Carmelo Anthony isn’t innocent in any of this. He’s the one who pushed for an asset-sapping trade to the New York in 2011—Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton, Timofey Mozgov, Danilo Gallinari, a 2014 first-rounder, and first-round swap rights in 2016—when he could have walked away from Denver five months later and cost the Knicks nothing but cap space, and he’s the one who re-upped with the Knicks three summers ago, well after it was evident the project he initially signed up for was a bust. Melo owns those decisions—mistakes, if you want to call maxing out your earning power in Manhattan a mistake—but to what degree must they define his career?
When Anthony showed up in New York, he took some of the fun out of what was a pretty rollicking party with Felton doing an asthmatic Steve Nash impression, Amar’e Stoudemire sprinting to the rim, and Gallinari and Chandler bombing threes from the wings, but what resulted, after some roster tinkering the following offseason and Mike D’Antoni getting pushed out in mid-March 2012 over creative differences, was joyful in its own way: Amar’e and Tyson Chandler playing offense cop, defense cop in the frontcourt; J.R. Smith self-actualizing (read: chucking) in the backcourt, and Melo on the elbow, theatrically pausing the offense—that’s what sent D’Antoni out of town howling, but ball-stopping is to Melo’s game what split-screen is to De Palma’s cinema—jab-stepping and feinting before lofting that familiar quarter-fade jumper toward the basket.
The team was even quite good after Amar’e’s knees finally turned to wave-battered fettucine, but the Knicks were never going to be able to weather that cap-clogging blow and rapidly slipped into a ditch of sub-.500 seasons from which they haven’t yet been able to excavate themselves. The narrative that makes Melo a mascot for this period of mediocrity brought about by crummy luck and institutional failure is bunk. He has suffered a mild physical decline over the past couple of years, but up until last season, when he was fully checked out by spring, he had been refining his game, mixing more paint-attacking into his reliable diet of fifteen-footers and committing himself to crashing the boards. Has he been a whit grumpy through all of it and somnambulated through a few February nights in Sacramento and Orlando? Sure, but that doesn’t differentiate him from many other all-timers who have played championship basketball on just-okay or downright awful teams. Melo is Tracy McGrady. He’s George Gervin. He’s David Thompson without the substance abuse issues.
Maybe we’re judging modern players by a new set of standards. We’re living through an era in which two or more stars team up every summer or so, and because that’s become increasingly acceptable—no more be a man and win it by yourself hooey—and Anthony hasn’t joined a superteam at any point in his career, he’s perceived as selfish and unconcerned with winning. If he’s so great, how come he didn’t join James Harden in Houston a few offseasons ago? Why hasn’t he pushed the Knicks to trade him away to a contender? While those are compelling questions that speak to Melo’s relative lack of competitiveness compared to, say, LeBron James or Kevin Durant, we overvalue desire when we talk about great athletes because we take it for granted. Not many players as tremendously skilled as Carmelo Anthony lack a maniac’s drive to succeed, but he’s one of them, and we tend to look at that narrow class of great athletes sideways, because we want them to be in the best possible shape, on the best possible team, completely invested in a title quest. Melo, up until now, has been content to be as dazzlingly good as he is at basketball for a franchise that’s headed nowhere in a city he loves. He’s been hiding his light under a bushel, and he’s resented for it.
He seems to have finally run his course in New York. He’ll soon go to Houston or Cleveland or perhaps even Portland and participate in the playoffs for the first time since 2013. This is an exciting prospect, but Melo is also past his prime. He used to be a decent defender when motivated, but now his ability to check his assignment is theoretical. His scoring barrages are lighter and less frequent. We’ll see how he fits into a squad where he’ll rarely be the first option on offense. Wherever he ends up, it will look a lot more like Rasheed Wallace joining the Pistons than Shaquille O’Neal joining the Heat.
And unfortunately, while a slightly washed Melo is still a highly useful player, whichever clique he joins up with is probably doomed if Steph Curry or Kevin Durant don’t suffer some awful injury next season. He might make the Cavs a little bit better if you swap him in for Kevin Love, but he doesn’t put them over the top. A Melo-Harden-Chris Paul Rockets nucleus is tantalizing—possibly disastrously so—but still underpowered. He and Dame Lillard would be fun—and only fun. The headlines are already saved as drafts: MELO CHASES CHIP, FALLS SHORT. Ringz Culture might be reductive and churlish, but it’s also a dominant strain of thought that colors our perception of players, even if we resist it.
As basketball-watchers we should all hope Melo adds a few interesting wrinkles to this third act of his career, playing with better teammates than he has in years, but his legacy is mostly solidified at this point, in terms of data collection. All that can change significantly is an intellectual shift in the way we understand players like him, who choose to live their lives the way they want to during their playing careers instead of seeking a championship in any city, at a flexible price. The way we think now, Carmelo Anthony is a remarkable talent whose best years were squandered primarily on unremarkable teams. But turn that logic over in your head and let it settle into a fresh orientation: is beauty, rare as it is, ever really wasted?