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No Escape From New York

With Carmelo Anthony staying with the Knicks, will we ever find out how truly great he can be?

This wasn’t one of our happier years at the “You Can Absolutely Win a Title If Carmelo Anthony Is Your Best Player” Fan Club headquarters. Our man missed the 2014 playoffs in the rancid Eastern Conference, then received a rude comeuppance from his new Knicks boss, Phil Jackson, who lobbied him publicly to stick around at a discount price. The Bulls couldn’t carve out enough cap space for him. The Lakers couldn’t offer a good enough supporting cast. The Rockets never gained momentum, for whatever reason. Carmelo ended up re-signing for $122 million for five years, pretending that was the plan all along … even though it wasn’t.

You know what really shocked me? Hearing Knicks fans and Lakers fans wonder whether it was a smart idea to splurge on Carmelo at all. Where are you REALLY going if he’s your best player?, they kept asking. Take my friend Lewis, a lifelong Southern California guy, one of those complicated superfans who’s nutty enough to grow a beard for the entire NHL playoffs, only he’s rational enough to freak out over Kobe’s cap-crippling two-year extension, but he’s also irrational enough to still believe the Lakers could eventually sign Kevin Love AND Kevin Durant. You can always count on him for a rationally irrational reaction, if that makes sense.

Click here for more on 2014 NBA free agency.

When news broke two weekends ago that the Lakers had become serious Carmelo contenders, I couldn’t wait for Lewis’s reaction. After all, he reacted to last March’s Marian Gaborik trade as if his Kings had just acquired Gretzky again1 — I figured Carmelo would rank highly on the Gaborik Reaction Scale. Instead, here’s the email exchange we had.

Me: Are u officially in Carmelo mode?
Lewis: God no. Hope he goes to the Knicks.

Wait a second … my rationally irrational Lakers buddy didn’t want Carmelo?

Me: You don’t mean that.
Lewis: It’s a bandaid on a broken arm. It locks them up with no flexibility for two years until Kobe goes.

He didn’t want Carmelo Anthony??? On the Lakers???

I surfed a few Lakers blogs and message boards and found similar ambivalence. Some fans wanted him, others didn’t understand the point. Many felt like the rationally irrational Lewis — they wanted the Lakers to land a top-five lottery pick (if it’s lower than that, it goes to Phoenix), wipe Nash’s expiring contract off their cap, then make a run at the Kevins (Love in 2015, Durant in 2016). That’s a smart plan, except (a) they could easily stink and STILL lose that 2015 lottery pick,2 (b) Love will probably get traded this season (and might like his new team), (c) nobody knows what Durant wants to do, and (d) nobody knows if the post–Dr. Buss Lakers are still a destination franchise.

And it’s not like the Lakers are loaded with assets; they have Julius Randle, the promise of future cap space, the allure of Los Angeles and that’s about it. They’re owned by Jimmy Boy Buss. They owe Kobe $23.5 million this season and $25 million next season — nearly 40 percent of their cap — without even knowing if he can play at a high level anymore. The best asset on that side of Staples Center is probably Ramona Shelburne’s reporting for ESPN.com; she’s better than anyone on their actual team. The Lakers may have switched bodies with the Clippers two years ago and we just haven’t realized it yet.

Knowing that, how could any Lakers fan not want one of the best scoring forwards in NBA history? Why weren’t Knicks fans freaking out that they might lose their franchise player for nothing? Why were so many Bulls fans (and I know three of them) saying things like “I’d love to get Melo, but I hate the thought of giving up Taj [Gibson] for him”?

How did Carmelo Anthony, only 30 years old and still in his prime, become the NBA’s most underappreciated and misunderstood player?

The problems start here: Carmelo Anthony is definitely better than your typical All-Star, but he’s not quite a superstar. You know what that makes him? An almost-but-not-quite-superstar. He’s not Leo DiCaprio or Will Smith — he can’t open a movie by himself. He’s more like Seth Rogen or Channing Tatum — he can open the right movie by himself. There’s a big difference.

Here’s something I wrote on July 8, 2010, the day that LeBron took his talents to South Beach.

I need my NBA superstar to sell tickets, generate interest locally and nationally, single-handedly guarantee an average supporting cast 45-50 wins, and potentially be the best player on a Finals team if the other pieces are in place, which means only LeBron, Wade, Howard, Durant and Kobe qualify. There’s a level just a shade below (the Almost-But-Not-Quite-Superstar) with Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki, Carmelo Anthony, Brandon Roy, Chris Paul and Deron Williams. (Note: I think Derrick Rose gets there next season.) Then you have elite guys like Bosh, Pau Gasol and Amar’e Stoudemire who need good teammates to help them thrive … and if they don’t have them, you’re heading to the lottery. You know what we call these people? All-Stars.

Sorry, Portland fans — I made a mistake not telling you to take a deep breath before you read that paragraph. My bad. But exactly four years later, those levels look like this.

Superstars: LeBron, Durant.

Almost-But-Not-Quite-Superstars: Blake Griffin, Dwight Howard, Anthony Davis, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Love, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Paul George.

All-Stars: Stephen Curry, James Harden, LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard, Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Joakim Noah, Chris Bosh, Derrick Rose (if healthy), Rajon Rondo (if healthy), Kobe Bryant (???).

A few semi-stunned notes about that revised list. First, two true superstars is the NBA’s lowest number since 1979, the season before Bird and Magic showed up. Second, Anthony Davis is our only superstar in waiting right now … well, unless you feel like bending the rules and counting Joel Embiid If He Stays Healthy or my illegitimate Australian son, Ben Simmons (a frighteningly gifted high schooler who looks like Benji Wilson 2.0).3

(SIMMONS IS COMING!)

Third, we’re in the middle of an under-30 talent boom that’s as loaded as any run since the early ’90s, and yet we dipped from 11 superstars and almost-but-not-quite-superstars in 2010 to 10 of those guys in 2014. Six dropped out and five jumped in, not including Rose, who briefly careered into the superstar group in 2011 and 2012.4 (You also could have talked me into putting Curry, Harden and Aldridge on the Almost-But-Not-Quite-Superstar list after enough drinks.) I didn’t expect that much turnover. Four years doesn’t seem like that long of a time, right?

And fourth, Carmelo’s 2014 level was a tougher call than everyone else’s combined. After all, he’s made one conference finals and zero Finals. He’s never won more than 54 regular-season games or made an All-NBA first team, although he did finish third in 2013’s MVP voting (no small feat). He’s made only seven All-Star teams in 11 years (two fewer than Chris Bosh). Most damning, Carmelo has lost nearly twice as many playoff games as he has won: 23 wins, 44 losses. You can’t even use the whole “Look, Carmelo can drag any mediocre team to 44 wins and the playoffs!” argument anymore — not after last season.

So what’s left? Can’t we downgrade him to All-Star and be done with it? Isn’t 11 years enough time to know — to truly, unequivocally know — whether it’s with television shows, music groups, girlfriends, quarterbacks or basketball players?

For me, it keeps coming back to one question: Can you win the NBA championship if Carmelo Anthony is your best player?

The short answer: Yes.

You can.

Unfortunately, we need to compare Carmelo to a better player to prove that point. The 2011 Mavericks won the title with a veteran team built around a spectacular coach (Rick Carlisle), an elite rim protector (Tyson Chandler), an elite perimeter defender (Shawn Marion), an elite heat-check guy (Jason Terry), quality 3-point shooting (39.4 percent and 184 made 3s in 21 playoff games), savvy team defense and one historically good scorer with crunch-time chops (Dirk Nowitzki). If you believe Carmelo can lead a championship team, you’re leaning heavily on that 2011 Mavs playbook — you’d need all the elements we just covered, and you’d need Carmelo to unleash a damned good Dirk impression.

Only one problem: Dirk was better than Carmelo is.

Dirk is one of the 20 best basketball players of all time by any calculation. He’s the best foreign player ever not named Hakeem. Of the 10 best forwards ever, he’s behind Bird, LeBron and Duncan, right there with Doc, Elgin and Pettit, and ahead of Malone, Barkley and Rick Barry.5 He won an MVP and a Finals MVP. He made four first-team All-NBA’s and five second-team All-NBA’s. He won 50-plus games for 11 straight years, topped 60 wins three times, made two Finals, beat LeBron and Wade in the Finals, and won a Game 7 in San Antonio during Duncan’s prime.

And it’s not like he had a ton of help. In 15 years, he played with only four All-Stars: Jason Kidd (2010), Josh Howard (2007), Steve Nash (2002 and 2003) and Michael Finley (2000 and 2001). Amazing but true: Dirk never played with a Hall of Famer in that Hall of Famer’s prime.

During Dirk’s decade-long peak (2002 through 2011), he averaged 24.5 points and 8.8 rebounds and came damned close to creating the 10-Year 50-40-90 Club (48% FG, 39% 3FG, 89% FT). His career PER (23.48) ranks 19th all time, just behind Doc (23.58) and Bird (23.5) and just ahead of Kobe (23.36). And he was an absolutely phenomenal playoff performer: 25.6 PPG (12th all time), 24.2 PER (12th), 22.6 win shares (16th), stellar 46-37-89% splits in 135 games, and a couple of epic multigame hot streaks in 2006 and 2011. Along with Pettit, Hakeem and Elgin, he’s one of four players in the shot-clock era who averaged 25 and 10 in the playoffs. And he’s an underrated leader, a famously fantastic locker-room guy, an insanely hard worker and someone who, by all accounts, everyone loved playing with at every point of his career.

That’s why I dislike comparing Carmelo and Dirk. But I keep coming back to these two playoff lines:

2011 Dirk (21 games): 27.7 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 2.5 apg, 49-46-94%, 8.9 FTA, 25.2 PER
2009 Melo (16 games): 27.2 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 4.1 apg, 45-36-83%, 9.0 FTA, 24.3 PER

It’s not THAT far off, right? The 2009 Nuggets were Carmelo’s best team; they fell to Kobe’s Lakers in Round 3 with a poor man’s version of the 2011 Mavs. George Karl wasn’t Carlisle. Nene and Kenyon Martin couldn’t protect the rim like Chandler. They didn’t have a perimeter defender anywhere close to Marion’s caliber. They couldn’t shoot 3s nearly as well (only 31 percent for that Lakers series). They relied way too heavily on J.R. Smith, who imploded against Kobe and got outscored 204 points to 76 points.6 Their bench consisted of Dahntay Jones, Linas Kleiza, Chris Andersen and Anthony Carter, or, as it’s better known, the Pu Pu Platter Deluxe. And Melo’s best teammate, Chauncey Billups, played two great rounds before turning into a human icicle against the Lakers (39.7% FG, 33.3% 3FG).

Again, in all caps … THAT’S THE MOST TALENTED PROFESSIONAL BASKETBALL TEAM THAT CARMELO ANTHONY EVER PLAYED ON.

The second-best team? You might remember them self-destructing just 14 months ago — it was the 2013 Knicks squad that won 54 games in a lousy conference with Melo, a past-his-peak Chandler, J.R. Smith, Ray Felton, a washed-up K-Mart, Iman Shumpert, Chris Copeland, Pablo Prigioni, a hobbled Amar’e Stoudemire and the immortal Mike Woodson coaching.

Again, in all caps … THAT’S THE SECOND-MOST TALENTED PROFESSIONAL BASKETBALL TEAM THAT CARMELO ANTHONY EVER PLAYED ON.

So could Carmelo morph into 2011 Dirk if you gave him the right situation? We don’t know because he’s never been in the right situation. Why do you think his agents frantically tried to shoehorn him into Chicago’s cap these last few weeks? The money couldn’t work unless the Knicks agreed to a sign-and-trade with Carlos Boozer’s expiring deal (no thanks!) and some future picks (thanks anyway!). As a last gasp, they used the Lakers as negotiating leverage (you better sign-and-trade Melo to Chicago or you’ll lose him for nothing!), only Jackson smartly sniffed it out. That left Carmelo with three choices:

Choice No. 1: Grab $122 million over five years from New York, play with another inferior team, miss the Finals for his 12th straight season, and pin the rest of his prime — which he’s never getting back, by the way — on Jackson’s promise that “We’ll Have Gobs of Cap Space in the Summer of 2015!!!”

Choice No. 2: Grab $97 million over four years from the Lakers, become the new face of the second-greatest NBA franchise ever, move to Southern California, dabble in the whole Hollywood thing (yes, his wife is an actress), pick his own head coach, convince Pau Gasol to re-sign there, hope Kobe spent the summer training with Barry Bonds, Lance Armstrong and A-Rod, hope they can flip Nash’s expiring contract into one more asset, make some noise next spring and hope the Kevins join him in 2015 and 2016. That’s a lot of hoping, by the way.

Choice No. 3: Sign a four-year deal in Chicago for less money (starting around $14-15 million), become the crunch-time guy for an absolutely loaded Bulls team, and answer every question anyone ever asked about him.

I wanted him to sign with Chicago for less money — a wildly unrealistic outcome that was never going to happen. Even typing the sentence “For God’s sake, Carmelo, you’ve made over $135 million in salary already, not counting endorsements and whatever this next deal pays you, so it’s not like you’re a candidate for Broke II — why wasn’t it worth giving up some dough to play for the right team???” looks dumb and naive. I don’t blame him for grabbing the money. He can always force a trade if he’s not happy, right?

At the same time, I wanted to know once and for all. I wanted to know how good Carmelo Anthony is. Because, right now, I believe the following things:

1. He’s one of the best natural scorers I’ve ever seen.
2. He’s one of the NBA’s eight or nine best players and has been for some time.
3. He could win you a title on his version of the 2011 Mavs.

Again, those are just opinions. But what am I about to present to you? All facts.

1. His best team ever was the 2009 Nuggets. (Covered above.)

2. His best teammates ever: Chauncey Billups (post-Detroit version), Allen Iverson (post-Philly version), Andre Miller, Marcus Camby, Amar’e Stoudemire (post-Phoenix version, right as his knees were going), Tyson Chandler (post-Dallas version), Kenyon Martin (post-Nets version), Nene (never an All-Star — not once) and the one and only J.R. Smith.

3. He never played with anyone who made an All-NBA team except for Billups (third team, 2009), Chandler (third team, 2012) and Amar’e (second team, 2011).7

4. He had only four teammates make an All-Star Game: Iverson (2007, 2008), Billups (2009, 2010), Amar’e (2011) and Chandler (2013).

5. He had five head coaches in 11 years: Jeff Bzdelik (never coached again), Michael Cooper (became a WNBA coach), George Karl (coached 1,887 games, only won two Finals games), Mike D’Antoni (sadly, he coached again) and Mike Woodson (now a career assistant). Meanwhile, Dirk had three coaches in 15 years: Don Nelson (Hall of Famer), Avery Johnson (made a Finals and also won 67 games in a season) and Rick Carlisle (future Hall of Famer).

6. Dirk has spent his entire career with the same owner — the lovable and influential Mark Cuban, who didn’t always make the right moves, but built a state-of-the-art organization and spent as much money as anyone. Carmelo spent seven years in Denver enduring multiple front-office power struggles, then had multiple Knicks GMs in four years (not counting CAA’s brief takeover last season). Oh, and he had this guy calling the shots.

(The real irony here: Carmelo had only one truly competent front-office mind in 11 years. Who was it? Masai Ujiri … who traded Carmelo to New York in 2011 once Carmelo made it clear he was signing there anyway. Carmelo = not blameless. By any means.)

7. He suffered bad luck two different times — when an already loaded Pistons team unbelievably picked Darko over him in 2003, and when his agent didn’t follow LeBron’s and Wade’s lead by putting a three-year out into Melo’s first contract extension (with Denver). In the summer of 2010, Melo could have stolen Bosh’s spot in Miami or jumped to the up-and-coming Bulls, only he couldn’t get out of his deal for another year. Those were his two best chances to find a true contender. 0-for-2.

8. Here’s how much Carmelo’s teams have relied on him since 2003 — right now, he owns the fifth-highest career usage rate ever (31.7 percent), trailing only Jordan (33.2 percent), Wade (31.9 percent), Iverson (31.8 percent) and Kobe (31.8 percent). In the playoffs, he has the fourth-highest career usage rate ever (32.6 percent), trailing only Jordan (35.6 percent), Iverson 34.3 percent and T-Mac (33.5 percent). On the other hand, he has played with only two 20-point scorers (Iverson in 2007 and 2008, Amar’e in 2011) and three guys who averaged more than 15 points (Billups in 2009 and 2010, Amar’e in 2012, and J.R. in 2013). I mean, didn’t someone have to shoot?

9. Carmelo is averaging 25.3 points for his entire career. Only 13 players averaged at least 25 points, and only 10 have a higher average than Melo: Jordan (30.1), Wilt (30.1), LeBron (27.5), Durant (27.4), Elgin (27.4), West (27.0), Iverson (26.7), Pettit (26.4), Oscar (25.7) and Kobe (25.5). Yes, that’s a list with six Hall of Famers and four future Hall of Famers.

10. He averaged 20 points or more for each of his first 11 seasons. Only 11 other players accomplished that: Jordan, Wilt, Kareem, LeBron, Shaq, Hakeem, Ewing, Iverson, Pettit, Barry and Erving. Nine Hall of Famers, three future Hall of Famers.

11. He’s one of 10 players to score 62 points or more in an NBA game.

12. If you’re thinking about him historically, he’s never getting to the Bird-LeBron-Barry level for small forwards. All three were true superstars. But he’s right up there with anyone else. Check out the first 11 seasons of five superb small forwards: Dominique Wilkins, Adrian Dantley, Melo, Paul Pierce and Bernard King.

Regular Season
• ’Nique (829 games): 26.5 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 47-32-81%, 22.2 PER, 37.0 mpg, 30.4 usg, 101.6 WS
• Dantley (758 games): 26.0 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 55-18-82%, 22.3 PER, 37.1 mpg, 26.7 usg, 114.2 WS
• Melo (790 games): 25.3 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 46-35-81%, 21.2 PER, 36.5 mpg, 31.7 usg, 83.1 WS
• Pierce (813 games): 22.9 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 44-37-80%, 21.0 PER, 37.5 mpg, 28.4 usg, 104.3 WS
• King (615 games): 22.9 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 54-14-70%, 19.5 per, 34.7 mpg, 26.9 usg, 60.2 WS

Playoffs
• ’Nique (51 g’s): 26.4 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 2.6 apg, 43-24-82%, 18.7 PER, 39.6 mpg, 31.9 usg, 3.1 WS
• Dantley (47 g’s): 23.6 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 2.6 apg, 53-00-80%, 20.3 PER, 36.0 mpg, 25.4 usg, 6.1 WS
• Melo (66 g’s): 25.7 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 2.8 apg, 42-32-83%, 19.9 PER, 39.1 mpg, 32.6 usg, 5.7 WS
• Pierce (77 g’s): 22.2 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 4.4 apg, 42-33-83%, 19.4 PER, 40.3 mpg, 27.6 usg, 9.5 WS
• King (25 g’s): 27.2 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 2.6 apg, 56-25-73%, 22.6 PER, 36.4 MPG, 28.5 usg, 3.4 WS

Best Playoff Run
• ’84 King (12 g’s): 34.8 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 3.0 apg, 57% FG, 27.6 PER, 39.8 mpg, .234 ws/48
• ’09 Melo (16 g’s): 27.2 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 4.1 apg, 45% FG, 24.3 PER, 38.3 mpg, .201 ws/48
• ’84 Dantley (11 g’s): 32.2 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 4.2 apg, 50% FG, 24.7 PER, 41.3 mpg, .207 ws/48
• ’03 Pierce (10 g’s): 27.0 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 6.7 apg, 40% FG, 23.0 PER, 44.5 mpg, .179 ws/48
• ’88 ’Nique (12 g’s): 31.2 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 2.8 apg, 46% FG, 22.9 PER, 39.4 mpg, .113 ws/48

You couldn’t have pulled a 2011 Mavs with ’Nique (the most exciting of the group), Pierce (the most durable and the best two-way player) or Dantley (the most unconventional); none of those three was quite overpowering enough, even if each could have been an overqualified second banana on a title team. (And in 2008, Pierce was.) Bernard doubled as the most frightening non-Jordan scorer I’ve ever seen in my life — he took the 1984 Celts to a Game 7 by himself, for God’s sake. My team threw Kevin McHale (the NBA’s best defender at the time) and Cedric Maxwell at him, with Bird helping and Robert Parish protecting the rim, and it just didn’t matter. 1984 Playoff Bernard ascended into that Bird-Elgin-Barry group, then remained there until he blew out his knee 10 months later.

Carmelo? He’s 92 percent as frightening as 1984 Playoff Bernard was. He’s just playing in a more difficult league — better scouting, better game planning, better defenses, better athletes, better everything. In 1984, Carmelo would have been single-teamed by the likes of Dantley and Kelly Tripucka and Mark Aguirre, night after night after night, and would have torched absolutely everybody. He would have averaged 34 per game like Bernard did during the 1984-85 season. By the way, this is coming from someone who REVERED Bernard.8

13. Just for fun, the best two-year regular-season runs for Bernard, ‘Nique Wilkins, Dirk and Carmelo:

• King (1984-85): 29.1 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 2.8 apg, 55-07-78%, 23.8 PER, 35.8 mpg, 31.5 usage
• ’Nique (1986-87): 29.7 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 3.0 apg, 47-25-82%, 23.4 PER, 38.3 mpg, 32.6 usage
• Dirk (2006-07): 25.6 ppg, 8.9 rpg, 3.1 apg, 49-41-90%, 27.8 PER, 37.2 mpg, 29.5 usage
• Melo (2013-14): 28.0 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 2.9 apg, 45-39-84%, 24.6 PER, 37.9 mpg, 33.9 usage

14. You realize that Carmelo is better right now than he’s ever been, right?

• Years 1-2: 20.9 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 43-30-79%, 17.2 PER, 35.7 mpg, 28.8 usage, .094 WS/48
• Years 3-9: 25.9 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 46-33-81%, 21.4 PER, 36.3 mpg, 32.0 usage, .140 WS/48
• Years 10-11: 28.0 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 45-39-84%, 24.6 PER, 37.9 mpg, 33.9 usage, .177 WS/48

As his offensive workload has increased, he’s figured out how to become even MORE efficient by expanding his shooting range to 25 feet … only he’s never stopped getting to the free throw line, either.

• Years 1-2 (attempts): 14.8 2s (44.9%), 2.4 3s (29.9%) and 7.0 FT’s (78.7%)
• Years 3-9 (attempts): 17.3 2s (48.5%), 2.6 3s (32.9%) and 8.0 FT’s (81.1%)
• Years 10-11 (attempts): 16.0 2s (47.2%), 5.8 3s (39.1%) and 7.3 FT’s (84.0%)

And you know what else? Carmelo never received enough credit for playing efficiently as a hybrid small forward/stretch 4, especially last season, when he was saddled with the NBA’s worst starting point guard (Felton, a complete zero on both ends); J.R. Smith’s abominable start (first 29 games: 11.3 PPG, 35% FG); Chandler’s lousy-for-him season (he quietly mailed in more games than anybody); the washed-up trifecta of Amar’e, K-Mart and Metta World Peace; some unforgettably awful coaching from Mike Woodson; and nothing from Andrea Bargnani other than this hysterical YouTube clip.

That pathetic Knicks team didn’t employ a single creator who could get Melo wide-open jumpers off slash-and-kick drives. They couldn’t get him any fast-break points because nobody on the team could run a freaking fast break. So what’s left? Just a slew of possessions, one after the other, with everyone standing around waiting for Carmelo to do something. They were like the pickup team from hell, only Carmelo couldn’t just throw the game and hop on someone else’s team.

Everyone bitched about his “ball-stopping” — something of which he’s definitely been guilty, from time to time, over the past few years — but when your coach is in a basketball coma and your entire offense has degenerated into “throw the ball to Melo and he’ll have to create a shot,” what do you expect? Every opponent went into every Knicks game saying, “As long as we don’t let Carmelo kill us, we’re winning tonight.” And he still threw up 28 a night and played the most efficient basketball of his career. That’s a fact. It just wasn’t that much fun to watch.

15. Melo is the same person as Olympic Melo — the devastating shooter who shows up every two years for international competition and makes open 3 after open 3 like he’s playing a pop-a-shot game. I love Olympic Melo. So do you.

If you think of him like a Hall of Fame wide receiver — say, Larry Fitzgerald — Carmelo’s career makes more sense. Fitz tossed up monster stats with Kurt Warner throwing to him. Once the likes of John Skelton and Kevin Kolb started passing through his life, he wasn’t throwing up monster stats anymore. But nobody ever stopped believing Fitz was great. We made excuses for him that weren’t even excuses.

Poor Fitz. We need to find him a QB. What a shame. What a waste of a great talent. He’s losing his prime and he’s never gonna get it back.

Why didn’t we ever feel sorry for Carmelo? It’s simple — he placed himself in this situation. He could have waited until the summer of 2011, opted out of his first Nuggets extension and signed with New York as a free agent. Instead, his agents forced a midseason trade that kept his previous contract in place (more money, more leverage). Here’s what that extra money effectively cost them (and Carmelo): Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, their 2014 first-round pick (turned out to be 11th overall), and a first-round pick swap in 2016. Four super-tradable assets … out the window.

A few other players were involved, including Felton and Timofey Mozgov (sent to Denver) and Billups (sent to New York). And that’s where this deal gets darker. After the 2011 lockout ended, the Knicks used their amnesty on Billups solely to create cap room to sign Tyson Chandler. When Amar’e degenerated into The Artist Formerly Known As Amar’e two seasons ago, they didn’t have an amnesty left to snuff out his remaining $40 million. Whoops. Unable to improve their roster last summer, they stumbled into the comically bad Bargnani trade. This summer, they couldn’t sign any impact players.

All in all, that was a catastrophic trade considering Denver didn’t have any leverage whatsoever. And it happened because Carmelo wanted more money — the same choice he made last weekend, again, and the same choice you and I would probably make too. Carmelo inadvertently created the narrative that threatens to defines him. There’s a good chance he will play his entire career, then retire, without ever finding the right team. Unless the Knicks miraculously strike oil next summer, his own version of the 2011 Mavericks can’t happen. His prime will come and go, and that will be that.

There was an alternate universe here — Chicago, for less money, for a chance to become Olympic Melo for nine months per year. He would have been flanked by Joakim Noah, Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler, Doug McDermott, Nikola Mirotic, Kirk Hinrich and a top-five coach (Tom Thibodeau). He would have found his 2011 Mavs. He would have played on a 60-win team, been the crunch-time guy on a title favorite, reminded everyone how terrific he was over and over again. Thirty years from now, long after he has retired and hopefully spent his more than $300 million nest egg wisely, Carmelo will be sitting on the porch of one of his nine houses, nursing a drink, staring out at an ocean and thinking about the unknown. Should he have picked Chicago? How much money is enough money? What’s the price of peace? What would it have been worth to know — to really, truly know? Was he good enough? Could he have gotten there? Did he have it in him?

Instead, he’ll have to settle for people like me: the ones maintaining that he WAS good enough, only it’s an opinion and not a fact. In A Bronx Tale, Sonny famously tells Calogero that “the saddest thing in life is wasted talent.” Well, what happens if you didn’t waste your talent, but it kind of got wasted anyway? Welcome to Carmelo Anthony’s world. What if, what if, what if.

 

An earlier version of this column erroneously stated that George Karl had never made the Finals.

Filed Under: NBA, New York Knicks, Carmelo Anthony, 2014 NBA Free Agency

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Bill Simmons is the editor-in-chief of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, click here.

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