There are some basketball players that have to be seen in person to fully understand. LeBron James is at the top of the list, perhaps obviously, but a couple other come easily to mind: Russell Westbrook’s ferocity is difficult to completely appreciate through the filter of the cameras, the screen; prior to struggles with injury, Derrick Rose’s tremendous speed was an entirely different thing in person – on the break he could look like an entirely different species.
Oddly, Carmelo Anthony has a place in this conversation, although it owes less to overt physicality than these other players. With Anthony, it’s the fluidity of his footwork on the offensive end, his sense of tempo and timing with the ball, all the subtle movements of head and eyes and limbs that allow him to take bigger players off the dribble or smaller players into the woodshed. In his tasteful command of the game’s offense, he is akin to a crack rhythm guitarist, and this goes a long way to explaining why an NCAA champion and soon-to-be most decorated Olympian basketball player in US history who now holds the Team USA scoring record has never succeeded the way he was expected to in the NBA.
Since it’s the season for it, consider his Olympic bona fides: he is currently playing in his fourth Olympics – a first among American men – and is favored to win his third gold medal, his fourth overall including a bronze in 2004 in Athens. Entering this year’s competition, he was 35 points behind LeBron James as the team’s all-time leading scorer and with James absent for 2016, he passed that mark. He did that by doing things like dropping 37 points in 14 minutes against Nigeria in 2012.
Beyond the numbers, though, Anthony has become a touchstone for a team whose prodigious individual talent could lead to an air of disinterest or clock punching. Anthony is the guy who signs jerseys kids pass to him through cracks in the walls of the practice facility in Rio. As the USA Basketball’s managing director Jerry Colangelo told ESPN, “The fact that he has had a commitment for that period of time and has served for that period of time is an incredible example for the other players.”
It doesn’t hurt that from a purely mechanical standpoint, international basketball is very friendly to Anthony. Opposing players are smaller overall, which allows Anthony both to spend more time as a power forward – where he matches up favorably with slower players – and to get closer to the hoop without facing seriously imposing shotblockers.
For all its moment-to-moment beauty, Anthony’s offensive game in the NBA has been dogged by inefficient shot selection, with Anthony shooting a lot of long 2-pointers (although that’s improved in the last few years). But under FIBA rules, the 3-point line is 22 feet, 1.7 inches at the top of the key instead of 23 feet, 9 inches as in the NBA. That no doubt played a part in the aforementioned 37-point game, where he went 10-for-12 from the arc.
Aside from being subjected to Vanessa Carlton singalongs, it’s pretty much gravy for Anthony playing international basketball.
The disparity between his success internationally and in his NBA career – where he’s only made it out of the first round of the playoffs twice and played 32,796 in the regular season but just 2,579 in the postseason – makes him a kind of inverse Lionel Messi. The only player to ever win five Ballons d’Or and winner of eight La Liga titles, four UEFA Champions League titles and four Copas del Rey with FC Barcelona, Messi has struggled to duplicate that kind of success with Argentina in international play. In June, Argentina lost their third consecutive major final and Messi announced his retirement from international play at the age of 29.
There are, of course, many specific ways in which soccer at the international and club level differs from basketball, but there are some obvious parallels organizationally. I can’t pretend to know all the ins and outs of international soccer’s governing bodies, but it certainly sounds like Argentina’s team is run just about as poorly as the New York Knicks. By contrast, FC Barcelona is a well-oiled machine with a laudable legacy, plus owned by its supporters. In 2010, the three top finishers in the Ballon d’Or awards – Messi, Xavi and Iniesta – had all come up through Barcelona’s youth soccer program.
Following the disappointment of bronze in 2004, USA Basketball worked hard to develop continuity in the program from coaches down to players, with an eye toward a balance of youth and experience. Anthony himself has gone from coming off the bench to being the leader of the team.
“Carmelo is the veteran and a super-likable guy,” DeAndre Jordan told the Associated Press. “We got 12 Alphas in here. But he’s the leader of this team and we follow him.”
That last bit might be the most important piece of explaining Anthony’s success internationally: context.
For all its omnipresence, its inescapability, context is devilishly hard to pin down, especially for situations that are still unfolding. After all, one of the great pleasures of watching a good documentary like ESPN’s recent O.J.: Made in America is how it lines up the veins and vessels both personal and societal that pumped poisonous blood directly into the moment of the O.J. trial. But documentaries are made with the benefit of hindsight.
Looking back at Anthony’s career in the Olympics, and then with the Knicks, it seems possible that he’s always been miscast as an alpha dog, even if it’s easy to see why. Scoring is and probably always will be the marquee talent of the NBA. A player who can score is the one you build around. But of the top five picks from the NBA draft not named Darko Milicic, three of them (James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh) played together to win their championships. Meanwhile, Anthony has dealt with the chronic mismanagement of the Knicks while playing with the likes of Andrea Bargnani and the ghosts of Amar’e Stoudemire, Jason Kidd and Baron Davis.
And so we have the paradox: A player who’s knocked in the NBA for only having one skill, for not being able to make his team better, who suddenly looks like a Swiss army knife when he’s placed in a different context, one that takes the undue weight off that singular offensive ability.
There’s still time – as James’ reported desire of teaming up with Anthony, Wade, Chris Paul indicates – for Anthony to find something akin to the success he’s enjoyed with Team USA in the NBA. His feints and jabsteps are still a small wonder to behold in person, and his play in the Olympics shows how willing he is to do the work of leading, even when he’s not the leading scorer. Maybe it’s time to stop asking why his greatness hasn’t led to more wins and start asking whether the Knicks or another team can understand the context of his greatness well enough to let it come through the way it has for Team USA.