Carmelo Anthony’s farewell move

It doesn’t have to end badly with his departure from OKC

It is worth seeing again, that night in 2003 when Carmelo Anthony was invited up to the stage:

LeBron James had been introduced 10 minutes earlier. Dwyane Wade would follow Anthony 10 minutes later.

Anthony was in the middle of the most influential draft class of modern times. Fifteen years later, the outcome of his career is still to be determined.

Anthony claimed to be the best player of the 2003 Draft. James, 18, was superior athletically with a diversity of skills that no one could match. But all of his best work had been limited to high school playoffs and AAU tournaments. Anthony, by comparison, had driven Syracuse University to the NCAA championship as the Most Outstanding Player of the 2003 tournament. At age 19 he had led his team with 22.2 points and 10 rebounds per game.

The Nuggets, who chose him with the number 3 pick, would make the playoffs in all seven of his full seasons. But they never were able to pair Anthony with a fellow star. His best teammate, 32 year old Chauncey Billups, helped him reach the 2009 conference finals. One year later, under the influence of James’s move to Miami, Anthony demanded a trade out of Denver that resulted in his 2011 move to the Knicks.

The original idea had been for James, Wade and Anthony to be free agents together in 2010. But Anthony had not wanted to leave money on the table. He had re-signed with Denver for the maximum number of years. Instead of joining James and Wade in Miami as a free agent in 2010, Anthony watched Chris Bosh take his place.

Bosh won two championships with Anthony’s friends. Anthony, coming off the worst season of his career at age 34, has yet to experience an NBA Finals.

He was the NBA’s most talented scorer. Anthony had every reason to believe he could be the best player of that watershed 2003 Draft. He was unguardable in transition. He had 3-point range and a midrange game, but most promising of all was his potential to post-up in the slower, more bruising environment of the playoffs. He was also a skilled passer, which was why, in those early days, he touted his ability to play the point in the mode of LeBron.

He shared the ball happily and accepted every role asked of him while winning three Olympic gold medals with USA Basketball. With the Nuggets and Knicks, however, there were rarely any co-stars in whom he could trust. He played parts of three seasons in Denver with Allen Iverson, who was nearing the end. By the time Anthony came to New York, Amar’e Stoudemire was already breaking down. Anthony led the Knicks to their only postseason series victory of the last 18 years in 2012-13, when his most prolific teammate was J.R. Smith. Maybe you’ve heard of him.

One year ago, at the urging of Russell Westbrook and Paul George, the Thunder traded for Anthony. He earned the respect of Oklahoma City for his charity work. Anthony was reliable, consistent and sincere in his aid to the community. On the court, however, he appeared to be left behind by his younger teammates. Anthony shot a career-worst 40.4% and was victimized defensively.

When he was asked about coming off the Thunder bench next season, he insisted, stubbornly, that he had made enough sacrifices. Now OKC has announced that Anthony will not be coming back. The other day his representative was seen in Las Vegas speaking with the Rockets about a short-money deal to come off their bench as a power forward. He may be facing the same role in Los Angeles, if the Lakers are interested in signing him to join LeBron.

Anthony has had remarkable staying power. One by one Anthony’s classmates from the extraordinary 2003 Draft have fallen out of view, like runners in a race without a finish line. Chris Kaman, the number 6 pick whom the Heat nearly drafted instead of Wade, faded away after 13 seasons. T.J. Ford, the speedy number 8 pick, was struck down prematurely by a dangerous spinal cord injury. Bosh was forced into early retirement by blood clots, though there are suggestions that he may attempt a comeback.

David West (the number 18 pick) may be leaving the NBA, as the Warriors have no room to bring him back. Boris Diaw (number 21) is finishing his career in France. Kendrick Perkins (27) has played 15 minutes over the past two seasons, though he continues to make news for yelling at players on opposing teams. Luke Walton (32) is now coaching the Lakers, which means he may be working with Anthony next season.

In addition to Anthony, the four players of relevance from 2003 are Wade (5), who has yet to reveal if he will be returning to Miami in a substitute role next season; Kyle Korver (51), who may be leaving Cleveland now that James is no longer there; Zaza Pachulia (42), who has moved on from the Warriors to the Pistons; and LeBron, the ultimate outlier. While his peers were struggling to hang on, James recently earned his biggest contract from the Lakers after starting every game, leading the league in minutes and playing the best basketball of his career for Cleveland.

Anthony and James were viewed as “rivals” in their early seasons. James was named Rookie of the Year, but the award just as easily could have gone to Anthony, who generated 21 points per game while pushing the Nuggets to a 26-win gain over the previous year. Their “rivalry” never really existed, and talk of it eventually expired as Anthony and James deepened their friendship while teaming together with USA Basketball.

Anthony’s dropoff last season was stunning. His game was never founded in athleticism, and based on his offensive versatility and size, he should be a contributor for several more years. Along the way, however, he will have to transition to a complementary role, much as Wade has done in Miami. For the remainder of Anthony’s career, less will have to be more.

His willingness to fit in will define how he is remembered. If Anthony joins the Rockets, Lakers or another contender, provides the help they need and contributes to a title, then he will be cast for all time as an NBA champion who helped restore USA Basketball to the top of the basketball world.

But if isn’t able to prevail over these final few years? Then his critics, who are many, will claim the last word on him. At age 15, before Anthony experienced the growth spurt that made him attractive to college recruiters, he never could anticipated becoming an All-Star 10 times, making six All-NBA teams and scoring more than 27,000 points. He would not have imagined the expectations that came with his introduction by commissioner David Stern at the 2003 Draft.

There will be so much to celebrate someday. But not now.

Now, as he plots his farewell move, Anthony may feel as if he is running out of time.


NBAnswers is a newsletter from American insider Ian Thomsen for NBA fans everywhere.

Have an NBA question for Ian? Email him at ianthomsennba@gmail.com. He’ll answer your questions each Friday (available for subscribers only).

To buy The Soul of Basketball, the first American book for NBA fans around the world, please click here.