best option in the NBA for a game-winning possession. Even if we concede that he's a gunner during the other 47 minutes and incapable of changing, he's a worthy addition to any franchise that plans on playing in big games anytime soon.

And what seals it: he CAN change. He may not, but an NBA team had better have a damn good reason if they're not going to take the chance. There was a time when Paul Pierce was a selfish malcontent that demanded a trade and half-assed it for an entire season in Boston. Kobe Bryant had to chase off Shaq and fail on his own before he recognized the value of someone like Pau Gasol. Not everyone gets this stuff on the first try.

It would be really easy to pile onto the Criticize Carmelo bandwagon right about now, but it just makes no sense. Sure, he's not a perfect player and he's obviously got some maturity issues ... and? What am I missing? How is he not a can't-miss talent that every team should be clamoring to build around, regardless of his flaws? He may be statistical kin to Amare, but his DNA as a basketball player is much closer to LeBron and Wade.

Because of Carmelo's flaws, the Nuggets relationship has failed, and both sides want a fresh start. Yeah, his immaturity and selfishness may be a red flag; it's also the only reason he's available. This is the only way NBA superstars become available outside the draft (or LeBron stabbing an entire city in the back).

The twitter stuff, the random statistics that show he's not "elite", the trade demands ... ignore all of it. And remember: You can learn how to NOT be an idiot on Twitter. You can learn how to work harder on defense. You can learn how to be a leader. You can grow as a player and a person. But some things are innate, and if a guy doesn't have it, he doesn't have it.

Carmelo has it. He can anchor an offense in crunch time, and carry a team for long stretches of both games and the season, in general. Whether he can develop the rest remains to be seen—that's what it'll take for him to win a championship—but the basic ingredients are there, and they're rare. Understanding Carmelo Anthony may prove futile in the end, but don't let this saga make you forget why we've been trying all along: He's worth agonizing over. Ultimately, that's high praise.

We already said that the question of whether Carmelo's worth the risk implies that he's not good enough now. Also implicit in that question: He could be. Otherwise, we wouldn't be asking.

Understanding how to use LeBron and D-Wade will be tough, too. Finding Kobe the right second option took five years. Orlando still hasn't figured out a way to maximize Dwight Howard. And getting the best out of Carmelo will be a huge challenge to whoever lands him over the next six weeks. But that's not necessarily be a negative reflection on Carmelo Anthony.

Since when is building a championship team supposed to be simple?

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