On Pro Basketball: As a Team-First LeBron James Soars, a Me-First Carmelo Anthony Staggers



In the end, he returned, saw and conquered, delivering first another run to the 2015 finals and, last June, the long-awaited irrigation of Cleveland’s historic championship drought.

What to make of a seemingly possessed man who still wants — no, demands — even more? Let James Jones, his 36-year-old Cavaliers teammate and a staunch LeBron loyalist, try to explain.

“We all understand, in general, that people want to cheer for the underdog, those that don’t possess all the tools but have the burning desire to where their motivation and passion supersedes their physical limitations,” Jones said before James and the Kyrie Irving-less Cavs subdued the Knicks and Carmelo Anthony, 111-104, on Saturday night in a Madison Square Garden contest that was competitive for only a few late fourth-quarter moments.

Jones continued: “LeBron may be the most physically gifted basketball player to ever step on a court. But because he has those physical attributes, some people try to discount or disparage his desire, and it’s unfortunate. Because once you get to play with him, you realize there isn’t a place he won’t go in order to win.”

About whom have we heard this before? Right, the man the entire sport, Charles Barkley included, once genuflected before, celebrating a thirst for victory so unquenchable that anything he did — bully teammates, brutalize the front office — was considered part of the price people paid while going along for six championship rides.

That man, of course, was Michael Jordan. But there were others from Barkley’s era who prodded and provoked many along the path to collective immortality. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird come to mind. Behaviorally, Kobe Bryant was Meddling Michael to the max.

Barkley ignited a recent firestorm, questioning James’s competitive courage after he publicly took Cleveland’s front office to task for, in effect, not keeping pace with Golden State’s roster upgrade via Kevin Durant. Barkley is paid by a network to express colorful opinions, but missing the greater context made him sound less the genial analyst and more the generational scold.

James overreacted, attacking Barkley’s history of spitting into the wind, when he really might have said, You have no understanding of what it takes to win multiple championships because, frankly, you never had what it took to win even one.

Barkley was a great and wildly entertaining talent, but a dribbling enigma wrapped in a riddle. He has, for years, used his pulpit to nitpick James, whose most egregious misstep in nearly a decade and a half of professional ball was a silly but harmless television event to announce his Miami marriage.

Barkley has also regularly roasted Anthony for not being enough of a leader and the kind of franchise player who, as they say, makes everyone better.

Implicit in that criticism — and contradiction — is that Anthony is not James, which is no news flash. And never was it more obvious than on national television Saturday night, when James choreographed everything the Cavaliers did while a heavy-legged Anthony had another night of misfiring in a now-familiar season of misery.

Trade rumors abound. Boos from the frustrated Garden faithful resound. After the Knicks fell to 22-30, Anthony said: “Despite everything that’s going on, that’s surrounding — I don’t even want to say us — me, I think that’s tested me. It’s tested my will. It’s tested me as a human being.”

Actually, it is us, or we, because the latest in a series of Melodramas engulfs the franchise in uncertainty and affects everyone, specifically Kristaps Porzingis, who, of late, has looked dazed and confused by a second year of standard Knicks dysfunction.

From the beginning, in 2011, Anthony has habitually failed to grasp the effect his personal decisions have had on the Knicks. That was when he could have waited mere months to sign with them as a free agent instead of pressuring them to trade for him, which they did.

A man is entitled to earn, and Anthony was worried about pending collective-bargaining changes to upper-echelon contracts. Fair enough. But while it is often said that nobody the Knicks traded to Denver to acquire Anthony amounted to much, that is a debatable point and not the main one. It’s what those players and draft picks might have produced — with or without Anthony — later on. Might the Knicks, for instance, have been in position to outbid Houston for James Harden?

Anthony got his wish, became the centerpiece on Broadway, a coup for his off-court brand. It’s difficult to shake the suspicion that was the principal reason he re-signed with the Knicks in 2014, when he could have joined any number of playoff-ready teams as a free agent.

Now the no-trade clause he was foolishly granted by the team president, Phil Jackson, is as much an impediment to a divorce as it is a protection from a destination Anthony won’t approve.

He would reportedly love to join his buddy James, whose obsession with winning would provide a motivational compass. But Jackson knows he had better bring back value for Anthony, and Cleveland has nothing to offer except Kevin Love in what would be a swap of high-scoring forwards.

When Love looked lost early in last season’s finals, a fair number of commentators — the one you are reading included — panned the trade for him that James orchestrated upon his 2014 return to Cleveland. But Love persevered, is now enjoying an All-Star season, and is four years younger than Anthony.

Mea culpa to James, who may be a dependable friend but is, first and foremost, a devoted teammate. Anthony and Barkley shouldn’t hold their breath waiting for the King to forget how he got that crown. By knowing how a commitment to we ultimately benefits me.

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