The New York Knicks had high expectations after acquiring Carmelo Anthony from Denver last month in the NBA’s biggest trade of the season, and the Nuggets feared losing the all-star forward would hurt their franchise.
Both lines of thinking seemed reasonable, except for one thing: Anthony is not a franchise player. That’s why Anthony’s arrival hasn’t helped the Knicks as they envisioned. It’s part of the reason his departure apparently hasn’t weakened the Nuggets.
To this point in his pro career, Anthony hasn’t taken the lead in making average teams good or good ones great. He hasn’t displayed the right temperament to shoulder the load during difficult times or set a positive example while others look to him for assurance. He’s just not “The Guy,” but the reality is few are in professional team sports.
Talented athletes are too often labeled as franchise players. The term is so misapplied that it seems many are elevated to top-rung status if they’re simply featured frequently in television highlight tapes.
Don’t get me wrong. Anthony is among the NBA’s most skilled players. He’s capable of outstanding performances, such as his 39-point, 10-rebound outing Monday in leading the Knicks to a victory in overtime against Orlando that ended their losing streak at six games. To be sure, Anthony is a major talent.
But talent is only a baseline trait of true franchise players, which Elgin Baylor reminded me. Baylor, 76, knows because he embodied what it means to be one.
The Hall of Famer and District native is arguably one of the top five players in NBA history. He was an acrobatic superstar, the predecessor of high-flying players such as Julius “Dr. J” Erving and Michael Jordan.
More importantly, though, Baylor’s performance and leadership helped stabilize the Los Angeles Lakers at a critical juncture in their history.
Baylor’s immense talent provided his foundation. “And it really all does start with the ability, the talent,” Baylor, not commenting specifically about Anthony, said in a phone interview Tuesday. “You have to have that if you want to be the guy.”
But, he continued, “there’s a lot more to it than just that. Do you want to lead? Do you want to take on all the responsibility that comes with it? Because if you want to be the guy, then it’s not just about the talent. A lot of guys have talent.”
Beyond his eye-opening statistical achievements, Baylor had the desire to lead. He understood the importance of the best player setting the right tone. He accepted being held accountable because that was part of being out front.
The Knicks are eager for Anthony to become their lead dog. Anthony, however, has not seized the opening, complaining about things in general and pouting on the bench at times while the Knicks lost nine of 10 since the trade.
“You have to have the right frame of mind, the right attitude,” Baylor said, again only commenting generally about the mental makeup of franchise players. “It was a subconscious thing for me. No one ever told me, ‘Go lead us.’ That was never said.
“But most really talented people, the people you’re talking about, they want to be the guy. I don’t how you put it in words, but I think it’s just a natural thing.
“Some guys don’t want to be. Some guys are very talented, but they just don’t want that responsibility. But then you’re not going to be” the guy.
Leading teams to sustained success is the most important attribute of franchise players. As a rookie during the 1958-59 season, Baylor led the Lakers, then still in Minneapolis, to the NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics, and he helped them reach the championship series seven more times before retiring during 1971-72 season, primarily because of lingering knee problems, without a title (the Lakers won their first championship in Los Angeles that season).
The Lakers-Celtics rivalry was forged during those years, and Baylor’s Lakers always fell short against the Celtics, who were led by Hall of Famer Bill Russell — the greatest franchise player ever in any sport.
“I’m from the old school, so I don’t know how people would think today, but I would think if you want to pick one player to win, and to win championships, you would have to pick Bill Russell,” Baylor said. “I would say Jordan . . . Jordan has got to be in the equation. Michael . . . he was special.
“But Russell played 13 years . . . the guy won 11 championships. Now, he had a lot of great players around him. You’ve got to have other players around you. But somehow, Russell always won. And he had the leadership. Like I said, that’s what a lot of guys don’t have.”
Baylor’s failure to win a championship in no way diminishes his credentials as a leader. Just as Peyton Manning’s inability to win more than one Super Bowl title to this point could not erase all he has done for the Indianapolis Colts.
Sometimes, you just face someone better.
And it’s hard to put it all together, as evidenced by the Redskins’ long, ongoing search for a franchise quarterback, the Capitals’ recent moves to acquire veteran leaders despite having the game’s most physically gifted player in Alex Ovechkin and the Wizards’ decision to place much responsibility on rookie point guard John Wall.
In New York, Knicks fans have quickly grown frustrated with Anthony because he hasn’t been all they expected.
They wanted more than a prolific scorer. They wanted more than an all-star. They wanted more than what Anthony is and something most players never will be.