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Carmelo Anthony is the best basketball player who never played the game

The game is undefeated. Nobody ever said basketball was fair.

Basketball - Olympics: Day 16 Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Anybody can understand the game of basketball. It doesn’t take much to grasp how the game is played within the rules that govern the sport. For those who frequent this site, I probably don’t need to spell all of that out for you.

But there’s another game that goes on beyond the actual game of basketball that gets played that’s not so obvious. I’m not talking about the game within the game where you try to score more points than the guy guarding you, or the one where you try to win a four minute segment before the next timeout.

I’m talking about the game that goes on beyond the confines of the parquet and it’s one that I can’t help but think of when it comes to Carmelo Anthony. After months of radio silence, Melo made his first public comments since the Houston Rockets parted ways with him after just 10 games last NBA season. On Friday he appeared on ESPN’s First Take.

Since the unceremonious split with the Rockets, Anthony has spend much of his time in limbo, searching for his next NBA team while simultaneously wondering whether his time as a basketball player is finished. Anthony, of course, is one of the greatest basketball players and pure scorers of all-time. Whether his career is finished or not, he’ll walk away from the sport of basketball as one of the best to ever play.

He’s a 10-time NBA All-Star and six-time All-NBA selection. He’s won three gold medals with USA Basketball and is widely considered the greatest Olympic men’s basketball player ever. As everybody here knows, Melo led Syracuse to the 2003 National Championship as the Final Four’s MOP in his lone collegiate season and has since had a practice facility named after him at SU. He’s unequivocally a future Hall-of-Famer.

But despite all that Melo has accomplished on the court, I’m not convinced that he ever played the game off the court after hearing his comments on Friday.

First, whether or not you think Stephen A. Smith is a bonafide scrub, I give him a great deal of credit for asking Carmelo some very tough questions that the basketball world needed answers to.

I also give a ton of credit to Carmelo, who spoke candidly about his career. He didn’t sound like a man defeated so much as one who just wanted to set the record straight. Perhaps there was a hint of desperation in all of this, but you have to give him some respect for talking in earnest about his time with the New York Knicks, as well as unsuccessful stops in Oklahoma City and in Houston. He was even honest about how it was difficult for him to accept a bench role. After his comments about the political nature of the NBA, I’m even under the impression that he understands the game despite not having played it.

Melo knows very well that he’s still one of the best basketball players in the world. So do many current players around the league who have vouched for him.

There are 30 NBA teams, each with 15-man rosters. You do math, and there sure aren’t 450 basketball players in the world better than Carmelo Anthony right now. But to be beguiled into believing that the NBA is simply a meritocracy is naive. If it were solely about accomplishment, Carmelo absolutely has a place in the league right now.

So what gives and when did Carmelo turn into a basketball pariah?

Milwaukee Bucks v New York Knicks Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Melo began his professional career with the Denver Nuggets when he was drafted No. 3 overall in the 2003 NBA Draft. He got off to an auspicious start, becoming one of the youngest players to ever score 1,000 points — he would have won the Rookie of the Year award too if it weren’t for LeBron James.

Carmelo was the franchise player that many GM’s dream about and he served as the centerpiece during the Nuggets turnaround in the 2000’s. Denver went from an NBA worst 17 wins in 2002-03 to the Western Conference Finals in 2009 with Carmelo leading the charge (along with some key players mixed in along the way).

But things weren’t always rosy in Denver throughout that stretch as Carmelo’s defense, or lack thereof, drew the ire of head coach George Karl, who later wrote as much in his book Furious George. Karl never had the most sterling reputation with his players, but things began to sour in the Mile High City and Melo eventually requested a trade.

After the long-standing drama in Denver, Anthony would end up with the New York Knicks during the 2010-11 NBA season. The drama didn’t stop on broadway and as Melo’s tenure went on in New York, the league began to shift. The mid-range game was already dying, but as time went on it became less and less efficient to go one-on-one from the mid- to low-post.

Whether they deserve full credit or not, the Golden State Warriors pace and space gentrification changed the way basketball was played. Specialists were in vogue as 3-and-D players became important while Melo, well, #StayedMe7o.

After multiple head coaching changes and behind the scenes tomfoolery in the Knicks front office, Anthony was traded from New York to Oklahoma City at the start of the 2017-18 basketball season. As soon as Carmelo was introduced in OKC, he scoffed at the idea of coming off the bench.

Melo was no longer the No. 1 option on offense and the game demanded him to become a catch and shoot player without needing the ball in his hands to create. That experiment was, by a large, a failed one as OKC never truly figured it out and exited in the first round of the 2018 playoffs.

In August of last year, Melo signed a one year deal with the Houston Rockets. He didn’t “fit” with what management had previously envisioned and was waived just as quickly as he signed. From that point until last Friday, Melo went dark. During that hiatus, rumors surfaced about which team he would sign with next. More rumors circled about Melo being done in the NBA.

That’s led us to the point we’re at now with Carmelo Anthony feeling the need to appear on First Take to set things straight. He bought what New York was selling, was reticent to accept a different role in OKC and by the time he reached Houston he was already damaged goods and got a raw deal. On Friday, Melo admitted that he didn’t want to handle the political warfare behind the scenes. All he wanted to do was continue to play the on-court game of basketball. Who could blame him?

I’m sure all of that was very hard to handle. Change is always difficult and in this case, the league tried to force Melo into becoming something he was not. Melo was always the top dog on every team he played with until he reached OKC and by the time he reached the Thunder, the game had already changed. That’s easy to understand from the outside looking in, but harder to fathom when it happens to you.

You suffer your way to wisdom and it appears as though Melo has reached that point of understanding. As he eloquently put it, “I felt like I loved the game more than the game loved me.”


The game is a soulless entity and it doesn’t love anyone back. Some have created great livelihoods from it, but the game will never equally reciprocate what is given to it. It always takes more than it gives — that’s just the way it is. Nobody is bigger than the game itself.

It’s the people who play and are involved in the game that give meaning to it. It’s the passion that we all share for it and moments we give that offer reason to love it.

Reasonable minds can disagree on all of that, but I think most would agree that Melo doesn’t deserve to go out this way. Unfortunately, that’s not how the game works. As a great writer who once frequented these parts opined: Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.

If you talk with those toward the end of their careers, some might tell you that it becomes about survival. Even when a pawn becomes a king, it’s still a playing piece — it’s rare that one gets to walk away from the game on their own terms. More often than not, somebody else decides your fate for you. The game lets you know when it no longer needs your services.

As for Melo specifically, maybe it was a lack of self-awareness that plagued him in Oklahoma City and in Houston. Perhaps it was an unwillingness on inability to change as the league evolved and an impartiality toward playing politics. Maybe Melo should even be commended for not stooping to the game’s level and for staying true to himself.

Exiled from the sport temporarily, basketball will eventually have another place for Carmelo whether his playing days are finished or not. But for now, he just might be the best basketball player who never played the game.

For stories like this, follow James on twitter @JamesSzuba