Hello, Melo

Image result for odysseus

Odysseus and Polyphemus – Arnold Böcklin (1896)

Canonically, Odysseus ends up becoming immortal. He was always destined to be, of course, but depending on where you go for your Greek epic epilogues, his fate was either a bit in doubt or entirely certain after dying at the hand of his own son, Telegonus. It is less an Oedipus situation and more a Meat-Becomes-Murder ordeal as far as familicide in Greek epics goes, but you can look into it yourself if you are so inclined.

Similarly close to a place called Ithaca, Carmelo Anthony is already a Hall of Famer. He is likely also the most divisive player of his generation[1], a member of the venerated 2003 draft class and the only player picked in the top five of that class without an NBA championship ring[2]. His legacy has been in question for at least half a decade. Anthony had been out of the league for over a year until Tuesday night, when, carrying an exhaustingly-explained double-zero on his back, he made his debut with the Portland Trail Blazers.

Below, courtesy of Basketball-Reference, see a Player A/Player B comparison that I’ve been insisting upon anyone willing to engage for the past fifteen years:

BUT ALSO!

Player A made the playoffs that year; Player B won Rookie of the Year. By now you may see what’s happening, and I do have a confession: I have long held the belief that Carmelo Anthony should have won the Rookie of the Year award in 2004, despite the overwhelming presence, and significant advanced statistical accomplishments, of LeBron James. Melo has been a polarizing figure from the very start.

Anthony has jab-stepped and pump-faked his way to an immortality that was widely touted when he fell out of favor with the league at large following his ten-game stint with the ergonomic Houston Rockets last season. Plenty of his comrades came to his defense, which was somewhat humorous given one of the great criticisms of the Carmelo Anthony Experience was and is that he rarely ever came to the defense of his own team.

Two teams – not franchises, because that seems equally obvious – come to mind when you think of peak Carmelo Anthony: the 2008-’09 Denver Nuggets, who pushed the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers to six games in the Western Conference Finals on the backs of Melo, a post-Pistons Chauncey Billups that make you think the ’04 Pistons with Melo could’ve worked, J.R. Smith and Kenyon Martin.

With that Knicks team, he prevented his good friend LeBron James from becoming the first-ever unanimous league MVP, an act which may end up cementing his legacy as much as anything he did on-court.

His midrange favoritism has fallen out of largescale favor; his lack of defensive awareness remains a major thorn in the sides of every detractor. These need not be ignored, and, in fact, are written in bold, italicized and capitalized every time anyone talks about Why Carmelo Anthony Is Washed.

Still, few players in NBA history have ever been as effective as just, simply straight up getting buckets as Carmelo Anthony. He is closer than you might think to Kobe Bryant in terms of per-game playoff production, although his sample size is obviously much smaller and more ring-less.

Seeing Anthony back in action Tuesday night was exhilarating in a way that oddly calls to mind sports figures of a different lineage. We gravitate toward the Peyton Mannings and Xavi Hernandezes of the world, all-time great players who work out their frustrations with limitations imposed by aging via adapting to their surroundings with canny know-how and reliance on their younger betters.

Melo reaching three fouls in the first half of NBA play in which he’s participated since November 10, 2018, while not encouraging, isn’t altogether exclusionary, either. Two things seem especially fitting for his return: that Damian Lillard sat out with back spasms, an injury that once plagued Melo himself, and that Melo finished 4-14 for 10 points, four rebounds, zero assists and a net -20 rating on the night. #OnceAKnickAlwaysAKnick, I believe, is how the saying goes.

There is a handful of NBA players – Jamal Crawford and Melo’s former running mate J.R. Smith come to mind – that have earned reputations as pure scorers and who remain out of the league. The NBA is perhaps more inclined to leave players behind than other Big 4 sports leagues; even so, it strikes me that there are a couple of teams that could use the scoring wherewithal of players like them to make their otherwise humdrum nights on League Pass exciting.

Melo might be the greatest of that lot – he is, again, an all-time great already, diminished only by the misfortune of his draft class and close proximity to truly exceptional players both professionally and personally[3]. That the Blazers are reeling and desperate and, as such, reached for a player for which they had previously pined at the peak of his effectiveness should not make this any less captivating.

Like all of us in the end, Carmelo Anthony has only a tenuous grasp on what he leaves behind him. It seemed for a while that what we got was it, that he had nothing left despite the endless training videos, inspirational quotes and quiet philanthropy. Now, at age 35, Anthony has a chance not only to come home, but to find an end more appropriately suited to his career. Presumably, that will not involve Kiyan, but we cannot rule it out.

*     *     *

[1] On-court and excluding the LeBron-Jordan debates that dominate various social media, of course

[2] An obvious all-time “what-if?” is how the Pistons’ 2004 run would have gone with a rookie Melo aboard for the ride

[3] Chris Paul is undoubtedly better-suited for a discussion regarding his own legacy. But I submit to you this: is he, right now?

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