Ever since he was drafted third overall in 2003, Carmelo Anthony has been surrounded by hype. Fresh off leading Syracuse to a national title, there was considerable debate as to who would be the better rookie – Anthony, or the number one pick that year, someone by the name of LeBron James. Though LeBron won Rookie of the Year, Anthony led the Nuggets to the playoffs in his first season. Since that time, Denver has remained a consistent second-tier playoff team in the West.
In Carmelo’s seven seasons, the Nuggets have lost in the first round six times. The lone exception came in 2008-09, when they were fortunate to win a three-way tiebreaker for the second seed (they were one loss from being the five seed), which helped them to their first conference finals berth since 1985. Anthony has gone to three All-Star Games and has three All-NBA Third Teams and one Second Team honors under his belt. For your average #3 overall pick, he’s had a pretty good career so far.
Unfortunately, Anthony has always been judged in comparison to his fellow ’03 draftees, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. No one ever brings up how much more Anthony has accomplished than Darko Milicic, the #2 pick that year, unless they’re making fun of Darko or Joe Dumars, and Chris Bosh, the #4 pick, mostly avoided the spotlight playing north of the border for the past seven seasons. Instead, we are left with a portrait of a talented player who has been surpassed by his superior classmates, James (two MVPs, one Finals berth) and Wade (one title, two All-NBA First Teams). Anthony is a good player, but his name never gets brought up for the best in the game like the Heat teammates.
As Anthony enters the final year of his contract with the Nuggets (he holds an $18.5 million player option next year, but he is unlikely to execute it), the question seems to be where do he and the Nuggets go from here? He’s had ample time to prove himself with solid supporting casts (I’m sure LeBron would have loved to have had Marcus Camby, Allen Iverson, or Chauncey Billups) but he’s never accomplished anything in the playoffs. The only major piece the Nuggets added in the off-season was Al Harrington; as it stands they never adequately replaced Camby when he left, and they just don’t have the top-end talent to compete with the NBA’s elite.
Anthony, who’s 26, still has several years of his prime left, and ideally the Nuggets would be able to add another big piece to make a serious run at the title. Melo has made it clear that 2010-11 will likely be his last year in Denver, but the elephant in the room (the looming expiration of the CBA) makes the league’s future in general pretty shaky for next year. That said, with Melo looking to walk, the Nuggets have been in trade talks with several teams, but so far nothing has come of it. There are two main reasons for this. First, the Nuggets have been asking for a lot in return for Anthony (they reportedly turned down two first-rounders and Derrick Favors from the Nets), while teams have been reluctant to pay “full value” for the star. This is related to the second reason: no one wants to give up meaningful assets in a trade for Anthony unless they’re sure he’s going to sign a long-term extension.
If I’m an NBA GM, the only way I’m trading for Melo is if A) I’m going all in down the stretch to win the 2011 title, or B) I’m certain he’s going to re-sign. Most of the teams looking at Anthony (Nets, Knicks, Clippers) certainly aren’t in position to be contenders this season, so that leaves option B.
Anthony’s most likely destination seems to be New York precisely because it fits option B: Melo has discussed forming a potential super-team with Amar’e Stoudemire and Chris Paul in the Big Apple. The question is, do the Nuggets hold on to Melo and let him walk at season’s end? Or do they ship him at the February deadline (or earlier) to ensure that they get something for him? My advice would be to trade him: the Nuggets don’t have a legitimate shot at the title, and if he’s already thinking about where he wants to play next year, he’s not exactly brewing confidence in Denver’s locker room.
If Melo is traded, though, what will be expected of him in his new destination? He’s never going to be the best player on a title team, but none of his possible destinations have a star in place for him to work alongside. His best-case scenario is landing in New York to play with Amar’e. He’ll be expected to carry the team with Amar’e playing the second star role, but I can’t see the Knicks having much success with that; while their current roster is built to score points, they have very few committed defenders. Mike D’Antoni already tried the all-offense approach with a series of Phoenix teams that were better than a Melo-Amar’e led Knicks team would be, and the Suns always fell short come playoff time. While Carmelo in his prime will never be seen as a complimentary player, he needs another star to help him out, preferably a top-notch point or a great defensive big man (sorry Amar’e).
Ultimately I project Anthony’s career to unfold similar to that of Ray Allen or Paul Pierce: a great player who struggled to find the best situation in his prime, but who can be a valuable part of a title team in his later years. What Melo needs to do between now and then is to show the same fire and commitment to winning that Pierce did in the lean years in Boston. Even though his teams were never title contenders, Pierce continued to fight and gained the respect of Boston fans by playing hard every time out. While no one accuses Melo of mailing it in, he certainly doesn’t have the reputation as one of those guys to whom winning is all that matters. If he focuses exclusively on basketball the next few years (since 2004, he’s been cited for marijuana possession and a DUI, and was suspended 15 games for a brawl with Knicks players at Madison Square Garden), he’ll gain some respect, and, before all is said and done, he might just find his pot of gold in the form of a championship ring.