There is reason to believe the NBA’s two biggest remaining trade chips can be successful in new roles.
If Kyrie Irving wants a peek into life as a solo star, he should look no further than Carmelo Anthony. And if Anthony wants a peek into life as a secondary star, he should look no further than Irving.
The lessons are right there. Will either player heed them?
Irving and Anthony are cut from the same basketball cloth — scoring savants with regard for little else. Suddenly, they appear to be looking at each other’s situations with envy. Word is Anthony is ready to be a cog in a title-contending wheel. Irving wants to be the wheel.
What’s more, Irving reportedly would prefer sowing his superstar oats in New York. Time was when Anthony wanted the same thing. The stage. The lights. The responsibility. Now Anthony sees that he can have the first two things without the headache of the third. According to reports, he could go to Houston (another report Tuesday says this is his only preferred destination) or Oklahoma City or — most ironically — Cleveland, and compete for titles from the comfy sidekick role Irving is itching to leave.
Similar situations don’t guarantee similar results, of course. There is a major question about whether Anthony can replicate Irving’s success as a second or even third fiddle. Irving, meanwhile, is in position to prove he can succeed as a franchise cornerstone in a way Anthony has not in New York.
While Anthony had proven himself as a winner before joining the Knicks in 2011, leading the Nuggets to the 2009 Western Conference finals, Irving is a champion. You can say that’s largely because Irving played alongside LeBron James, but James doesn’t win the 2016 title without Irving any more than Irving wins it without James. Irving hit one of the biggest shots in NBA history, and we know he can be the best player on the floor for long stretches in the biggest games.
But as Anthony has found out, when you cross a certain threshold in the NBA, the focus shifts from what you can do to what you can’t. If Irving ends up with the Knicks, or the Suns — or most teams he’s been connected to — his defensive indifference and tunnel-vision no longer would be brushed aside because he’s a dazzling dribbler who can score 28 a game in his sleep. He’d be held to a higher standard.
Again, Anthony knows this all too well. It’s not to say he’s been unfairly criticized in New York. He’s not a perfect player. But neither is Russell Westbrook, who also plays sloppy defense and embodies many of the ball-stopping, shot-jacking flaws for which Anthony has been roasted. In fact, last season’s league MVP had a worse shooting percentage, a worse 3-point percentage and a worse effective shooting percentage than Anthony.
Does that mean Anthony is as good as Westbrook? Absolutely not. But it shows these two players are viewed through entirely different lenses. Westbrook gets the benefit of the doubt because Durant left him. He played with house money for a season, and now has Paul George.
Since Anthony never has played with a true second star — let alone multiple stars — who is anyone to say he can’t do it? Why can’t he play next to James Harden and Chris Paul in Houston? Those guys are two of the league’s best at getting clean looks for others, and Anthony put up a 57.5 eFG percentage on catch-and-shoots last season, including almost 42 percent from downtown.
That’s the beautiful part of Melo potentially joining other stars: We no longer have to evaluate his entire game. If he focuses on what he does well, and is willing to bend his game around that axis, there’s no reason he can’t be one of the league’s most capable secondary options. Irving is the one who wants to take the harder road and do it all. And shouldn’t we be commending him for that? Don’t we love to bash guys who want to join other stars rather than take the old-school challenge of leading the charge?
Can Irving be the man on a good-to-great team? That’s the unknown. But we do know Irving was fine as a scorer with James off the floor last season — 58.3 percent true shooting, 1.18 points per possession, a decent 46 percent from the field — but the Cavaliers fell off significantly as a team, mostly because of defensive issues. That’ll be Irving’s burden should he assume the reins of his own show. There’s no question he can get his, but can he raise the level of his team by doing more than ever?
For Anthony, it would be the reverse: Can he raise the level of a new team by doing less than ever? Irving is the evidence that a great scorer can thrive alongside an even greater player, that a player with holes can appear whole on the right team. For Irving, Anthony is the cautionary tale. New York can turn a great scorer into a loser really fast. If it doesn’t work out, it won’t be because we haven’t previously seen this story.
Source: Brad Botkin| CBS