LeBron James, decisions, and how Carmelo Anthony squandered all his leverage
Maligned for his play on the court, Anthony's decisions off the court have been the real problem
It is easy, and reasonable, to feel for Carmelo Anthony.
The resume is an obvious Hall of Fame one, between the NCAA title with Syracuse, the gold medals with USA Basketball, and a top-50 career player efficiency rating that's powered him to nine All-Star appearances.
In essence, though, Anthony has spent his career paying for not being LeBron James, an utterly impossible standard considering James is a top-three player in the history of the league. The two battled in high school, were selected in the 2003 NBA Draft, remain close friends, are roughly the same size, and thus the comparisons never stop.
But while Anthony was never going to be James as a player, another, equally significant factor has led to the vast separation between the two in terms of reputation: James consistently made the right call to help his career, and Anthony, either by lack of foresight or simple bad luck, really hasn't.
Consider the pair when their paths first diverged, back in 2006. LeBron James followed his rookie contract by signing a three-year, $60 million contract with a fourth-year player option. Anthony inked a five-year, $80 million deal with the right to opt out after four years. That extra year meant more guaranteed money, but it would prove to be critical.
Anthony said at the time: "It was a no-brainer for me. When all the rumors were out there saying I was signing this type of deal or that type of deal, my family called me and said, 'Look, are you crazy?' Growing up we don't have [much]."
Out in three years meant that by 2010, James and Dwyane Wade could hit the free agent market at the same time, when teams were shopping for superstars, and team up in Miami. Anthony, having to wait for the right to opt out until after the 2010-11 season, landed himself right in the middle of a labor struggle.
Still, Anthony would have been the premier free agent if he'd left that summer, or the following one. By then, the Nuggets and Anthony were speeding toward a divorce, though blaming that on Anthony ignores the extent to which the team has cycled through many other plans since he left town.
But once again, instead of letting the labor stoppage run its course, or assume that no matter what new CBA got signed a player of his stature would get paid, Anthony decided not to publicly commit to re-sign with whichever team traded for him. Instead, Anthony insisted that the Nuggets extend him first, as part of any deal, and that he'd consider staying with the Nuggets if they did. It was a de facto no-trade clause, and Anthony handed over the leverage that could have belonged to him alone, had he publicly named a preferred team.
And so, though he wanted to go to the Knicks, he forced them to give up all their extra treasure in young players and picks to Denver. The net result landed Anthony in a situation where his new team had a significant handicap in putting a championship roster around him.
Still, Anthony managed to lead a 2012-13 Knicks team, whose second scorer was J.R. Smith, to 54 wins and an Eastern Conference semifinal loss to the Indiana Pacers that was far closer than most remember. The Knicks were torn down and then built up again, while Anthony played at max effort through injuries and into his 30s, and James was winning titles in Miami.
Summer of 2014 offered him one final shot at maximizing his own destiny. Several teams came calling. Anthony had the chance to learn from what had happened earlier in his career, meaning he could've opted for a shorter deal while preserving his flexibility and betting on himself as the league moved toward what most believed would be a significant jump in the salary cap.
Instead, Anthony hunkered down, inked the max deal at the time with the Knicks, and insisted on a no-trade clause. He tied his fate to that of Phil Jackson, a first-time executive, and a team devoid of many young assets in part, still, because of the very trade that brought him to New York. Meanwhile, James picked his spot, returned to Cleveland, and, well, you know the rest. He's also making a lot more money by signing shorter-term deals under far friendlier salary caps than Anthony's already-outmoded max.
Once again, it is possible to see the case for doing what Anthony did: get that money, stay home, stay loyal, let an 11-time NBA champion as a coach work his magic as a roster builder.
But the increasingly-desperate salvos from Jackson have not only damaged Anthony's reputation in many people's eyes (as unfair as the criticisms are), they have reinforced, once again, that Anthony made the wrong call.
Now Anthony controls his destiny, but to an extent. He can block deals, but he cannot make them. He's not viewed as a logical centerpiece for a young team, not as his 33rd birthday rapidly approaches, and he makes too much money to serve as a secondary piece for a championship team to easily fit him under the cap.
It is easy to look at it all and conclude that it is some on-court failing of Anthony tat has led him to this place, though that simply isn't so. I suspect in the years to come, when Anthony thinks back on his career, he'll realize that he didn't need to be any better than he was, a great player who accomplished many significant things.
He'll realize he needed a better agent and a crystal ball.
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