Two star-crossed players, Carmelo Anthony and Jeremy Lin, were back in the news last week for similar reasons. Melo went on ESPN’s First Take to candidly talk about his nightmarishly brief tenure with the Houston Rockets and his future, sparking renewed conversations about his failure to adjust to a new phase of his career. Lin, speaking to fans on an Asian tour while withering on the free agency vine, broke down about how tough it is to be on the fringe of the NBA and losing your grip.
Melo was one of the league’s biggest stars for a decade. Lin had a briefer reign as a headline-grabbing star, but has cultivated an enormously passionate and deep fandom. Both are learning how little the NBA cares about legacy and reputation in this era unless there are wins or profits to be wrung from them.
To be sure, there are many differences between the two players. Anthony was the No. 3 pick in one of the greatest drafts ever, almost beat LeBron James for Rookie of the Year in 2003-04, and became a 10-time all-star who led his team to the playoffs the first 10 seasons of his career. He’s the most decorated male player in USA Basketball history. He’s earned about $250 million in NBA salary. He will be in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Lin went undrafted out of Harvard, became the first Taiwanese-American player in the league, spent his rookie season scrounging for minutes behind Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry, and then exploded into the public consciousness the next season for the injury-ravaged Knicks with Melo sidelined.
And that’s when things began to unravel for both players.
Things went sideways fast for Melo after an illustrious and beguiling first decade in the league. The Knicks fell apart thanks to a combination of managerial malpractice and Melo’s untimely knee injuries in 2015. Phil Jackson swooped in to ruin the day along the way, leading to a fairly ugly and wholly unnecessary breakup in 2017.
That divorce landed Melo’s considerable contract on the books of the all-or-nothing Thunder in Paul George’s first season in OKC. Melo did not really work as a third (or in his telling on First Take, fourth) option, but his acquisition may have played a role in Russell Westbrook electing to sign an extension shortly after his arrival.
Melo notably bristled at media suggestions that he come off the bench. He got lots of grief for this alleged lack of self-awareness, given his diminishing state. But no one has ever claimed that OKC’s management or coaches discussed the possibility of a bench move with Melo himself. Faulting him for rejecting the notion in media appearances when it wasn’t apparently on the table from a team perspective seems wildly unfair. In other words, if no one in power on the Thunder staff had the courage to tell Melo they thought he should come off the bench, and if Billy Donovan never brought Melo off the bench, it ain’t Melo’s fault he didn’t come off the bench.
Nevertheless, the narrative that Melo was unwilling to subjugate himself for the betterment of a team thrived. The Thunder dumped Melo’s contract for Dennis Schroder and savings at the end of the season. The Hawks bought him out, and Melo landed with the Rockets alongside MVP James Harden and good friend Chris Paul. He lasted 10 games coming off the bench before the Rockets unceremoniously removed him from the rotation and then waived him. He went dark, more or less, until now.
For a brief moment, Jeremy Lin had everything. The Rockets, who had briefly signed and then cut him right before Linsanity took over the world, gave Lin a big contract and he started every game of the 2012-13 regular season for Houston.
But Lin soon fell out of favor in Houston and moved to the bench as James Harden ascended to MVP level. From there, a glorious (and low earnings) revival as one of the best reserve guards in the league for the 2015-16 Hornets led to a second big contract with the Brooklyn Nets the following summer.
Lin was even better in Brooklyn when he was able to play, but injuries kept him out of much of the season. Then, on opening night of the 2017-18 season, he ruptured his patella, ending his season and his Nets tenure.
As a reserve for the Hawks and Raptors last season, he showed the scars of injury-related limitations. Atlanta actually bought him out and he barely got off the bench for Toronto’s title run. In his comments last week, Lin said he feels as if he didn’t earn the championship he now has on his resumé.
Lin is now 30 and earned generational wealth ($50 million) in the NBA. That’s not a reason to dismiss his emotional reaction to the apparent end of his NBA career, just as Melo’s fame and fortune is no reason to dismiss his first-person commentary on what’s happened and what’s next. People are allowed to feel sad, frustrated, and even aggrieved when their dreams are dimmed. We should offer sympathy, not contempt. We should try to understand, not immediately turn to mocking.
The reality for Melo and Lin is not that they refused to adjust their games to fit in the NBA in their older, more limited states. It’s that not every player has a game that can adjust as smoothly as some do.
Vince Carter, now 42, has become the obvious example of how a former star — a ball-dominant wing, even — can age gracefully within the NBA. Just because Vince did it, we think anyone can. We make it as though Melo is the exception, not the rule. But it’s Carter who is the exception. Melo has always been an isolation scorer. At age 35, turning off that style and adopting another way to play seems unreasonable.
The conversation is reminiscent of Allen Iverson, a player many (myself included) said could survive in the NBA deep into his 30s if only he’d shoot less and pass more. We said that about Allen Iverson! As if he could change his very essence on the fly at the end of a Hall of Fame career. Now we suggest Melo needs to do the same as if it’s, like, easy or something.
It’s not. It can’t be. Apply it to your own life. Think of how difficult implementing even small changes to your lifestyle or workflow can be. Imagine the scale of what’s necessary to change how Melo plays basketball.
Lin is younger, but the injuries have done a real number on his on-court play. He was never the most explosive athlete in the NBA, but the pop he’s lost through knee injuries was the difference between being a fringe rotation player and a top reserve. The margin of being in or out of the NBA is a knife’s edge with so many talented, hard-working players fighting it out in the G-League.
Based on last season’s output alone, Lin probably belongs in the NBA. But he has to convince a team, and most would rather use a roster spot on a younger player with some level of potential to be better over the long run. That’s an algorithm that prioritizes upside, and players like Lin bear the cost.
The NBA is made up of 30 corporations coldly calculating how to maximize victories and profit in some order. For now, they have all decided that neither Melo nor Lin benefit their quests for wins or cash. Perhaps that will change later this summer, or this fall, or next spring. Or perhaps Melo or Lin will decide the NBA no longer benefits their careers or happiness and will turn to leagues overseas.
No NBA team owes Melo or Lin a chance to continue their careers stateside. But we can at least honestly acknowledge why the duo is, at this point, on the outside of the league and feel some sympathy. They are allowed to feel sad and frustrated. They are famous basketball players, but they are allowed to be human, too. Respect that.