|Among the best in the game on Team USA, Melo is at a career crossroad at these London Games. (Getty Images)|
When last we saw our basketball heroes on U.S. soil, they were struggling and ultimately regaining their composure to defeat Brazil in an exhibition game in Washington, D.C. That night, all eyes were on LeBron James, who put up 30 points in a dominant effort that was reminiscent of his relentless assault on the paint in the Finals.
My eyes, however, were on Carmelo Anthony. (Well, at least when my eyes weren't on the president and first lady committing a turnover on the kiss cam.) Why? Because I already knew what LeBron would do in a moment of manufactured pressure like this -- a moment when some poise and closing instincts were needed to avoid the nuisance of heading to the London Games on a losing note. After so many years of failure, James had quickly and emphatically turned the tables on his reputation with a third MVP season punctuated, finally, by a championship.
I also already knew what Kevin Durant would do, and Chris Paul, if needed, and Deron Williams, too. In fact, we already knew the makeup, strengths and weaknesses of every member of Team USA as the latest version of our Dream Team headed across the Atlantic to defend gold. We knew what every player on this roster was all about -- what they could deliver and what they could not, and in what kind of moments they could be counted on to do those things.
|More on Team USA|
|More NBA coverage|
We knew this about every player with USA emblazoned on his jersey, with the lone exception of Carmelo Anthony.
After nine years, we still don't know who Melo is.
Before you fly off and call me a Melo hater and whatnot, understand this is a hopelessly optimistic perspective that I harbor about Anthony. A hater would say we already do know who and what Melo is -- a selfish, one-dimensional scoring machine who doesn't have the leadership ability, work ethic or commitment to an all-around game to be recognized among the truly elite players in his sport. So by saying we don't know this about Anthony yet, I am presenting a hopeful scenario in which he still has time to figure it out.
It is beyond dispute, however, that he is running out of time.
Just scan the USA roster. Look at the names and realize that everyone there has either already established himself in the sport's pecking order or, for those who haven't (like Anthony Davis), at least has years and years ahead of him to do so. Anthony just completed his ninth season, making the playoffs every year but advancing out of the first round only once. His gifts as a scorer are beyond reproach, but there has to be more from Anthony if he is to join the likes of James and Dwyane Wade -- contemporaries from the 2003 draft -- in the conversation about those who will carry the NBA into the post-Kobe Bryant years.
In fact, with the likes of Paul, Williams, Durant and Russell Westbrook, Anthony already is in danger of being passed by fellow stars who came into the NBA after he did.
Being shunned in this conversation has long irked Anthony, who has brushed it off as unfair, uninformed criticism. A couple of years ago, while he was still a Nugget, Anthony told me, "If people are having talks and I'm not in the conversation as a top-five player in this league, then they shouldn't be talking about it."
Since then, the greatest success Anthony has experienced involved a flexing not of his on-court talents but his off-court muscle in orchestrating the trade that sent him to New York with a max extension and the keys to the franchise. Thus far, he has a jettisoned coach, two first-round playoff exits and the departure of point guard Jeremy Lin to show for it.
Blaming Anthony for Lin's departure is silly, as is harping on his comments about Linsanity being the starting point for the notion that Anthony is selfish. As for the latter, it isn't even accurate; Anthony had already carved out that reputation among his former Denver teammates and associates of USA Basketball from past regular seasons, playoff springs and summers abroad. He has taken some important steps toward flipping that script this summer with Team USA, but he has to do more and he has to bring it all with him into next season with the Knicks for any of it to matter.
Anthony showed up for Team USA training camp 12 pounds lighter than he was when the Knicks were bounced out of the first round by Miami. This was a positive sign -- unless you dare to wonder why Anthony had 12 pounds to lose after playing 71 professional basketball games in six months. After scoring three points on 1-for-7 shooting as a starter in the aforementioned 80-69 victory over Brazil, Anthony not only accepted his demotion to the bench in favor of Durant, but has thrived in that role.
He was perfect from the field and the foul line with 16 points in a 110-63 demolition of Tunisia. He shined with 37 points on 13-for-16 shooting in the historic 156-73 takedown of Nigeria. He was solid with 20 points on 7-for-13 shooting in a 99-94 victory over Lithuania. And though Anthony was ineffective in Monday's 126-97 victory over Brazil, the one shot he made in six attempts was the most memorable of the night -- a 3-pointer that went down despite a cheap shot to the groin delivered by Argentina's Facundo Campazzo.
"Uncalled for," was how Anthony described the below-the-belt closeout from Campazzo.
It would be better if, after all is said and done, it could be described this way: wakeup call.
Anthony is a deadly mismatch at the power forward spot in international ball, an unguardable force capable of feasting in the post or firing from the 3-point line on possession after possession until some dizzy opponent or another is ready to buckle under the assault. On one hand, this is what Anthony does; he's a "bad boy," as Bryant likes to call him. On the other, it makes you wonder why Anthony couldn't or wouldn't thrive in a similar role under the coach who draws up the offensive plays for Team USA, Mike D'Antoni -- the same coach who fled Madison Square Garden as though it were ablaze nearly five months ago.
As with the decision to let Lin go to the Rockets, D'Antoni's undoing had to do with much more than just Melo. Anthony couldn't occupy his natural four spot in D'Antoni's system because the Knicks already had a power forward, Amar'e Stoudemire, on a $100 million contract. Stoudemire couldn't move to the five because the Knicks already had a center, Tyson Chandler, making max money himself. Thus, Anthony roamed in his familiar high-post area, setting up shop time and again all the way at the 3-point line and going to work in isolation -- casting his formidable skills and shadow across half the floor, and crowding out the ball movement that was so essential to D'Antoni's offense.
Without Lin dominating the ball, can Mike Woodson find a way to get Anthony's skills to mesh with those of Stoudemire? Analysis by advanced stats guru John Schuhmann of NBA.com suggest it's an uphill battle. In 1,880 minutes logged with Anthony and Stoudemire on the floor together over two seasons (including playoffs), the Knicks have been outscored by 123 points. That's not to say it can't work, only that it hasn't so far.
Whatever the case, Anthony has reached a crossroads in his career at these London Games, a time when his star must finally shine and not be extinguished when he boards the plane back to the states after Sunday's gold medal game. He must venture into the post and dominate there, the way James finally has learned to do. He must defend at an elite level, every possession, the way an athlete of his caliber and conditioning should be able to. He must do this for 82 nights next season with the Knicks, and must do it in the springtime for more than one round.
And rather than simply deflect the criticism and ridicule the uninformed opinions of his detractors, Anthony must embrace this turning point in his basketball life. He must react to this moment the way he responded to that shot below the belt Monday, clenching his fists and barking toward the heavens in defiance.
After nine years, Carmelo Anthony still has time to show us who he is, who he will be. I choose to believe he will. But the raw truth is, the time that both of us have in that lofty, hopeful endeavor is running out.