Two star-crossed players, Carmelo Anthony and Jeremy Lin, were back in the news last week for similar reasons. Melo went on ESPN’s First Take to candidly talk about his nightmarishly brief tenure with the Houston Rockets and his future, sparking renewed conversations about his failure to adjust to a new phase of his career. Lin, speaking to fans on an Asian tour while withering on the free agency vine, broke down about how tough it is to be on the fringe of the NBA and losing your grip.
Melo was one of the league’s biggest stars for a decade. Lin had a briefer reign as a headline-grabbing star, but has cultivated an enormously passionate and deep fandom. Both are learning how little the NBA cares about legacy and reputation in this era unless there are wins or profits to be wrung from them.
To be sure, there are many differences between the two players. Anthony was the No. 3 pick in one of the greatest drafts ever, almost beat LeBron James for Rookie of the Year in 2003-04, and became a 10-time all-star who led his team to the playoffs the first 10 seasons of his career. He’s the most decorated male player in USA Basketball history. He’s earned about $250 million in NBA salary. He will be in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Lin went undrafted out of Harvard, became the first Taiwanese-American player in the league, spent his rookie season scrounging for minutes behind Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry, and then exploded into the public consciousness the next season for the injury-ravaged Knicks with Melo sidelined.
And that’s when things began to unravel for both players.
Things went sideways fast for Melo after an illustrious and beguiling first decade in the league. The Knicks fell apart thanks to a combination of managerial malpractice and Melo’s untimely knee injuries in 2015. Phil Jackson swooped in to ruin the day along the way, leading to a fairly ugly and wholly unnecessary breakup in 2017.
That divorce landed Melo’s considerable contract on the books of the all-or-nothing Thunder in Paul George’s first season in OKC. Melo did not really work as a third (or in his telling on First Take, fourth) option, but his acquisition may have played a role in Russell Westbrook electing to sign an extension shortly after his arrival.
Melo notably bristled at media suggestions that he come off the bench. He got lots of grief for this alleged lack of self-awareness, given his diminishing state. But no one has ever claimed that OKC’s management or coaches discussed the possibility of a bench move with Melo himself. Faulting him for rejecting the notion in media appearances when it wasn’t apparently on the table from a team perspective seems wildly unfair. In other words, if no one in power on the Thunder staff had the courage to tell Melo they thought he should come off the bench, and if Billy Donovan never brought Melo off the bench, it ain’t Melo’s fault he didn’t come off the bench.