Carmelo Anthony’s 31-point outburst Wednesday not only went a long way toward helping the U.S. men’s basketball team avoid an embarrassing loss to Australia; it reminded some observers that he is actually really good at basketball. That fact has been somewhat buried during Anthony’s run with the Knicks, especially over the past three seasons, in which the team has gone 86-160.
New York has made some dramatic moves in the offseason, adding the likes of Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Courtney Lee and Brandon Jennings to go with Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis, but it still doesn’t look like a legitimate title contender. With Anthony now 32, there is a strong possibility that he will end his career without a trip to the NBA Finals, let alone a championship — this from a player widely considered to be near LeBron James in ability when both entered the league in 2003.
Anthony had just led Syracuse to an NCAA title in his only year in college, so he can always look back on that with pride. In addition, as a four-time member of Team USA, he is on track to win his third gold medal, to go with a bronze in 2004, and it sounds as if he could be satisfied with those career accomplishments.
“Most athletes don’t have an opportunity to say that they won a gold medal, better yet three gold medals,” Anthony told ESPN’s Marc Stein on Thursday. “I would be very happy walking away from the game knowing that I’ve given the game everything I have, knowing I played on a high level at every level: high school, college, won [a championship at Syracuse] in college and possibly three gold medals.
“I can look back on it when my career is over — if I don’t have an NBA championship ring — and say I had a great career.”
Anthony has certainly had a great Olympic career. Wednesday’s effort also made him the U.S. men’s all-time leading scorer (293 points) in the Olympics, passing James (273), who declined to go to Rio. Anthony, with 101 rebounds in Olympic play, is also second only to David Robinson (124) among American men in that category, and he is the only such player to score over 30 points twice in the Games, including a team-record 37 against Nigeria in 2012.
In that light, there’s a good argument to be made that Anthony is the greatest-ever U.S. Olympic men’s basketball player. But if he fails to win an NBA title, that might not be enough to alter a narrative that his post-college career has been a disappointment.
Anthony is sure to be remembered as among the best scorers of his time, but he has also endured criticism for being a selfish, inefficient player, or at least one who fails to make his teammates better. With basketball being the major team sport in which a superstar player can have the greatest impact, Anthony has only twice led teams past the first round of the playoffs and just once to the conference finals.
In fairness, though, he has never had the kind of help James and others, including Jordan, have enjoyed. His best teammates were probably late-career Allen Iverson and Chauncey Billups in Denver, and New York’s personnel moves, apart from drafting Porzingis, have largely been disasters.
It is also possible to point to a maturing game, noting that while Anthony posted his lowest points-per-game average (21.8) last season since his second year in the league, he notched a career high in assists (4.2) and his rebounding (7.7) was well above his career average (6.6). In any event, few would deny that Anthony has been a very successful player for Team USA, where, of course, he is surrounded by elite talent and does not have the pressure to elevate lesser teammates.
If Anthony continues to perform like Team USA’s best player in Rio, especially in the elimination rounds, that could go a long way toward enhancing his legacy. It is unlikely that James or the hyper-competitive Jordan would ever have been “very happy” to potentially retire without an NBA title, but Anthony appears to be wired differently, and ultimately, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that.
“Of course, because we play in the NBA that’s always the goal: to win an NBA championship,” Anthony told Stein. “But every year [there’s] a new champion, so you have an opportunity to compete for a championship every year. This is every four years.”