By: Morgan Zimmerglass
Only a few short years ago, public opinion was split as to whether Carmelo Anthony was deserving of his status as a star in the NBA. By the middle of the Phil Jackson era at the Garden, the discourse had swung heavily against the embattled veteran. A wave of criticism largely started by the former Knicks president two years ago has reached a crescendo. Enabled by their like-minded peers, fans and media alike have gleefully joined the chorus of bullying, delighting in labeling Carmelo selfish, washed up, overweight, deluded, lazy, a coach killer and even a locker room cancer. The tragic result is not only that Carmelo’s exceptional 15th and 16th NBA seasons are not receiving the credit they deserve, but are instead being viewed as an embarrassment to such an extent that the best 34.5+ year old in the world can no longer find a job.
It was clear that with the Knicks languishing at the bottom of the standings and his own front office criticizing his game in the media, Carmelo’s reputation had taken a hit by the end of his tenure in NYC. Still, he possessed a significant amount of goodwill when he accepted a trade to Oklahoma last summer, as most were kind to him on his way out of NYC, acknowledging that he had handled the unprecedented and excessive criticism from Jackson with poise and class. Carmelo had stayed true to his moniker – StayMe7o – never losing his cool on or off the court, despite continuous provocation from his own team and the extreme pressure inherent to attempting to win basketball games in NYC. He packed his bags for OKC with the majority of hoops fans rooting for him to combine with Paul George and the reigning MVP Russell Westbrook to give the Thunder a triumvirate capable of toppling public enemy number one, Kevin Durant and the Warriors.
The good feelings didn’t last. Before the season even started Carmelo did himself no favors as he responded haughtily, “Who, me?” to a perfectly reasonable question about the then 33 year old possibly coming off the bench. OKC sputtered out of the gate to begin a rollercoaster season but was able to manage several patches of inspiring basketball, including two victories over Golden State, before finishing 4th in a stacked Western Conference and falling in the first round to a well-oiled Utah Jazz team in six hard-fought games.
Russell Westbrook and Billy Donovan, the point guard and coach, were unable to guide the offense to reach its potential, as too often the team’s three stars appeared scared to step on each other’s toes. Too often they seemed to be simply rotating which player would attack out of an isolation play, without enough chemistry or synergy to be effective. To be fair, Carmelo was unable to harness either of his famed alter egos during his time in Oklahoma. Donovan never gave him the green light, trust and volume of touches at his sweet-spot on the right elbow needed to transform himself into “Hoodie Melo” – the conscienceless, offensive virtuoso, sweatshirt-clad bucket-getter who personified smoothness and was often seen giving work to NBA stars, a decade his junior, during the exclusive summertime pickup games at Manhattan’s Lifetime Athletic at Sky gym.
Consistent Hoodie Melo sightings were always unlikely, but it was more disappointing that his cousin “Olympic Melo” wasn’t able to find his way more regularly to Chesapeake Energy Arena. Olympic Melo is the manifestation of the thoughts of all of those who have wondered what Melo’s game would have looked like if he were surrounded by more talent. He’s USA Basketball’s all-time leading scorer – a stretch-4 who feasts on spot-up mid-range jumpers, exploits the shorter international 3-pt line, and is absurdly efficient to the tune of stat lines like the 37 pts on 13-16 shooting, with ten 3s in 14 minutes, he posted vs Nigeria in 2012.
Olympic Melo was conspicuously absent for a few reasons. It simply has to be said that Melo’s offensive arsenal had been blunted over the course of the six years since his zenith. Also, his confidence had faltered due to his uncertain role in a disjointed offense. Westbrook dominated the ball more than Team USA point guards, and the Thunder didn’t have as much talent on the floor to command the double-teams needed to create the open looks on which he thrived.
As it became clear that neither of the fabled versions of Carmelo were appearing, patience was lost for Melo to return to all-star form and he came under heavy criticism. The Thunder’s 4th place finish and 48 wins were exactly in line with Vegas’ predictions, but their slightly disappointing playoff exit at the hands of the Jazz, highlighted by Carmelo’s poor play in the series, left fans and pundits alike in a frenzy calling for his head. Instead of slating Coach Donovan for his team often appearing like they had just met each other on offense and being comprehensively outcoached by Quinn Snyder, Carmelo was made to shoulder the blame for team chemistry issues. Instead of holding Westbrook accountable for failing to integrate his new weapons, shooting under 30% from 3 and committing 5 turnovers a game during the season, the public blamed Melo for being a bad teammate. Instead of attributing OKC’s elimination to Paul George’s 2-16 horror show in the decisive 6th game, people remember the series more for the late 32-7 run OKC used to squeeze out a narrow victory in game 5, during which Melo was mostly on the bench.
Did Carmelo deserve criticism for OKC’s failures last year? Of course. Did he deserve as large of a portion of the blame as he received? Absolutely not. But a pattern that had developed in New York had continued in Oklahoma and was soon to follow him south down Interstate 45. After a trade and a buyout, a 34 year old Carmelo landed in Houston for the veteran’s minimum. By this point, the future hall of famer was considered more to be a bud of jokes and memes rather than an actual key NBA off-season acquisition. On paper the acquisition didn’t make sense, as Houston already possessed two ball dominant offensive threats in Harden and Paul and never replaced the defense they lost with the departing Trevor Ariza and Mbah a Moute. Further complicating matters, the Rockets were coached by Mike D’Antoni, who famously clashed with Carmelo while coaching the Knicks during Melo’s prime.
Carmelo had been reduced to having only his most dedicated fans and the odd media member backing him to excel in Houston. Most predicted he wouldn’t make a difference if the Rockets found themselves in a rematch with the Warriors. Some even anticipated he’d be traded at the February trade deadline. Nobody predicted the series of events that ensued. Houston did Carmelo dirty…real dirty. The first ten games of the Rockets’ season were a whirlwind that saw the team struggle on defense after losing defensive coordinator Jeff Bzdelik to retirement, Chris Paul get suspended two games for fighting Rondo, Harden miss three games with a hamstring injury and the team post the worst shooting percentage in the league en route to a 4-6 record.
Then unexpectedly for a game against San Antonio, Carmelo was listed as “DNP – Illness.” Rumors immediately began to swirl that the two sides were unhappy. The Rockets intimated he was upset with his role, which made no sense given that he was playing 30 minutes per game and had even started 2 games. After another DNP the rumors progressed in severity to saying he would soon be cut. After one more DNP, and a bizarre press conference by GM Daryl Morey praising Carmelo and saying he was being scapegoated for the team’s poor start and would be back in uniform as soon as he was healthy, Carmelo was released. Social media and sports talk shows went crazy as posts and takes flooded in discrediting not only Melo’s contribution in Houston, but his entire career as well. Again, Carmelo was scapegoated, as so many others deserved more blame for the team’s poor start, starting with Mike D’Antoni who had seemingly forget how to coach offense while continuing his failure to acknowledge that defense even exists.
The criticism of Carmelo got so bad that finally players like Wade, LeBron, Evan Turner, Allen Iverson and Stephen Jackson all came to his defense saying things like he’s being scapegoated, blackballed, and he has plenty left in the tank and is a better player and teammate than 50-100 players in the league. Players’ opinions of other players, especially popular ones like Carmelo, often need to be taken with a grain of salt, but in this case are absolutely correct. There is so much wrong with the negativity being sent his way the past two seasons. Aside from an Instagram post over the summer channeling Jay-Z by telling his critics to “DUCK SICK” (get it?), Carmelo has been quiet and restrained in his attempts to defend himself, leaving his side of the story mostly unspoken. It is a lonely battle, but his side of the story needs to be told.
Carmelo finished last season with the Thunder as their third option, averaging 16 PPG on 32 MPG while shooting 40 percent from the field (3% below league average) and 36 percent from 3 (exactly league average). He also grabbed 6 boards per night while playing and starting in 78 out of 82 games. These numbers hardly depict the disastrous narrative of the season so many fans and media members choose to remember. Considering that this was Carmelo’s 15th NBA season, the numbers become even more impressive – about as good as can be expected for anyone from this generation not named Kobe or LeBron. He joined the team only a few weeks before opening night and was asked to completely alter his game to play alongside Westbrook, a notoriously difficult point guard to build chemistry with, just ask Harden and Durant.
The majority of the attacks on Melo’s year in Oklahoma focus on his defense, effort and dedication. While defense will never be his strength, he was a part of OKC’s best 5 man defensive unit and the Thunder finished with a top-10 defense. This shows he was putting forth effort, and seeing some results, and that coaches can create schemes that hide Melo’s defensive deficiencies. The fact that Carmelo played and started in 95 percent of the team’s games, played 32 minutes a night and fought for a solid 6 rebounds per night during his 15th season speaks to his dedication to the team and commitment to taking care of his body, which he may have neglected early in his career.
His offense and intangibles as a teammate came under attack as well. Ideally, Melo would have been more efficient from the field last year, but it was not surprising to see his offensive totals and percentages fall below his career averages during his 15th season, as it was the first time he was not his squad’s first option. Melo unselfishly altered his game in attempt to accommodate the rigid Westbrook and the questionable system put in place by Donovan. He didn’t interfere with Westbrook’s mission to average a triple-double for the second straight year and stayed away from the spots on the court George liked to operate from. Never once did he complain about his role and he answered all of the questions posed to him by the media in good faith and good spirts. The Thunder weren’t able to give the world the playoff series against the Warriors the basketball world craved, but finishing 4th in a Western Conference that contained the Warriors and Rockets was a significant accomplishment.
Strangely, the numbers Carmelo posted in Houston this season were a tick below his production in Oklahoma but are even easier to defend. Now 34, and in his 16th season, he averaged 13 points, 5 rebounds, shot 41 percent from field and 33 percent from 3 on 30 minutes per game. During a 5 game stretch near the end of his brief Rockets stint he had games of 22 points (above 50% FG), 24 points (6/10 from 3), 28 points (75% FG and 6/9 from 3) and 17 points (above 50% FG). This impressive stretch started just 4 games into his Rockets tenure and helped keep Houston afloat as both CP3 and Harden missed multiple games.
While both Rockets stars are each making over $30 million this year, they struggled to keep themselves healthy and struggled with their games while on the court, while the Rockets’ $2.4 million minimum salary player, in his 16th season, who was unfamiliar with the team’s system dutifully produced for both stars while playing 30+ minutes per game — a huge number for anyone in year 16 — is the one supposedly out of shape. He would only play 2 more games before being shockingly cut, a sucker-punch not even his staunchest critics could have predicted.
Granted, Carmelo’s efficiency numbers were below the mean, but they were still in the healthy part of the curve. In fact, CP3 and Harden were shooting the same percentages as Carmelo through 10 games, and the Rockets as a team had the lowest shooting percentage in the league at the time. Many people tried to justify the decision to ruthlessly cut Carmelo by pointing to the defensive end. Houston was a better team when Carmelo wasn’t on the floor. But expecting Carmelo to be an effective defender when he was playing heavy minutes in every game during which he was asked to carry the offense for long stretches is unfair. Even LeBron has had to sacrifice his defense in order to continue producing on offense in recent years. There really is no case to be made that his numbers weren’t worth the $2.4 million the Rockets were paying him. Instead, he was the most productive player receiving the veteran’s minimum.
If you can escape the seductive trap of groupthink and put on your critical thinking hat, please follow me for a moment. Carmelo’s issues with the Rockets likely had a lot more to do with two coaches than his play on the floor. One can’t help but get the feeling that D’Antoni took joy in running Melo out of town given his well-known belief that Carmelo was responsible for his stint with the Knicks ending in 2012.
Even more interestingly, the Rockets were struggling on defense as their defensive coordinator Jeff Bzdelik had retired in the offseason. For some reason, almost all NBA fans have forgotten that Bzdelik was Carmelo’s first head coach in Denver, and the two often clashed before Bzdelik was fired and replaced by George Karl. Early in November, the Rockets reached an agreement for Bzdelik to come out of retirement after Thanksgiving to coach the defense. There are many who believe he gave the Rockets an ultimatum of “him or me,” and he was unwilling to work with Carmelo again after their publicized fights in the Mile High City.
Instead of people talking logically about the situation, the release from the Rockets has caused the familiar avalanche of largely unfounded insults to be hurled Carmelo’s way yet again. For too long, these attacks have been allowed to go unchecked. No longer. People say he’s lazy and out of shape, yet he was playing 30+ minutes per game in his 16th season of a 1,064 game career — after playing virtually every game the season before. In the second half of his career, Carmelo has placed a greater emphasis on his physical conditioning and diet than he did as a youngster. Compared to those not named LeBron or Kobe, AKA mere mortals, Carmelo’s fitness has allowed him to fight father time almost as well as anyone to remain a high-minutes, high-usage player who has almost always had to battle the opposition’s most talented and physical defender — who was tasked with being as physical as possible with Anthony, to the extent that he was forced to start wearing a bullet-proof vest during games.
Another standard line of criticism the public has accepted as the gospel for no reason is the notion that Carmelo makes teams worse and teammates are better without him. Syracuse obviously got better with him, as Carmelo led them to the national title as a freshman with one of the best collegiate seasons ever. The Nuggets jumped from 17 to 43 wins during his rookie year (a 26 game difference!), a year in which many feel he should have been awarded Rookie of the Year. He led them to the playoffs each season in Denver, while the Nuggets have only made 2 out of 7 post season appearances post-Melo. A study examined 16 of his Nuggets teammates that had played the most minutes alongside him and all but two of them posted a higher true shooting percentage when they shared the court with Carmelo.
The Knicks improved from 29 to 43 wins and broke a 6-year playoff drought, during his first season at MSG, as he led them to the 2 seed and their best record in 20 years in 2013. During the ensuing ill-fated Phil Jackson era in NY, the Knicks went 9-51 in games he didn’t play. An astonishing percentage almost twice as low as any other comparable star’s teammates amassed in their absence over the same period. Clearly his teammates were not thriving in his absence. During the 2015-16 season, Carmelo led the Knicks in points, rebounds and assists, with his 4.2 dimes the 5th most amongst forwards and centers that season.
Even during his notoriously “terrible” season in OKC, the Thunder managed to improve by 1 win compared to the season before Carmelo arrived. Houston will certainly finish with a better winning percentage than the .400 they posted with Carmelo this year, but that was based on an extremely small ten game sample of a disjointed team that was missing its two stars and defensive coordinator. The Rockets are 5-5 since Melo’s last game. Their problems were hardly exclusive to their sacrificial lamb.
It’s undeniable that Carmelo has improved virtually every team he’s been on and has been able to get a lot out of the limited collection of talent he’s had as teammates during his 16 years. He is immensely popular and well liked amongst NBA players and teammates. Those who believe otherwise clearly have an anti-Carmelo agenda or are the bi-product of a faulty belief-system being accepted as fact without proper investigation. .
I recently had a revelation as I sat in the office and watched the clock turn from 2:38 to 2:39 PM on the type of particularly dreary autumn afternoon reserved for the week after the clocks are turned back. I realized that rather than being amongst the worst players in the league that are his age or older, as many would have you believe, he has been the best. Not in the top half or close to the best. The actual best, number 1. Think about it. Carmelo is 34.5 years old. Nobody his age or older has been better since the start of last season. His main competition includes Andre Iguodala (5 ppg last 2 years), Pau Gasol (7 ppg this season), Tony Parker (9 ppg last two years), Vince Carter (6 ppg last 2 years), Zach Randolph (has yet to play a minute this year), and Jamal Crawford (9 ppg last 2 years). Carmelo’s resume over the past 2 seasons trumps all of theirs.
It is slightly depressing that the human race didn’t produce a better player, currently older than 34.5 years old, than Carmelo, but that’s not his fault. Imagine being better at something than everyone in the world who is your age or older and having to hear constantly how much you suck. That’s the paradox Carmelo finds himself in. Think about how many people you’d tell to “duck sick.” It’s a testament to his mellow personality that he hasn’t had any recent significant public meltdowns. Notwithstanding his temporary separation from his superstar wife La La Vázquez as a result of him impregnating a college student he met clubbing in Chicago, which could happen to anybody and was really a matter of being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
The argument here is not that Carmelo is blameless for the problems in his career. For example, his decision to sucker punch Mardy Collins during a garbage time brawl at MSG, in 2006, while leading the league in scoring and his team being on the verge of acquiring Allen Iverson was extremely short-sighted. At the time, he was on the cusp of becoming the face of the NBA and was instead saddled with a 15-game suspension, causing the talented Nuggets to fall to 6th in the standings and eventually bow out in the first round to the Spurs. Additionally, when deciding how to get to the Knicks, he should have waited six months to sign as a free agent instead of destabilizing his new team by forcing them to trade vital pieces like Gallinari and Wilson Chandler, but not the liability known as Landry Fields.
Clearly Carmelo is capable of creating problems for himself, but in the last few seasons, the only area he deserves criticism is for refusing to the come off the bench in OKC, which would have allowed him to be the focal point of the second unit and take advantage of bench defenders. A waning superstar refusing to come off the bench shows naivety, but it is a problem hardly unique to Carmelo and a crime underserving of the punishment and criticism it’s received.
Carmelo is now out of the league. After being released, teams like Miami, Philadelphia and San Antonio were floated as possible landing spots for the fallen star. But as the NBA news cycle continuous to turn over each day, mentions of Carmelo have become fewer and further apart with his only appearance in recent days was a depressing Instagram video of a solitary Carmelo. He was bereft of the motivation to even throw on his iconic hoodie, and he was going through the motions of a lonely shooting drill on that same Lifetime at Sky gym in Manhattan. Also, to add insult to injury, Bleacher Report posted an article claiming he’s played his final game.
The rest of the guys from those famous summer pick-up games – a who’s who of global basketball talent that Carmelo has been dominating his whole career – have gone off to their respective cities and teams to do battle in what is shaping up to be an incredible NBA season. It’s easy to picture Carmelo easing himself into a chair after his workout to change sneakers and check his phone, subliminally hoping there’ll be a message from his agent about a new team that wants his services. Instead, he sees that his disgraced, PED-using, tornado free-throw-shooting ex-teammate Joakim Noah is signing with Memphis — a truly insane NBA reality. Life comes at you fast.
If he stays on his phone for a few minutes longer, he may see a message from Allen Iverson telling him he still believes Carmelo has something in the tank. For years now, there have been warning signs for Carmelo that if he continued to bristle at coming off the bench and adapting his game to the new pace-and-space 3 point obsessed NBA, the last stage of his career could go the way of his old teammate and friend, who bounced around a handful of teams before finding himself having played his last NBA game at age 34.
Iverson had a laundry of personal problems during his final seasons, problems I have long believed are worthy of a 30 for 30 documentary, and there is a strong argument to be made that he deserved the fate of his disappointing denouement. Carmelo deserves better and should be given one more chance to influence a contending team this season. However, as of now, he’s receiving worse treatment from the league than the formerly blackballed Iverson. Iverson’s career ended where it began, with a feel-good 25 game stint with his beloved 76ers. Those games at least served as some semblance of closure for Iverson and the fans who adored him so much.
The Knicks should be paying attention to this situation. If the calendar reads February and Carmelo remains unsigned, they should do the right thing and bring Carmelo on board for the final 20 games. Many Knick fans will have a violent knee-jerk reaction opposed to this, but their fears are unwarranted. Even if the team is tanking and had already “quit tryin’ for Zion,” Carmelo will not be influential enough to affect their record, and he will help generate some interest in the team as they wind down another frustrating season and head into a pivotal free agent summer. The way he was treated by the Knicks in his final season was despicable. If he has no other options aside from retirement, bringing him on board for a truncated farewell would show the Kevin Durants and Kemba Walkers of the world that the Knicks will treat them well — should they choose to sign on the dotted line as free agents come July 1st.
Hopefully it won’t come down to Carmelo accepting an act of charity to end his career. The best case for him, and his fans, now is that an injury to a forward on a playoff-contending team will lead to them placing a call to Carmelo. Or perhaps a team looking to sell tickets will sign him and let him spend this season, and perhaps one more, in his office — 20 feet from the hoop shooting 15-20 times per game — and he can go out doing what he loves while climbing the all-time NBA scoring chart, where he sits at 19 with a legitimate chance of reaching 11 should he play through next season.
It’s upsetting to see a player as talented and influential as Carmelo be treated so poorly. People have become far too comfortable saying brash and disrespectful lies about the future hall of famer. The final seasons of his career have not been an embarrassment, joke or disappointment, but rather some of the most productive 15th and 16th seasons a player not named LeBron or Kobe has had in quite some time. Many probably assumed taking cheap shots at Carmelo was harmless but now, it was taken too far and currently, we have an NBA without Carmelo Anthony. Surely Carmelo can “Grit N’ Grind” better than Noah in Memphis. Surely he can do whatever it is Luol Deng is doing in Minnesota better than Deng is doing it. The league is a better place with Carmelo, but instead we’re left to watch Quincy Pondexter, Miles Plumlee and Zaza Pachulia. This isn’t how things were supposed to end. Free Carmelo Anthony.