By Tim Keown | ESPN The Magazine
THE NBA IS is one of the world's most exclusive clubs, a bastion of privilege and entitlement. But like any exclusive club, there are levels of exclusivity. Even in the rarefied social strata of the NBA, there is significant cachet in becoming one of the select few who reside behind the rope line.
Within this subset of exceptionalism, the VIP club within the VIP club, one quality is exalted above all others: the power of the individual to impose his will on teammates, coaches and even entire organizations.
The extraordinary few possess talent so widely desired -- for both brand and basketball purposes -- that they can trample any agenda or ego in their path. They can, in effect, create their own reality.
Sometimes it can be messy, even at the top. Dwight Howard's forced trade from Orlando was about as graceful as a thousand Dwight Howard free throws. Chris Paul's exit from New Orleans to the Clippers had one major false start and a scene-eating appearance from commissioner David Stern. In the end, though, both situations had the same outcome: The deals eventually happened, and the players got what they wanted. For those at the highest reaches of the highest echelon, things get done. Concessions are made. Issues are resolved. Mountains are moved.
And among those who have dictated terms and gotten their way, few have been as wildly, completely and consistently successful as Carmelo Anthony. He is perhaps the NBA's master of the species, a man who managed to place himself at the center of a world of his own devising and hold his ground against any and all comers.
ON JULY 10, 2010, at New York's ultratrendy Cipriani, Anthony married La La Vasquez, a television personality best known for her work as co-host of MTV's Total Request Live. When it came time for some of the 320 A-list invitees to toast the newlyweds, Paul -- still a Hornets guard and a fellow club-within-a-club member -- raised a glass to a future Knicks Big Three of him, Melo and Amar'e Stoudemire.
At the time, Anthony was three months from beginning the final season of his contract with the Nuggets. As the biggest-name free agent of the 2011 class, he drafted in the wake of LeBron James' move to Miami, announced July 8, 2010. The timing was fortuitous. Some teams, the Knicks included, had spent as much as two years adjusting their rosters and payrolls to make a run at James. The fallout from The Decision was widespread. To compete with the Heat, both in wins and wattage, big names were courted by the league's anchor franchises. The stars of the NBA's star system were coming to understand their power to work the game to their benefit as teams became fixated on doubling or tripling up on big-name players. This kind of leverage would never pass Anthony's way again.
Seven months after his wedding, despite protracted pre-trade drama in which the result was predetermined, Anthony was sent to the Knicks in a blockbuster trade that altered the identities of two teams. He could have waited, could have told his handlers to hold off on giving the Nuggets the short list of teams to which he would deign to be traded and simply finished the season with Denver before signing with the Knicks in the offseason. Instead, he forced the issue; in the process, he received a maximum contract from the Knicks (a three-year extension for $65 million) while depleting his new team of such valuable young players as Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler, not to mention New York's first-round draft pick in 2014. In the interest of finding a better situation, Anthony unwittingly created a worse one.
At an appearance promoting the release of his M8 sneaker last October, Anthony explained that the impending NBA lockout forced his hand. "For the average person out there who thought I was just trying to leave for no reason, that really was a big key to my decision," he told reporters. "I knew free agency was coming. I knew it would be altered. I knew it'd be messed up, so imagine if I'd have stayed. I'd have been a free agent now in limbo."
His arrival in New York was preceded by the perfect confluence of circumstances -- a star-starved team in a star-driven league in the ultimate star-obsessed market. Ego is a supply-side proposition. Knicks owner James Dolan was not about to compete in New York against the suddenly relevant Nets -- with their flamboyant Russian billionaire owner, Jay-Z and a flashy new building in Brooklyn -- without a celebrity frontman. For a guy like Dolan in a city like New York with a team like the Knicks, Anthony -- or someone like him -- is as vital an accessory as a personal driver.
And now, as Melo begins his first nontrade, nonlockout season in New York, Dolan's team looks more like the Carmelo Anthony Project than any of the swells raising a glass could have imagined.
ONE OF THE first public statements Knicks coach Mike Woodson made at the team's media day on Oct. 1 concerned a player who wasn't there. "I'm not going to discuss Jeremy Lin," he said.
Lin, who signed with the Rockets in July, is like a phantom appendage. He and Anthony represent vastly different versions of the NBA dream: one an undrafted, twice-released former D-Leaguer from Harvard, the other a preordained star since childhood, blamed, perhaps unfairly, for Lin's departure and for everything else that has gone wrong with the Knicks.
But for Anthony, scrutiny is part of the job description. "I got thick skin," he says. "It's something that I'm made for & I won half of the battle knowing that regardless of what you do, you're going to be criticized. You do bad, you're going to be criticized. You do good, you might get a pat on the back."
At the beginning of last season, this was Anthony's team: a slow, listless, losing and, yes, much-criticized unit, with a clogged-artery offense that featured weak point-guard play and a generally sour air. It's telling that Lin's breakout moment -- 25 points in a win over the Nets on Feb. 4 -- came when Anthony went 3-for-15. Two nights later, Anthony suffered a groin injury, and the Knicks' season changed. With Anthony out and Lin all over the court running a far better representation of Mike D'Antoni's freewheeling offense, the Knicks won seven of eight. Teammates played with the passion of high schoolers. On the night Lin scored 38 to ignite an upset of the Lakers in Madison Square Garden, Spike Lee said it was the loudest he'd ever heard the old building. Chants of "M-V-P" rang out when Lin stepped to the foul line in the fourth quarter. The Garden was suddenly the place to be -- rollicking, euphoric and containing an emotion many Knicks fans might have forgotten existed: pure, uncut happiness.
Then Anthony returned in mid-February, to a team vastly different from the one he had left. "Carmelo's dream was to go to New York and be the man," says a source close to several Knicks players. "That's why he fought to get out of Denver, and all of a sudden this little guy nobody's ever heard of is living his dream."
The change was immediate. Anthony was accustomed to the ball running through him on the wing, and the offense went back to its old plodding self. The Knicks lost eight of 10 after his return, including six straight. At one point, Anthony refused to enter D'Antoni's huddle -- a move he defended by saying that going solo was nothing new for him -- and turned the coach's offense, the five-man improv, into discord. On March 13, Howard Beck of The New York Times wrote, "The Knicks are not a unified team. On one side is Anthony. On the other is everyone else." It wasn't personal between Anthony and Lin -- each professes to like the other -- but Carmelo simply went back to the way he felt things ought to be. He is a phenomenal offensive player, but there's no denying reality: Linsanity died out on that wing.
During this stretch -- of Melo vs. the Knicks -- one player was asked why the team had returned to isolation plays for Anthony after D'Antoni's up-tempo, less structured game had been so successful. A source who was privy to the conversation said the player responded by saying that the coach wasn't calling those plays; Anthony was isolating himself and demanding the ball.
D'Antoni's conflict-averse style allowed the situation to fester. Teammates prodded Anthony to give more effort in practice. "Jeremy is a tough guy," says a source close to the team. "He told Carmelo under no uncertain terms, 'I'm not going to give you the ball unless you create space and run the plays.' None of the other guys had a problem with it. Tyson [Chandler] didn't, Amar'e didn't. They knew they had a better chance with the ball in Lin's hands in the last few minutes."
That didn't fit Anthony's worldview. Asked about his practice habits in September, at a posh event in a New York steak house honoring him as the celebrity contributor to a high-end-watch magazine, Anthony bristled: "Me? This is the first I've ever heard this. Never. Ever. There's always something new every day."
Anthony laughed ruefully before continuing. "I've played with over 100 different players in nine, 10 years," he said. "And nobody would ever say that. I never miss a day of practice. Never. That never was an issue."
FAIR OR NOT, perception works against Anthony. From the time he showed his brilliance on the court as a kid in Baltimore to the moment he led his Oak Hill Academy team over LeBron's St. Vincent-St. Mary until now, he has been a metaphor for something bigger. He is the embodiment of potential, of half-realized hopes.
Outwardly, he plays with a unique style that can be described as languid: loose and a little bit sleepy. He has made scoring look effortless since he entered the league, never averaging below 20.8 points per game. His former coach at Syracuse, Jim Boeheim, calls him "an impossible matchup" because he is big enough (6'8", 230 pounds) to play with his back to the basket, quick enough to take small forwards off the dribble and a good enough three-point shooter (career 32%) to demand respect outside.
So here's a question that might sound strange: Just how good is Anthony? His scoring average (24.7 career ppg) might cloud reasonable assessment, but advanced statistics indicate it's a legitimate question. His player efficiency rating, which measures per-minute production, was 21.1 last season, 28th in the league and below those of Marcin Gortat and Paul Millsap. (The top three in PER were James, Paul and Dwyane Wade.) Anthony's true shooting percentage, which takes into account two- and three-point shooting as well as free throws, was .525 last season, tied for 167th. And these are offensive statistics, extrapolated from the one end of the floor where Anthony's ability is rarely questioned.
The disconnect takes us back behind the mythical VIP rope line. Has Anthony's proven stature as a player who can bend an organization toward his wishes created an inflated public perception of his ability? More pointedly, is Carmelo Anthony: Superstar more contrivance than reality?
Boeheim, who has a national championship in large part because of Anthony, doesn't think so. "If he's got the ball 15 feet from the basket, I want him taking the shot. I don't want him passing," Boeheim says. "When Carmelo goes 6-for-20, everybody says he's taking too many shots. When Kevin Durant goes 6-for-20, nobody says a word. They're the same type of player. They do the same things."
Boeheim is Anthony's staunchest defender. Aside from Syracuse, Boeheim has coached Anthony through one world championship and two Olympics as an assistant with Team USA. Boeheim's words are effusive in their praise while carrying a strong hint of caution: Anthony is a tremendous offensive player, but beyond that, you're wise to proceed at your own risk.
"Carmelo has to score to be effective," Boeheim says. "He can rebound a little bit, pass a little bit, but primarily he has to score. Other guys have to do the other things."
Perhaps in the end, Anthony's most fascinating talent will turn out to be his ability to make people consistently believe there is more there.
D'ANTONI LEFT WITH 24 games remaining last season after it became clear that Anthony was not sufficiently inspired by either the coach's leadership or the offense that turned Lin into a worldwide craze. The morning before D'Antoni departed, the New York Post printed a staggering report: Anthony preferred a trade. D'Antoni's final game was a loss to the Bulls, and when the coach was asked if Carmelo appeared frustrated on the court, D'Antoni replied, "More than normal, you mean?" The hierarchy had been established: With the exception of the mercurial Dolan, Anthony was the most powerful man in the organization. D'Antoni was replaced by Woodson, devotee of a slower, slug-it-out half-court offense -- in other words, Anthony's choice.
Behind the scenes, a source close to the team says that William "Worldwide Wes" Wesley, a consultant for the agency that represents Anthony, informed Dolan that Carmelo was not pleased with the direction of the team under D'Antoni. This is nothing new; backstage maneuvering helped engineer Anthony's departure from Denver and Paul's from New Orleans. But when it comes to matters pertaining to Anthony, this source described Dolan as being easily swayed by the notoriously mysterious, famously well-connected and mythically powerful Worldwide Wes.
"Lin was getting what Carmelo was promised," says a source close to the team. "And Carmelo thought D'Antoni was going to favor Jeremy, so he had to get D'Antoni out of there.
"It works out perfect for Carmelo. There's little if any of his DNA on there."
D'Antoni declined to be interviewed for this article and has never publicly discussed the specifics of his exit. For his part, Anthony has repeatedly denied having anything to do with D'Antoni's departure, saying that he didn't ask for it and doesn't want the perception of being a "coach killer."
Woodson took over, and the Knicks went 18-6 down the stretch, earning the seventh seed in the playoffs, where they lost in the first round to LeBron's Heat. Woodson's toughness seemed to rub off on Anthony. He was more engaged and energetic on the defensive end over the final 24 games.
Woodson ran the offense through Anthony and Stoudemire. Lin's minutes were reduced, and the point guard's production declined before he suffered a season-ending knee injury in late March. There's no doubting Anthony's prowess with the ball in his hands -- he controls it 30% of the time his team has possession -- but the contrast to the run-and-fun Linsanity days was stark.
Lin was a restricted free agent after the season, giving the Knicks the chance to match any team's offer and keep him. On one side, he presented huge marketing potential and excitement; on the other, doubts regarding the Knicks' offensive compatibility set up the perfect offseason predicament: Who will lead the team, Carmelo or Jeremy?
In July, Lin signed a three-year, $25 million deal with Houston. During the Knicks' media day, general manager Glen Grunwald briefly addressed the Lin issue, saying, "Houston made a commitment to him that we weren't prepared to make."
THERE IS GOOD news for Anthony: He got his way. Woodson is the coach. Lin is gone, replaced by an aging Jason Kidd and a supposedly fit Raymond Felton. There is bad news too: The nine-year vet, now 28, has yet to show the grace necessary to hold this much power. Interviews with people familiar with the situation in New York paint a picture of Anthony as someone with a good heart but without the self-awareness to understand how certain actions will be interpreted outside the cocoon of money and fame. That's one of the problems with exclusivity: It tends to limit exposure to -- and an understanding of -- the outside world.
The most glaring example of his lack of self-awareness came two days after Lin signed his offer sheet with the Rockets. Anthony publicly called the offer "ridiculous." It is exceedingly rare for players in any sport to suggest that another player's money is either stacked too high or spread too long. What's good for one, presumably, is good for all.
It's hard to imagine, say, LeBron making a similar statement. And now that James has won his first title, Anthony is being proffered as the best NBA player without a ring. Basketball authorities such as former Knicks great Walt Frazier (encouraging) and Nuggets coach George Karl (chiding) have pushed Anthony to expand his game, to enhance his versatility. In other words, to play like LeBron.
The difference between the two players extends beyond the court, however. James' departure from Cleveland was clumsy and self-aggrandizing, but it showed the wherewithal Anthony seems to lack. James identified a situation in which his talents could be incorporated into the whole. Debate the method all you want -- and most everyone in Cleveland is more than happy to do so -- but James left a team where his ability dwarfed the rest of the roster to seek a better chance of winning a title. Anthony took a different approach, forcing a trade that weakened his new team but elevated his stature and funneled attention his way. By any reasonable basketball measurement, Melo's New York is more LeBron in Cleveland than LeBron in Miami.
Anthony raised some eyebrows at the Knicks' media day when he said, "I'm done trying to score 30, 35, 40 points for us to win a basketball game. I don't want that role anymore." He lost 12 pounds this summer while working out and playing for the Olympic team. In the London Games, Anthony thrived as a spot-up shooter who destroyed collapsing defenses. On a team of superstars, he was a complementary player, a reliable offensive threat who came off the bench and never complained.
"He's not an alpha dog. He might think he is, but he's not," says a source close to the Knicks. "He needs to be around someone who is feared, someone who could tell him what to do. He just couldn't see Jeremy Lin that way. He could see Kobe and LeBron that way in the Olympics, sure, but not Jeremy Lin. Carmelo's whole thing is perception."
D'Antoni was an assistant coach on the Olympic team. His role? Design the offense. Let that sink in for a moment: Team USA's offense, the one in which Anthony set a single-game U.S. Olympic record with 37 points, was precisely the point-guard- dominated, fast-twitch scheme D'Antoni ran -- and Anthony rebelled against -- in New York.
"It's the ultimate irony of this whole thing," the source says. "Carmelo was at his best and most efficient running that offense. It couldn't be more obvious to him, and he couldn't be more oblivious to it."
For most of his nine seasons in the NBA, Anthony has been a one-man show on a crowded court, literally and figuratively isolated on the wing. Can he reinvent himself as a team player, as -- dare we say it -- an NBA champion?
As he surveys the empire he created, where everything he could possibly want has been laid at his feet, Anthony can be forgiven for letting his mind drift to one thought: He has already won something far bigger.