Many Nuggets fans have been quick to compare Carmelo Anthony's surreal contract situation to that of Kobe Bryant's 2007 offseason trade demands. Melo himself likens the circumstance to LeBron James's of last season. But if we're looking for a more accurate analogy, Nuggets fans and Melo himself should be comparing his career to date and its future to Paul Pierce's.
Carmelo Anthony's NBA career trajectory is eerily following that of the Boston Celtics' Paul Pierce. And not just because they're both 6'7"-6'8"ish and weigh about 230 pounds. Like a younger Pierce, Melo spent the early part of his career as a scoring-first small forward not all that interested in defense. Like a younger Pierce, Melo's all-around game has improved with each passing season while his thoughts about his future have him openly questioning his present geographic location. Like a younger Pierce, Melo throws his headband onto the floor drawing a technical foul at an inopportune time in a close game (okay, it only happened once but I can't think of anyone other than Melo and Pierce who have been stupid enough to do this during the end of a close game).
And like a younger Pierce, I don't foresee Melo winning a championship today but could see a scenario in which he wins one down the road. Whether or not that's while wearing the jersey of the team that drafted him - a la Pierce - is a different matter altogether.
I'm not the first to point out the Melo/Pierce analogy. Almost two weeks ago, die hard Celtics fan Bill Simmons wrote of the Melo situation:
"My advice: Instead of emulating your boys Bosh and LeDecoy and jumping to a higher-profile situation, you should emulate a guy like Paul Pierce, someone who had similar ups and downs in Boston, had chances to leave and wanted to stay because he valued being a Celtic, and because he valued the unwavering support of Boston fans."
And by no means was Simmons the first to see the similarities between the two small forwards. Many bloggers have drawn upon the comparison in the recent past and during the 2008 NBA Finals, Pierce himself was asked about it by a reporter, to which he responded (classically):
"I've never gotten a DUI."
With so much attention being aimed at Melo's contract situation, revisiting the Pierce comparison is important. A few weeks ago when Nate, Jeff and I wrote our varying proposals for how to deal with the Carmelo Anthony situation, I wrote the following with Pierce's younger years in Boston in mind...
"As much as I love what Melo has brought to Denver Nuggets basketball, I question if you can win a championship when your best player is a shoot-first small forward with limited production in other aspects of the game."
This was red meat for the "Andrew hates Melo" crowd - a ludicrous myth that has taken a life of its own in the comments section of this site for months now - but I stand by that statement. Prior to this season, Melo's game has resembled that of the great small forwards of yesteryear. If you're an NBA aficionado, you know the names: Dominique Wilkins (my all-time favorite non-Nugget), Alex English, Bernard King, Terry Cummings, a younger Adrian Dantley, a younger Mark Aguirre...and a younger Paul Pierce. I dissected this analogy in great detail in a 2008 column titled "In defense of Carmelo Anthony's 'defense'", in which I argued that I'd rather have Melo's outstanding scoring production than a better defensive player who can't score. Of course, we'd all rather have a superstar who plays as such on both ends of the floor but there are only a handful of guys - if that - capable of doing so.
Looking at Melo's career to date and at those other all-star and superstar small forwards' respective careers, an interesting trend emerges. At the peak of their scoring prowess, not one of them appeared in an NBA Finals. Not one. Wilkins and King never got into a conference finals and English, Melo and a younger Pierce appeared in just one conference finals apiece. A 30-year-old Pierce, a 31-year-old Dantley and a 29-year-old Aguirre didn't play in an NBA Finals until much later into their careers when they were big pieces of a better team puzzle and no longer solo scoring machines.
Seeing Paul Pierce playing now - with his bruising defense and save-myself-for-later offense - it's hard to believe that this guy once put up 26 points per game, was routinely among league leaders in free throw attempts and was a suspect defender. But that's how he played when he was around Melo's age today (mid-to-late 20s). Then, after several seasons of playoff failure and a brief taste of the conference finals followed by more playoff failure (or missing the postseason altogether), an unhappy Pierce almost demanded a trade that could have landed him in Chicago.
We all know what happened for Pierce since. Celtics management, rather than deal Pierce and rebuild anew, doubled-down on Pierce by surrounding him with Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and a decent cast of role players. All they've done since is appear in two out of the last three NBA Finals, taking home the trophy in 2008. Pierce's scoring has gone down with age, but his field goal percentage, free throw percentage and three-point field goal percentage have improved. Simply put, he has become a smarter player.
I'm seeing Melo follow a similar path. Melo remains a scoring machine first (although curiously, his free throw attempts per game are an unacceptably low 6.4) but he is rebounding better, defending better and passing better. Maybe he's ascending into the Paul Pierce Era of his own career a bit ahead of schedule, being just 26 years old. But like his colleague in Boston, in the years to come Melo will score less, defend and rebound better and shoot more accurately (as he is already at a near 50% clip).
Nuggets fans just hope he'll be doing it in Denver.
This is where the Pierce and Melo comparison falls apart. The 2007-08 Celtics - having point guard sensation-to-be Rajon Rondo in place plus a high lottery pick to trade with - were able to maneuver to surround Pierce with amazing talent and solid role players before his opt-out year came up. Melo, having the opt-out option at this season's end, doesn't give the Nuggets the luxury of assembling lottery picks and cap space to make moves after the season is over. Whatever moves are available to them must be made now, as Cleveland did to bring in Shaquille O'Neal and then Antawn Jamison on behalf of retaining LeBron James last season...which only worked in hamstringing the Cavaliers cap flexibility for two more years.
Now I know what some of you are thinking: "Doesn't Andrew hate Melo? Why is he comparing him to Paul Pierce who stayed in Boston to win a championship?" Again, I don't hate Melo. Never have. I've at times been his biggest cheerleader and at others been his biggest critic. Yes, I was one of the first to suggest trading Melo prior to the season's start if he didn't commit to signing that contract extension. But I was also one of the first to suggest he be offered the extension in the first place. Point being, there's a huge delta between "hate" and wanting to trade a player who appears to be turning down $65 million (during a recession, no less) to play basketball in Denver. As noted by Simmons, Denver fans deserve better for their ticket dollars.
When Pierce wanted out of Boston, the circumstances from the fan's perspective were quite different. Unlike what the Kroenkes and those under them have done in Denver, Celtics management had done a horrific job surrounding Pierce with talent (remember the Rick Pitino and Chris Wallace Eras? Yeeeesh) prior to 2007 and thus, very few Celtics fans - Simmons included - blamed Pierce for wanting out.
Conversely, the Melo situation puts Nuggets fans in a tough, contradictory spot. While I don't blame those who are fed up with Melo for not signing the extension and not wanting to stay in Denver, I also don't blame those who think a little more passion from the fans might get #15 to ink that deal. And yes, I can have it both ways, hence why I gladly signed the Melo petition launched over the weekend.
I don't know where this Carmelo Anthony situation is going to end up and neither do any of you. I've advocated for a 30-game "wait" to see if doubling down on Melo - like the Celtics did with Pierce - is the way to go. But if the Nuggets look to be going nowhere after 30 or so games, the Nuggets - due to their limited resources at present - must look to deal. Nate once wrote that "Trading Melo is not an option". I like to think that ending up empty-handed is not an option.
Many NBA journalists keep saying that Melo is "looking east", inferring that he wants to be a Knick, a Bull and would even settle for being a Net. If it's true that Carmelo Anthony is looking east, perhaps he should look northeast to Boston where his mirror image was in a similar situation just three seasons ago, showed some loyalty to the organization that drafted him and the fans who supported him and will now go down in history as one of the great Celtics. In the modern era of sports, it's rare to start and stay with the same team and win a championship while doing so. Melo has that opportunity in Denver where by simply staying a few more seasons he becomes the greatest Nugget in franchise history.
Just yesterday, Melo told the New York Post's Peter Vecsey:
"I'm just like LeBron. It's all about winning. That's all I care about. I want the chance to compete at the championship level. All the other stuff is irrelevant."
Memo to Melo: LeBron James doesn't know the first thing about winning. Paul Pierce does, and that's who you should be comparing yourself to.