Carmelo Anthony and the phenomena of unsuccessful superstars
Defining what “success” means for an athlete requires a very different set of criteria than success for any other profession or occupation. For an athlete, it’s not just making money or winning a lot of games; you have to win games at the right time of the year. Winning one title changes the narrative about an elite athlete’s career, no matter what else happened before or after the title; just ask Dirk Nowitzki.
Winning in the postseason seems to be especially important in the career evaluations of quarterbacks and basketball players. Lacking a title on your resume diminishes your career, somehow, so that no matter how successful you were, the one thing you didn’t do will outshine everything you did.
If an entrepreneur earned $100 million, no one would call them a failure. Athletes don’t have that luxury, and in fact, a higher salary brings a bigger target and more scrutiny when postseason success doesn’t come with the price tag. Fair or unfair, the salary, the regular season accolades and the stardom don’t mean a thing unless you’ve got the one piece of hardware that matters.
There are two recent basketball players worth more than $100 million apiece that can attest to this; Carmelo Anthony and Tracy McGrady. Rarely are the two compared, but they share several important similarities. Both became massively popular, earning endorsement deals and celebrity. Both earned themselves regular season awards. And both have suffered cataclysmic playoff futility.
The comparison is much deeper than shallow quips that can be made about their playoff records. Just how similar are the two? What are the reasons for their failures? And what, if anything, can the Tracy McGrady story tell us about what lies for Carmelo Anthony?
The running punch line in basketball discussions during the middle part of last decade had something to do with T-Mac’s playoff ineptitude. His individual postseason statistics were fine, but there was a major problem; he never made it out of the first round of the NBA Playoffs. Never. Not once.
This was despite the fact that he made 7 All-Star Teams and managed to finish as high as 4th in the MVP balloting twice (01-02, 02-03). He also made 2 3rd All-NBA Teams, 3 2nd Teams and was named 1st Team All-NBA two times (01-02 and 02-03). He was a two-time scoring champion and finished 3rd or better in Player Efficiency Rating a staggering four years in a row. He wasn’t a ball-hog by any stretch of the imagination; he averaged around 6 assists per game at his peak. So why couldn’t he win in the postseason?
In McGrady’s defense, he didn’t have a heck of a lot of help. During the 2001-02 season with Orlando his top teammates were washed up former stars (Patrick Ewing, Horace Grant), a mid-30s journeyman (Darrell Armstrong), and two guys who never made much of themselves (Pat Garrity and Troy Hudson). The following year, he went to battle in the playoffs with the bloated carcass of Shawn Kemp (!!!), Armstrong, Garrity, a young Drew Gooden, Gordan Giricek and the immortal Jacque Vaughn.
Following his trade to Houston, he was paired with Yao Ming, and the prospects for McGrady to get over the hump and into the Promised Land never looked brighter. But in 04-05 (his first year with the Rockets) they were defeated in 7 games by the Dallas Mavericks. That team featured Yao, aging David Wesley and Jon Barry, Bob Sura and Mike James as the rest of its regular rotation (iiiiiiick). In 2006-07 McGrady returned from a year lost to injury to the best supporting cast of his career. Yao Ming was healthy, Juwan Howard was still a meaningful contributor, Shane Battier was the perfect role player, and Rafer Alston and Chuck Hayes saw a lot of minutes. The result? Another Game 7 defeat, this time at the hands of the Utah Jazz.
Yao was never really healthy again, and neither was McGrady. He forced an ugly divorce following more playoff disappointment (a 6 game defeat by the Jazz, again, in 2008). Nowadays, he’s a bit player for the Atlanta Hawks, clinging to first round life against the Boston Celtics. Unless the Hawks can manage to win the next two games against the Celtics, McGrady will have experienced his 8th first round defeat in as many tries.
The running joke among some NBA observers, nowadays, concerns itself with Carmelo’s similar playoff squalor. As the star player, Tracy McGrady’s playoff record was 13-21, for a .382 winning percentage. Carmelo’s career postseason record is 17-37, a .314 winning percentage. If you exclude the 2008-09 extended playoff run by the Denver Nuggets, Carmelo is sitting at 9-31 (.225%), which is a confounding number considering his talent.
Many NBA critics still seem to give Carmelo the benefit of youth, hoping that he can somehow “grow up” and develop into a guy who can win in April, May and June. He just completed his ninth season in the league, however, and typically by this point in an athlete’s career, he is what he is.
What Carmelo is – a 5 time All-Star, with 3 3rd All-NBA teams and 1 2nd Team to his credit. The highest he has ever finished in an MVP vote was 6th. He’s been to the Western Conference Finals one time. Contrary to McGrady, Carmelo is primarily a scorer who needs the ball in his hands to be most effective. When he’s on, he is the most automatic two points in the business. So what has stopped him from playoff success?
This one’s a tougher nut to crack. His earliest Nugget teams featured ‘Melo, Andre Miller, Marcus Camby and the oft-injured Kenyon Martin. The 06-07 and 07-08 campaigns were led by Carmelo and Allen Iverson, much publicized stars which garnered Denver one postseason victory in two years. Carmelo’s best supporting cast, and best team, played alongside him during the 2008-09 season. Chauncey Billups, Kenyon Martin, Nene Hilario, J.R. Smith and ‘Melo made it as far as the Western Conference Finals where they fell to the eventual champions, the Los Angeles Lakers, in six.
Following another early exit the next season, Carmelo held the Nuggets hostage forced a trade to the New York Knicks. With less than 30 games to gel before the postseason, the team was promptly swept. This past offseason, the Knicks added the anchor to the Mavericks’ 2011 title run (Tyson Chandler) via trade, stumbled across Jeremy Lin and added Carmelo’s former teammate J.R. Smith. Injuries to Lin (knee) and Stoudemire (arthritic knees, laceration to hand) sunk the team’s playoff chances. All the talent in place never had a chance to come together.
Just how similar are the two?
Best statistical season: (Points /Rebounds/Assists), (FG% / 3P% / FT%)
Carmelo: 06-07 Denver 29/6/4, 47%/26%/81%
McGrady: 02-03 Orlando 32/7/6, 46%/39%/79%
Regular season statistics*:
Carmelo: 25/6/3, 45%/32%/80%
McGrady: 25/6/5, 44%/34%/75% *Seasons as a starter, 99-00 through 07-08.
Carmelo: 25/7/3, 42%/33%/82%
McGrady: 29/7/6. 43%/30%/75% *Excludes 2011-12 with Atlanta Hawks (role player)
Statistics aren’t everything, but in this case they give us pretty clear evidence regarding what separates the two – getting teammates involved. Both are volume shooters who rebound fairly well and haven’t exactly lit the world on fire on the defensive end. But McGrady averaged nearly twice as many assists per game as Carmelo does – and that’s the biggest knock on Anthony. He still hasn’t learned how to distribute the basketball effectively.
That isn’t to say McGrady was a saint. He forced his way out of Houston by pouting, holding that franchise hostage in similar (though much less spectacular) fashion as Carmelo would two years later. But at least he got people involved on the court on a regular basis; he had more playoff success with arguably less talent than Carmelo has.
The legacy of Carmelo Anthony…
… Hangs in the balance, until next spring. McGrady’s career numbers are better than Anthony’s, as is his resume, and his career postseason winning percentage. Barring any unexpected shakeups, Carmelo will enter the 2012-13 season with a good point guard (Jeremy Lin), a good (if brittle… and declining) scoring power forward in Amar’e Stoudemire and a terrific franchise center (Tyson Chandler). This is a team with the talent to win it all; few players get to play with a cast such as the one the Knicks have put together for him. It’s up to Carmelo to make the most of it.
At the beginning of doing research for the column, I felt as though I was disrespecting Anthony by putting him in a class with Tracy McGrady, a player often dismissed as a failure because of his postseason shortcomings. But after looking at the supporting casts, the career numbers, the resumes, it’s become perfectly clear to me that calling Carmelo Anthony ‘Tracy McGrady, 2.0’ is actually an insult to T-Mac.
Time will tell if Anthony can re-write the narrative to his career.
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