The Three Only Suitable Destinations for the Nearly, but Not Completely Washed Up, Carmelo Anthony
Carmelo Anthony is one of the most unique and dominant offensive players of his generation. The 10 time all-star and 3 time Olympian has had the gift of getting buckets since before even stepping onto an NBA court over 15 years ago. Lest we forget the young, baby faced, cornrowed Carmelo; leading Syracuse to a national title as a freshman in 2003 (and me to my second consecutive bracket pool win as an 8th grader--shout out to Juan Dixon and the Terrapins my 7th grade year, when literally everyone picked Duke to repeat). Or the year after when in his NBA debut season he lead all rookies in scoring (21.0 ppg) and lifted the lowly Denver Nuggets to their first playoff appearance after a woeful eight year drought (In the Western Conference no less), and finishing up a spectacular rookie campaign with a second place finish for the 2004 rookie of the year award. This after having been robbed of the honor in favor of the non-playoff reaching, LeBron James (In the East no less).
If you hadn't guessed it by now that despite the snarky title of this column, I am a Carmelo Anthony fan-- albeit in recovery. Former ultra-fan, like favorite basketball player in the league throughout my adolescence to young adulthood. In fact, if you close your eyes, click your heels three times and remember Carmelo's first 10 years in the league (that's 7.5 years in Denver and first 2.5 in New York), you might remember the narrative on Carmelo was not only that of dynamic scorer/offensive superstar, but also that of a winner who was once believed to be a foundation player of which a championship team could be built upon.
As I mentioned before, Melo resurrected a very much dead Nuggets franchise and lead them to the playoffs every year he played there, including a Western Conference Finals run in 2009 going down in 6 games to the eventual champion Lakers. In 2013 Carmelo led the Knicks to a 54 win season, won the league scoring title (28.9 ppg), and effectively put to rest the Celtics' Eastern conference mini dynasty after eliminating them in the first round of the playoffs.
Okay. So i cherry picked the only two times Carmelo ever got out of the first round. So what? He still made two pretty awful franchises somewhat pseudo relevant (for a time), he still had the Syracuse thing going for him, and he was still getting buckets at an All-NBA clip. The narrative was still positive for Carmelo and I think the fan in me still thought there was a chance for a Nowitzkian type of run at a championship. Keep Melo as the centerpiece and add some quality pieces to surround him and he could make a legacy cementing run just like Dirk did. Right?
However the last five years have done nothing except decimate Carmelo's reputation and fairly or unfairly, has reduced his status down to a Tier 3 Hall of Famer at best. Instead of the Dirk-like narrative that I had hoped for, Melo has instead been the centerpiece of Knicks teams that were straight up dumpster-fires. Perennial punching bags and punch lines of NBA basketball and the dialogue surrounding it. All the while fans and spectators bore witness to Carmelo's proficiency as a scorer diminish year after year.
Melo in his current form has become synonymous with cancerous basketball pseudonyms like "ball stopper" and "black hole." A relic of the old NBA that has transformed. Into a league that values the "Three and D" and "Point Forward" wing player much more than the ball dominant, volume shooters of old.
However, despite the jaded cynicism of this weathered Carmelo fan. I still find myself squeezing the Melo Kool-Aid pouch of lost dreams and finding little drops of hope dribbling out of that tiny straw (anyone remember Kool-aid Jammers?). All that to say that despite my good sense to the contrary, I still believe that Melo may still have a chance at some end of career glory that may be more a kin to Jason Kidd than Dirk Nowitzki, but may help elevate him back into the pantheon of players we deem "winners".
In saying that here are the three destinations that may help propel Carmelo Anthony towards those higher heights in order of likelihood and potential for legacy enhancement.
3. Denver Nuggets
Pardon me for the nostalgia pick here (and accompanying photo), but anybody with an ounce of romanticism would love to see a prodigal son return home. Yes it is the longest of shots of it actually happening. Even less likely it would result in a storybook ending. However, I will attempt to make the argument that it at least "makes sense" from a basketball perspective and a business perspective for the Denver Nuggets. Carmelo Anthony is arguably the greatest and most popular player in the franchises history (with all due respect to Alex English and Dikembe Mutambo). Although a little trepidation is to be expected (because of how he left and also his value as a ball-dominant player with fading skills), I have no doubt that Denver's favorite adopted son would be welcomed back with open arms and would be a popular attraction for Nuggets fans. A boon to season ticket and jersey sales would no doubt please the Nuggets front office, and on the court Melo could be the spark plug that could ignite a very talented and capable Nuggets team that narrowly missed the playoffs last year (with a very respectable 46-36 record) in a loaded West.
With the departure of Wilson Chandler and the well documented health concerns of first round pick Michael Porter Jr, the Nuggets have a glaring need at the 3 spot. If Carmelo were to rejoin the Nuggets he would not only go back to starting at his preferred position of small forward; he would unquestionably be the teams' alpha dog, veteran leader, and de-facto number one option. Something I know the current version of Melo still relishes almost as much as outright winning. He could also serve as a mentor to the aforementioned Michael Porter Jr, a supremely gifted, bucket getting wing player, who's game is strikingly similar to a younger Carmelo Anthony. Also peep the starting five with Melo slotted at the 3:
1. Jamaal Murray
2. Gary Harris
3. Carmelo Anthony
4. Paul Milsap
5. Nikola Jokic
*6. Isiah Thomas
This would over night become a must watch NBA league pass team. Loaded with this much offensive talent, the Nuggets would have more than enough firepower to not only make the playoffs, but feasibly have a punchers chance to win a first round series and at least make the second round an interesting watch. The current playoff drought for the Nuggets has lasted half a decade. Although they were painfully close to braking through last year, a Carmelo led Nuggets team that could feasibly win 50 games in route to breaking their Playoff-less streak would do wonders for his career narrative. If he could manage to advance a round or punch their way through to the Western Conference Finals then all the more so.
Finally, and forgive me for my bombast here; with this move Melo allows himself at least the opportunity to pull off the Nowitzki miracle. To take the team that drafted him all those years ago, slay every giant that lay in wake, and lead them to the promised land. Catapulting him from his place as an all-time great player to the hallowed ground of basketball legends.
Despite my tantalizingly persuasive words that have no doubt left you now wishing for a Melo-Nuggets reunion, this ending is simply as illogical as it is idealistic.
For starters, Carmelo wasn't happy when he was playing in Denver and has never expressed any interest whatsoever in returning to the franchise where he spent the first and brightest half of his career. Additionally, the Nuggets are team with playoff aspirations, not championship aspirations which simply isn't enough to move the needle for Melo, if he ever even thought about a reunion in the first place.
Finally and most importantly, the Nuggets simply don't have the cap space to even make a compelling offer to Carmelo Anthony with their currently constructed payroll. The most they could offer is a $2.5 million mini-mid level contract. A salary half as much as the MLE would typically be worth because of the decision to use the other half too keep their bench warm with the buns of Torrey Craig for the next two years.
Bottom line: Melo aint going back to Denver for 2.5 mil. Facts.
2. Miami Heat
Although a Melo to Miami move wouldn't quite measure up to a Denver reunion from a narrative perspective, it is definitely the more plausible move for many reasons from both an off-court and on-court perspective.
Firstly, it's Miami. Enough said. Secondly, the financials; Miami still has a full $5.3 million mid-level exception and when you factor in Florida's no state income tax (as well as the large Miami market) Carmelo has considerably more earning potential as a member of the Heat.
On the court, Melo would help fill one of Miami's greatest needs with his greatest strength. Scoring. The Heat finished 23rd in points per game (103.4) among 30 NBA teams. Their leading scorer Goran Dragic, averaged a mere 17.3 ppg from the point guard position. Clearly the Heat need an additional scoring punch and there is little doubt Melo would be salivating at the chance to return to his preferred role as a possible number one scoring option.
Miami also yields a top 5 defense from last year, which greatly helps alleviate Melo's well documented defensive liabilities. With a top tier rim protector in Hassan Whiteside as well as a solid slate of young rotation wing players (who are both gritty and extremely well conditioned under the notorious Pat Riley regiment) it would seem that Carmelo and the Heat are a ready made fit for each other, at least on paper.
Lastly, Carmelo could return to a much less competitive Eastern Conference where he was an All-Star every year with the Knicks. An overachieving Heat team won 44 games last year, however that was good for 6th place finish in the conference. Although they lost in five games to the 3rd seeded Sixers, the series was at least a tough and entertaining one. With Lebron leaving the conference this off season there is real opportunity for the Heat to improve to a Top 4 team in the conference and for Melo to realistically make another All-Star team (Al Horford made the team last year as a 13/7 guy).
However good a Melo to Miami fit sounds in theory, it isn't without it's setbacks. Much like the Nuggets, the Heat have zero championship aspirations for the coming season which may be enough to steer the Melo man in a different direction. Also, the Heat may not be jumping at the chance to sign Anthony coming off his worse season of his career in his one-year stint in Oklahoma City. His scoring and efficiency output bottomed as he failed to adjust to his role as the team's third option, having his isolation possessions cut from 5.3 to 3.1 per game from the year prior and largely been regulated to catch and shoot player. Miami may be more content on developing their young wing players for another year while making to make a bigger splash in next years free agency where they may land a current superstar in his actual prime.
1. Houston Rockets
This union seems all but inevitable at this point but it does give Carmelo Anthony his best chance to pull off a Jason Kidd/Jerome Bettis like finish to his legacy. No longer a number 1 but potentially a viable piece of a potentially championship puzzle, the Rockets are hoping that Melo's friendship with Chris Paul and desire for ring supersedes his ego.
No Carmelo Anthony will not be the man for the Rockets, that would be James Harden the reigning MVP. He and Chris Paul will again dominate the touches in the coming year. Melo should not expect to go to Houston with the hope of creating some sort of Big 3 dynamic that were all the rage in the NBA 5-10 years ago. Now the NBA is all about pace and space, small ball lineups, reliable three point shooting and versatile defense switches.
Although his past year in OKC has legitimately put into question whether or not Melo viably fits into this new NBA, I believe the Rockets proven success last year (coming a game/CP3 hamstring injury away from reaching the NBA Finals), his off the court bond with Chris Paul, and him being humbled to a degree being traded, waived, and largely un-pursued this off-season, culminates in the return of a guy we know has what it takes to thrive with this team in this NBA. Olympic Melo. Be it starting or coming off the bench Melo has the ability to maximize his touches while still being the scoring threat he's been for the majority of his career.
For the record I believe Carmelo will sign and start for the Rockets in a front-court that just lost Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute. The starting lineup projects to be:
1. Chris Paul
2. James Harden
3. PJ Tucker
4. Carmelo Anthony
5. Clint Capella
6. Eric Gordon
Capella's resigning let's the Rockets keep one of the league's elite rim protectors. Paul remains one of the league's best perimeter defenders (when healthy) and Tucker is easily the most versatile and best wing defender on the team. This greatly reduces Melo's defensive responsibilities but I do believe Carmelo still has the tools to be a decent body-body defender and rebounder for the Rockets.
The Rockets defense last year and 3-point shooting is what led them to a league high 65 wins and oh-so near Finals run last season. What ultimately did them in however, was their epic game 6 and 7 shooting collapses where the Rockets went on some horrendous scoring droughts and more profoundly is the fact that when Chris Paul went down in Game 6, nobody looked to have the confidence to score in crunch time.
It is in those situations Carmelo can and needs to leave his mark for the Rockets, and very few relish those moments more than Melo does. At his very core Melo is a bucket-getting extraordinaire who's hunger for said buckets only intensifies as the game enters those pivotal stages. Killer-instinct and ability to close a tight game are probably two of the most under-rated facets of Melo's game, but fly under the radar because throughout his career he has been the centerpiece of teams that tend to get beat well before those moments come into play. However, that will not be the case with the Rockets.
The Rockets will be good. They will win a bunch of games and finish with one of the best records in NBA. They will advance deep into the playoffs and will more than likely meet a locked and loaded Warriors team that have added yet another All-Star to their pantheon this off-season.
It is here where Melo can propel his legacy to heights reserved for champions and championship moments. If Carmelo becomes a pivotal cog in the machine that climbs mount Olympus and slays the Warrior giants then he will have done so, and rewritten his own personal history. The Melo fan in me has grown jaded and skeptical but still, he can't help but root for the man. What can I say, I'm a sucker for narrative and who doesn't love a good redemption story.