As our Team USA preview series rolls on, we begin today with Carmelo Anthony and a BOLD PREDICTION:
After two rocky years in New York and a summer where roughly 60 percent of Knicks fans hate him for Jeremy Lin's exit, Carmelo will come back to Madison Square Garden next year and lead the Knicks to more success than they've had in years, resuscitating his career and silencing criticism that's followed his every move for 24 months now.
...And this could totally begin with the London Olympics, couldn't it?
The bulk of this profile was written on Tuesday morning; Tuesday afternoon, Carmelo led all scorers with 27 points against Spain in Team USA's final tuneup before the Olympics. A good reminder, then: The next two weeks are a chance for basketball to become fun again for Carmelo.
Melo's game has been treading water (kind interpretation) or moving backwards (not so kind) for the past few years, and after two years of exhaustive scrutiny and disappointment, "fun" might help the situation more than you think. In any case, the recent history has been rough.
He's had glimmers of brilliance at various points with New York, but he's also been out of shape, bad on defense, and selfish. The sporadic success just makes his general disappointment more frustrating. Over the same span, there have been trade demands (in Denver), he's been called selfish on and off the court (in Denver and New York), and our perceptions of 'Melo the superstar have changed (everywhere). Instead of the budding star everyone loves, he's become the overrated superstar who generally leaves everyone rolling their eyes. A lot of it is Carmelo's fault, too. All of which means it's probably time to take a deep breath and look back.
There was a time when Carmelo was the most refreshing player in basketball. He was Kevin Durant before Kevin Durant. The best smile in sports, a killer instinct that most of his peers lacked, a goofy inside-outside game that made him one of the most entertaining players in the league. It started at Syracuse, lasted for the next few years in Denver, and everybody loved him.
The problem is that his inside-outside game became an outside-outside-and-every-now-and-then-inside game, his relationship with George Karl soured in Denver, and he started blaming everyone else for his team's failures. This was unfair. Denver was losing to great teams, and the difference had less to do with supporting casts than Melo's shortcomings as a superstar.*
*(You can't help but wonder, though: What if Carmelo had ended up in Detroit? He'd have joined a team with a stronger supporting cast, yeah. But more importantly, he'd have come of age in the East, where the landscape was a lot less dangerous than the West during Melo's early years in the league. Maybe he enjoys more early success than LeBron or Wade in that scenario, and maybe he never gets restless, then. Maybe his entire career looks different.)
Anyway, the biggest mistake of Carmelo's career came in 2006, when he signed a full extension with Denver. While LeBron, Wade, and Chris Bosh all signed shorter extensions that made them eligible for free agency in the summer of 2010, Melo went for the full five with Denver.
This is why he was stuck demanding a trade in 2010--not only did he miss out on free agency with his friends, but because of the lockout, he had to demand a trade and sign a deal before the new CBA went into effect, or risk costing himself millions. So he forced his way to New York, only the trade pretty much guaranteed that he'd be joining a wasteland of a roster with the Knicks. Now he's locked into a roster that's worse than his Nuggets teams in a conference that's suddenly better than the West, with the added bonus of playing for fans who hate him because he's not the savior they were promised. Had he signed a shorter deal in '06, everything would be different today.
But if this is starting to get depressing, the story's (maybe) not over yet. Think of how selfish and one-dimensional Kobe looked in the years between Shaq and Pau. Think of Paul Pierce when he was stuck on those awful Celtics teams. Think of Dirk when he was stuck carrying those underwhelming Dallas teams a few years before he exploded in 2011. Redemption's never as far away as it seems.
The talent is still there with 'Melo. He's still one of a handful of players who are absolutely terrifying with the ball in their hands in the final minutes, and if he's surrounded by good defenders and a point guard who can balance his needs with the rest of the team, this could work.
Part of this falls to Carmelo, too. He can be deadly from anywhere in the final minutes, but during the first 45 minutes of the game, he's got to attack in the paint. It's not a coincidence that the best three weeks of his career came with him playing power forward for the Knicks this spring. So whether he's playing the four or three, attacking inside and exploiting matchups is how this comeback happens. And that could absolutely start in London this year.
The game is changing and big, quick forwards are about to become the most valuable asset in basketball -- look at LeBron in the Finals -- with nobody better positioned to capitalize than Carmelo.
Until that happens, we laugh when he endorses chocolate milk, because it seems like a Sports Pickle joke. Then he says things like, "I've evolved as an athlete and want my sports drink to evolve with me," as he shills for coconut water, and you can't help but roll your eyes. He got Mike D'Antoni fired, and couldn't work with Lin. So, people have given up on him.
At best he's a punchline and at worst he's everything wrong with the Knicks and NBA superstars, in general. He was supposed to be the "Next Big Thing" and now he's just this... Big Thing. This big thing who makes lots of money, demands lots of shots, and isn't quite good enough to totally return the investment. He personifies how we think of the Knicks -- good, but not as good as they think, and way, waaaaaay too entitled.
Kevin Durant before Kevin Durant became Dwight Howard before Dwight Howard.
There were a few years when we all expected Carmelo to turn the corner -- a light would go on, and he'd start pounding the boards like Barkley and scoring like Bernard King and everything would make sense. Now, everyone's stopped waiting for that turning point. Jim Dolan gave away Lin and kept Carmelo, a lot of New York fans wish it had been the opposite, and everyone on the outside is just assuming that Melo's Knicks will be underwhelming forever.
After his star turn Tuesday, Adrian Wojnarowski wrote a backhanded column explaining how the Olympics hide Carmelo's biggest flaws as a superstar. He's right, but maybe not forever.
Mind you, I have no facts to support my case here. There's nothing to "prove" with numbers or quotes or anything else. It's just a gut feeling; Melo's not done yet. Too many people have forgotten just how outrageously great he can be. He's closer to Dirk and Kobe than he is to Vince Carter or Michael Redd, and you don't bet against talent in the NBA.
Somewhere in there he's still the smiling 19-year-old basketball player that fans adored, with the killer instinct the entire NBA should fear. After everything that's happened the past few years, with the whole basketball world about ready to scratch his name off the superstar list for good, there's no better time to for his career to pull a 180 than this season. If it starts in London with the whole word watching, even better.