When it comes to individual legacies in basketball, the yardstick is Michael Jordan. In swimming, the yardstick is Michael Phelps. We already know that Carmelo Anthony is no Jordan. But lately, the legacy conversation he has entered has more to do with Phelps.
Let me explain. Phelps has used the 2016 Rio Olympics to surpass 20 career gold medals between individual and relay races, strengthening his case as the greatest Olympian ever (we won’t get into any debates here regarding how swimming provides Phelps with more medal opportunities than elite Olympians in other sports). Anthony, meanwhile, on Wednesday became the all-time leading scorer in USA Basketball history with a 31-point performance—including nine 3-pointers—in the Americans’ tougher-than-expected 98-88 win over Australia.
Carmelo Anthony the All Star
Carmelo is a perennial NBA All-Star and an elite scorer, averaging nearly 25 points a game during his 13-year career. The Denver Nuggets and New York Knicks built their teams around him. But Anthony’s individual statistical success hasn’t been met with team success in the playoffs. His squads have advanced to the second round just twice and to the Conference Finals once, and never to the NBA Finals. He isn’t done yet, but as things currently stand, Carmelo’s NBA legacy places him on a level below his fellow 2003 NBA Draft superstars, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Carmelo’s legacy—for now—is akin to stars like Chris Paul and Dwight Howard, who have been elite players at their positions but haven’t won championships.
Melo's International Olympic Legacy
But during the Rio Olympic Games, some NBA commentators are beginning to argue that Carmelo’s status as the elder statesmen of USA Basketball might elevate his basketball legacy. He’s a leading NBA talent but an even better talent as a power forward in international basketball, the logic goes, given how larger players can’t adequately defend him at the 4 spot and how he can still guard them at the other end of the floor. What results is the ultimate mismatch—a mismatch that produces results like Anthony’s 37 points in 14 minutes against Nigeria at the 2012 London Olympics, and his clutch performance this week to help Team USA avoid an upset against Australia. Given his dominance while playing alongside fellow NBA superstars at the Olympics, the commentators believe that the international game might not just enhance, but also define Carmelo’s basketball legacy. After all, there’s a Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, not just an NBA Hall of Fame.
Is the argument valid? Not in this commentator’s opinion. Tim Duncan won five NBA championships and no Olympic gold medals. Anthony is on the verge of his third Olympic gold, but has no NBA championships and isn’t expected to win one anytime soon. Is there anyone who’s going to argue that Anthony’s basketball legacy is superior or even equal to Duncan’s?
NBA Championships vs Olympic Basketball
I’ll remember NBA stars for what they did in the NBA, not at the Olympics. For USA Basketball, winning the gold is not just an accomplishment. It’s a requirement—given the American roster’s superior talent from top to bottom, anything less than gold is considered a huge failure. That was the case in Athens for the 2004 American hoops team, which lost three games and settled for a bronze medal. Anthony, by the way, was part of that team. That doesn’t necessarily tarnish his international basketball legacy, because he played a small role on the 2004 squad and a much larger role on the 2008 and 2012 gold medal-winning American teams as well as on this year’s team. Yet his Olympic basketball prowess doesn’t change anything about his failure, thus far, to deliver an NBA championship. The competition is much tougher in the NBA, and on that stage, Carmelo is a flawed superstar.
Melo vs Phelps
In swimming, the Olympics are the highest level of competition and gold medals there are the highest honor in the sport. The same can’t be said for what Olympic basketball means in the context of basketball in general. That’s why Michael Phelps is the gold standard in swimming, and it’s why Carmelo’s accomplishments at the Olympics are notable but shouldn’t be overstated. If he wants to re-write his basketball legacy, Carmelo needs to win more at the highest level.