There was a time not long ago when watching viral videos of a hooded Carmelo Anthony running up and down a private court in the summer, getting up shots, and sometimes scrimmaging against other NBA players, elicited excitement and hope. Back then, there was still optimism around Anthony’s ability to be a capable player in the league. The idea was that all he needed was a change of scenery from the toxic environment of the New York Knicks.
Then came his unimpressive season with the Oklahoma City Thunder, a team he joined by reasserting his stance that he is too good for a bench role. By then, it was still logical to say that the team wasn’t a good fit for him. He was partnered with two ball dominant players in Paul George and Russell Westbrook, and there was little offensive identity beyond the three of them doing whatever they wanted when they got the ball. And within a team with a strong defensive identity, Anthony was often exposed for his lack of ability and physical mobility.
It wasn’t until his Rockets tenure that the bleak reality of Anthony shattered the myth of him.
It’s a myth that was driven by both his own confidence, his insistence on never changing for anyone, and the propaganda of those summer workout videos that made it seem as if he couldn’t miss a shot. It took only 10 games for the Rockets to decide that he was of no use to them. After an early November game against the Thunder in which he made 1 of 11 shots, Anthony was exiled from the team. He was kept on the roster, but the Rockets decided that keeping him inactive was a better solution than having him play in any capacity, even as injuries ravaged the Houston team.
On Monday night, Anthony was traded by the Rockets to the Chicago Bulls, who plan to waive him, leaving Anthony without a team. His possible saving grace seems to be the insistent rumors that his friend, LeBron James, might pull some strings to get him on the Lakers. Save for that, it’s hard to see a team that could actually use him.
At first, it was a bit admirable — and maybe still is, in a way — that Anthony refused to change when everyone in the greater NBA world was telling him that he was no longer the player that he thought he was. Popular opinion was that the game had moved past him. He was older, slower, and playing an outmoded style of isolation-heavy basketball that had become frowned upon. If he wanted to survive in the hostile environment of the new NBA, it was said, then he had no choice but to adapt.
Anthony stood firm against those ideas. He spoke and played like a man who was raging against the dying of the light.
That level of self-belief that borders on delusion is almost foundational to becoming a great athlete. A person has to believe that they are the exception of exceptions to make it to the NBA, and then believe that they are even more exceptional than that to work and become one of the best players in the league. To dare to make it to that level of reverence is to believe that you can bend reality to your will and succeed where millions of people before you have failed. We even celebrate that obsessive belief in oneself when the athlete has the ability to prove the world wrong.
But when that ability isn’t there, that belief is only delusion. In the case of Anthony, in which he has played so badly that teams would rather he not be anywhere near the court, he has become deeply sad to watch. He has gone from being a beloved figure to an internet joke.
It’s said, because Anthony could have a great ending to his career. Many older players have reimagined themselves and their game in order to stay productive in the NBA — players like Vince Carter, Dwyane Wade, Joe Johnson, and Andre Iguodala. Anthony doesn’t have to be LeBron James, but there’s no reason why he has to be a pariah at an age when others have found a way forward.
A much-decorated and talented scorer like Anthony deserves to finish his career in a better way than being traded from two teams and then released by the Bulls. But for that to happen — for Anthony to get his chance to be paraded and celebrated on NBA courts around the country in his twilight season — he will have to change. He will have to give up the idea that he is as capable now as he was five years ago, and he will have to learn what it means to be a capable role player.
Otherwise, the world will leave him behind, as it seems to be doing now.