Joe Dumars. He was the real MVP.
If Dumars hadn’t fallen in love with the hype surrounding what basically amounted to a single workout for European prospect Darko Milicic then there’s a good chance Carmelo Anthony never becomes a Nugget. The Nuggets would have likely drafted Milicic instead, likely sending them into a terrible spiral highlighted by back to back high pricked European prospects who end up as draft busts. Instead, the Nuggets got the NCAA Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, fresh off leading the Syracuse Orange to the only NCAA Championship they’ve ever won.
After a March where Melo looked head and shoulders above every other collegiate basketball player in the country there were even whispers about “maybe Melo should be going No. 1 instead of that LeBron James guy.” That, of course, looks ridiculous in hindsight now but at the time it wasn’t so far fetched. When the Nuggets announced Melo’s name on draft night in 2003 the fans knew they were getting something special, a franchise that had been maligned for almost a decade was finally going to be back on the rise.
Of course we all know how it works out, with Melo leaving Denver just over seven seasons later in public, and at times nauseating, fashion. While Denver stemmed the inevitable tide of rebuild for a few seasons, ultimately Melo’s departure was the start of a down swing for the franchise that lasts even to today as they currently sit in their second longest playoff drought ever.
Things didn’t really work out all that well for Anthony either. His new team, the New York Knicks, never lived up to the hype and, as was much the case for his entire career, Melo could only take his overwhelming talent and a not-quite-perfect supporting cast to mild success in the post season.
Since he left New York at the beginning of last season, it’s been nothing less than a rapid fall from grace. His decline culminated this weekend when rumors from the most reputable people in the NBA media started to surface that Melo’s time with his newest team, the Houston Rockets, was coming to a close as quickly as it began, with Anthony’s tenth game potentially being his last game in a Rockets uniform.
The rapid decline has drawn comparisons to Melo’s former teammate, Allen Iverson. AI came to Denver as the last bright spot of his career before playing an uninspiring season with the Detroit Pistons and then flaming out with the Memphis Grizzlies very early in the year, just like Melo and the Rockets. Iverson took about a month off before signing with one more team to finish out his career. That was the team who drafted him, the Philadelphia 76ers. If Carmelo were to follow the same path like has has so far, that of course would mean he would finish out this season with the team who drafted him, the Nuggets. It’s a silly way to analyze, as obviously there’s no cosmic connection that will force Melo to walk in the same footsteps as his former teammate, but with the Nuggets struggling on offense and with the offensive firepower of Will Barton, Michael Porter Jr. and Isaiah Thomas on the bench one can see, on the surface at least, how it seems like Melo might actually be a fit.
There are unfortunately multiple reasons why that’s just not the case though.
Melo and AI’s rapid drop in production is very similar; the major difference between Iverson ending out his career back in Philly versus Melo coming back to Denver is that the 76ers were an awful team that season, whereas the Nuggets are off to a fantastic start. Philadelphia only won 27 games in 2009-2010 and would end up with the second overall pick in the draft (they blew it by selecting Evan Turner). The Nuggets are obviously not looking to increase their draft stock.
The Nuggets fans are also far less likely to embrace the return of one of the former greats. When Iverson was with the 76ers in his prime he was an MVP, he led his team to the Finals. He had that playoff success and national attention that made him a true star in every sense of the word and the city loved him for it. It wasn’t quite the same with Melo. Across the board whether it was playoff success, national recognition or even fan interest, when comparing Melo to Iverson it’s always close, but not quite the same. So when Melo left, it felt different. The fans in Denver felt betrayed and shunned because the sleepy city in the mountains didn’t offer the same appeal as the Big Apple. Seven years later and that feeling hasn’t changed for many.
Of course, all can be forgiven with wins. Make no mistake, if the Nuggets believe that Carmelo Anthony can help their basketball team they will definitely pick up the phone and talk with Melo’s people. It’s not hard to make the roster space now that they have declined Tyler Lydon’s option. They could either wait until December 15th to trade for Melo if the Rockets wanted to take a flyer on Lydon, or they could waive Lydon to make space Anthony and sign him right away if Houston releases him. The overall cost of doing business is fairly minimal either way. The problem is that the Nuggets wouldn’t be getting close to the player that everyone in Denver remembers. Because say what you want about how the guy left, Carmelo was an absolute beast when he played in Denver. Again, that was seven years ago, and a lot has changed since then.
When Melo was in his prime the thing that made him one of the most dominant players on offense was he had the quickness to go with his size to be able to get to the rim with incredible ease. He countered that with an outstanding jabstep that only had to give him even an inch of space for him to be ale to bury a mid range jumper. As the NBA has evolved, Melo’s skills, which were effective mostly in isolation, have become less valuable. Additionally, as he has gotten older he’s become far less likely to take the high rate of success shot at the rim and far more likely to settle for a jumpshot. Anthony never once took less than 35% of his shots from within three feet while wearing a Nuggets uniform. He developed his mid-range game so he didn’t have to rely almost solely on attacking the rim like he did as a rookie, but he never stopped making that part of his game his primary weapon.
Last season with the Oklahoma City Thunder just 12% of Melo’s shots were taken from within three feet of the basket. Instead of those high efficiency shots Anthony has embraced the era of the three point ball, taking over 52% of his shots this season from outside. The problem is he hasn’t really improved his outside shot over his career. He cracked the hallowed 40% mark just once (2013-14 with the Knicks) and for the most part has been at or just below league average his entire career. That’s true once again this season where despite shooting more threes then ever, Melo’s conversion rate is one of its lowest at 32.8%. As we’ve seen with Torrey Craig, the Nuggets need spacing and the threat of the three point shot from their small forward position. With Melo not able to provide that and with the Nuggets having real aspirations of doing damage in the playoffs with their young core, that “give him 30+ minutes a game while he rides off into the sunset” scenario that Philly had with Iverson doesn’t really exist here. It also seems unlikely for Melo to take a bench role in Denver. Chris Paul and James Harden might be able to take him into that sure, but the Nuggets don’t have that veteran cachet in the locker room like Houston does to reign in Anthony’s expectations.
There’s definitely some nostalgic reasons to want to bring Melo back. Yes, some fans are still hung up on the way he left town but at the end of the day his body of work over seven and a half seasons with Denver should not be forgotten, nor should the fact that he almost single handedly saved basketball in Denver. If the Nuggets were in a similar scenario as the Sixers were back in 2010 where they weren’t expecting to compete and needed something to sell to the fans to help put butts in the seats then sure, a swan song for Melo would fit the bill. That’s just not the case in Denver now though. It certainly also seems to be the case that Melo has no interest in being a strictly locker room guy or filling a role similar to what Richard Jefferson or Mike Miller have in the past with Denver.
Throw in the fact that Nuggets fans are fully moved on to their next era and trying to put Melo back in a Nuggets uniform right now is a really tough sell all around.