Carmelo Iriarte Anthony was born on May 29, 1984, in New York City, New York. (Click here for a complete listing of today's sports birthdays.) He was named after his father, who died of liver failure before Carmelo’s third birthday. That left Carmelo’s mother, Mary, on her own to raise her infant son and his three older siblings.
Mary worked long hours
as a housekeeper to support her family. Carmelo’s brothers and sisters
were all much older than him, so they helped out looking after their younger
brother. He absolutely loved basketball—both the college game and
the NBA. At the time, the Big East Conference was one of the nation’s
best, with big-time players like Eric Murdock, Malik Sealy, Alonzo Mourning, Terry
Dehere and Donyell Marshall.
When Carmelo was eight, his siblings were ready to move out. Mary headed to Baltimore with her youngest son. They settled in a neighborhood on the city’s west side known as “The Pharmacy”—which years later was made famous as the setting for HBO’s “The Wire.” It was no safer when Carmelo and his mom lived there. Crime and drugs could be found on every corner. Mary possessed a powerful tool in her attempts to keep Carmelo out of trouble. If he stepped out of line even slightly, he wasn’t allowed anywhere near a basketball court.
Early in his hoops career, Carmelo was not a standout player. Though he was crazy about basketball and worked hard on his game, he was of average height and build, even at his original position of point guard. Carmelo entered Towson Catholic High School in the fall of 1998 and was promptly cut from the varsity hoops team. The 45-minute commute he had to make each day hardly seemed worth it anymore.
Everything changed during the summer of 1999. Carmelo shot up five inches and suddenly became one of the area’s top players. The ballhandling skills and jump shot he had honed as a guard were much more dangerous packed into the frame of a 6-5 swingman. Carmelo wasn’t afraid to mix it up in the paint, either. Against tough competition in the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association and the Catholic League, the sophomore more than held his own. For the season, he averaged 14 points, five rebounds, four assists and two steals. Towson Catholic surged to a record of 26-3 and finished third in the state tournament.
Carmelo continued to grow, and so did his game. He patterned himself after Tracy McGrady, the Florida prep star who jumped straight to the NBA from North Carolina's Mount Zion High School. Carmelo enjoyed a huge year as a junior, almost doubling his scoring and rebounding numbers. Though Towson Catholic fell short of the state title, he was named the Baltimore City and County Player of the Year, All-Metropolitan Player of the Year and Baltimore Catholic League Player of the Year.
The attention focused on Carmelo began to go to his head. He was all too eager to listen to friends who guaranteed him he was destined for NBA stardom. Ignoring his schoolwork, the junior started missing classes and was suspended on several occasions. Mary worried that her son was walking on thin ice.
She was right. Though Carmelo was a prep star of considerable renown, he was barely registered a blip on the radar screen of pro scouts. Skinny and lacking strength, he was in no way ready for the physical demands on the NBA. It appeared that four years of college basketball were imperative for his maturation.
Naturally, Division I-A coaches were lining up to recruit Carmelo, particularly those from schools on the East Coast. He decided to declare early, announcing that he would attend Syracuse before his senior year. A fan of the Orangemen since his days in New York City, Carmelo liked coach Jim Boeheim’s style of play. He also figured he would get plenty of exposure in the Big East Conference.
But Carmelo’s ticket wasn’t punched yet. With his grades dropping under a C average and his scores on the ACT below acceptable standards, he needed to improve in the classroom to qualify academically for Syracuse. Carmelo and his mother agreed that he would benefit from a change of scenery. First he looked at Virginia's Hargrave Military Academy. Then he talked to Steve Smith, the head coach at basketball powerhouse Oak Hill Academy, also in the Old Dominion State. The Baptist boarding school in rural Mouth of Wilson seemed like a perfect fit.
Oak Hill—winner of the USA Today 2000-01 high school championship—had a sterling reputation. Fourteen former Warriors had graduated to the NBA, including Rod Strickland, Jerry Stackhouse and Ron Mercer.
That summer, Carmelo led an AAU Baltimore Select team to the Final Four of the Adidas Big Time Tournament in Las Vegas. Against the country’s top prep talent, he dazzled to the tune of 25.2 points a game. His performance opened eyes around the NBA. Along with Amare “Baby Shaq” Stoudemire, he was being touted as a future lottery pick.
Also of note was Carmelo’s play at the USA Basketball Youth Development Festival in Colorado. Helping the East Team to the silver medal, he tied for the tournament scoring lead at 24 points a game and shot 66 percent from the field. The only other player who approached Carmelo’s production was LeBron James. The two struck up a friendship, certain their paths would cross again in the pros.
First, however, Carmelo would have to make the Oak Hill Warriors.
ON THE RISE
To meet the school’s academic standards, Carmelo spent five weeks on campus in summer school. From Monday through Saturday, he rose every morning for English and Geometry classes, and then hit the gym for several hours in the afternoon. More than once Carmelo thought about quitting. His mother would have none of it.
By the fall, Carmelo
looked and felt like a different person. Confident in the classroom, he
raised his GPA to 2.5, which qualified him to suit up for coach Smith.
On the basketball court, the senior was discovering new phases of his
game. His summer of weightlifting and sweaty workouts shed his remaining
baby fat and gave him a more chiseled physique. Now standing 6-7, Carmelo
had a body that enabled him to dominate anywhere on the floor.
The Warriors entered the 2001-02 campaign boasting a 42-game winning streak. Including Carmelo, there were seven players who were clearly major college prospects. Carmelo was already acknowledged as the team’s go-to guy, while Justin Gray—ticketed for Wake Forest the following fall—offered plenty of experience at point guard. Sani Ibrahim, a 6-10 native of Nigeria, started at center. Coach Smith’s roster also included major college recruits such as Eric Wilkins, Chadd Moore and Antywayne Robinson.
One of the country’s biggest draws, Oak Hill was scheduled to play just nine games on its home court. The squad’s first test came in the Les Schwab Invitational in Portland, Oregon. Among the competition in the 10-team field was Mater Dei High School from California, which featured Mike and D.J. Strawberry, the cousin and son of former big-league slugger Darryl. The Warriors, however, proved the cream of the crop, and Carmelo walked away with tourney MVP honors.
It was more of the same as the season progressed. Oak Hill won two more big-time tournaments, including the inaugural Nike Academy National Invitational in Texas. No contest was more anticipated than a February faceoff with Ohio’s St.Vincent-St. Mary. The game was billed as a showdown between Carmelo and James. Neither star disappointed. James went for 36 points, but Carmelo, who led the Warriors with 34, got the last laugh with a two-point victory.
The Warriors wound
up the campaign ranked third in the country at 32-1, their only loss coming
in a rematch with Mater Dei (which ended their unbeaten streak at 67).
Carmelo’s numbers (22 ppg, 7.1 rpg and 3.0 apg) only hinted at his
greatness. He shot 58 percent from the floor and converted almost half
of his three-point attempts. One of five finalists for the Naismith Player
of the Year award, he was named to USA Today’s All-USA
first team, Parade Magazine’s All-American first team and Basketball America’s All-American first team.
Next up for Carmelo was the parade of high school All-Star games. In Michael Jordan’s Brand Capitol Classic, he scored a game-high 27 points and got to meet the contest’s host. Carmelo next pumped in 19 points in the McDonald's All-America tilt. Those performances helped lift his reputation even higher. Hoop Scoop had him as the No. 1 player in the 2002 senior class, while College Basketball News and All-Star Sports both ranked him in the top three.
Everyone wondered whether Carmelo would forget about college and move on to the NBA. Those questions were due partly to his struggles with the ACT. He had yet to produce the minimum score of 18 and didn’t want to rule out the pros until he was a surefire academic qualifier at Syracuse. When Carmelo got a 19 in late April, however, he decided to stick with Plan A and prepared for his freshman year at college.
Before Carmelo made the trek to upstate New York, he traveled south with Team USA to the Junior World Championship Qualifying tournament in Venezuela. In his first taste of international competition, the teenager flourished. Though coach Ernie Kent used Carmelo out of position at power forward—which forced him to play with his back to the basket—he topped the team in scoring and finished third in rebounding. His finest game came against Argentina, when he pumped in 23 points in a 75-73 victory. Unfortunately, an upset at the hands of the Argentines ruined the trip for the Americans, who returned home with the bronze medal.
For Carmelo, there was one more stop before Syracuse. In August, he flew to California for Jordan’s exclusive, invitation-only camp at the University of California-Santa Barbara. Among the others in attendance was Carmelo’s good buddy James.
Carmelo’s arrival in Syracuse was the most anticipated event on campus in years. Along with guard Gerry McNamara and forward Matt Gorman, he was the heart of Boeheim’s most impressive freshman class in over a decade. Not since the days of Billy Owens did the Orangemen boast such a versatile big man.
The Syracuse basketball team had a lot to prove to its fans. During the 2001-02 season, the squad had gone 23-13 and missed the NCAA tournament for just the fifth time in Boeheim’s 26 years at the helm. Making matters worse, the Orangemen were without Preston Shumpert, a sharpshooter who graduated after finishing his career ranked in the Top 10 on the school’s all-time scoring list. Syracuse faced a tough schedule, too. Their foes in the Big East’s West Division included Pittsburgh, Georgetown and Notre Dame. In addition, Georgia Tech and Missouri were slated to visit the Carrier Dome, while a trip to Michigan State also loomed.
Working to Boeheim’s advantage was a roster full of young players who had picked up important experience the year before. Guard Kueth Duany was a natural leader who could be an explosive scorer. Hakim Warrick was a lanky forward with world-class leaping ability. Craig Forth and Jerry McNeil provided plenty of muscle up front, while Josh Pace offered a spark off the bench. The wild card was Billy Edelin, a point guard who had starred at Oak Hill the season before Carmelo joined the Warriors. After being suspended by Syracuse in the fall of 2001, he returned to the squad in Boeheim’s good graces.
Initially, Carmelo had trouble adjusting to life on campus. Syracuse was cold, finding his classrooms was often a challenge, and his role on the team had yet to be defined. Duany took him under his wing, showing the freshman the ropes and helping him relax. Before long, Carmelo was one of the team’s most popular players. He also sported one of the club’s most fashionable ‘do’s, opting to go with corn rows.
Carmelo grew accustomed to his surroundings, and his play reflected his comfort level. In Syracuse’s season opener, against Memphis at Madison Square Garden in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic, he poured in 21 points and grabbed eight rebounds in the first half. Though the Orangemen fell 70-63, the college basketball world quickly discovered that Carmelo was a rare talent.
Syracuse rebounded from that defeat to win its next 10. In a blowout of Binghamton, Carmelo flashed his diverse skills, starting the game with a dunk and then dishing out assists on the Orangemen’s next three possessions. He ended the night with 24 points, 15 boards and five ssists. As the team prepared to host #11 Missouri in January, Carmelo already had eight double-doubles to his credit. Against the Tigers, he posted another, as Syracuse pulled off the upset, 79-69.
Though the team’s winning streak was snapped by Pittsburgh five days later, the Orangemen were becoming one of the best stories of the season. Carmelo and McNamara had already established themselves as the Big East’s top two newcomers, Warrick was developing into a star, and Boeheim was again being heralded as a genius.
Heading into the teeth of their Big East schedule, the Orangemen were about to learn whether they were for real. In mid-February, they faced off against Notre Dame in a battle for first in the West Division. With Syracuse trailing in the second half, Carmelo exploded for 18 of his game-high 26 points, sparking his club to an 82-80 victory. A week later, the Orangemen impressed with a 76-75 shocker over the Spartans at Michigan State. Carmelo was dazzling again, knocking down all five of his 3-point tries in a 25-point performance.
The victory propelled Syracuse down the stretch. The team won its last four to take the West Division title and moved within striking distance of a Top 10 national ranking. In the regular season finale—an 83-74 victory at home over Rutgers—Carmelo entered his name in the record books, breaking Lawrence Moten’s school scoring record for freshman with 607 points.
His 30 points also pushed his season average to 22.5 ppg, which topped the Big East rookie mark set by Troy Bell of Boston College. Late in the contest, the more than 30,000 in attendance began chanting, “One more year!" Indeed, by now Carmelo’s pro prospects were crystal clear to everyone. Speculation increased after he swept all the significant freshman honors, including the U.S. Basketball Writers Association’s Freshman of the Year, Big East Rookie of the Year and All-Big East First Team.
The streaking Orangemen were temporarily derailed in the Big East Tournament with a loss in the semifinals against UConn, despite 29 from Carmelo. Still, Syracuse secured the #3 seed in the East bracket of the NCAA Tournament. Though their road to the Final Four promised to be treacherous, they had two advantages. First, their loyal fans didn’t have far to travel to support the team in Boston in the opening rounds. Second, with Carmelo at the top of his game, they had a player who could carry them a long way.
MAKING HIS MARK
Syracuse’s first game was against mighty mite Manhattan, an opponent that many believed would give the team fits. But a balanced scoring attack led by the Orangemen’s impressive freshman trio—Carmelo, McNamara and Edelin—keyed a 76-65 victory.
Up next was Oklahoma State, another squad that matched up well against Syracuse. Equally imposing was coach Eddie Sutton, who rarely entered a game at anything less than fully prepared. With the Cowboys playing swarming defense, the Orangemen found themselves down 17 points in the first half. Carmelo was non-existent, hitting on just one field goal attempt. In the second half, Carmelo and McNamara heated up and, Syracuse turned the tables. The Orangemen’s 68-56 win provided a major emotional boost. Syracuse got another when Carmelo was named Freshman of the Year by Basketball Times.
Heading into their Sweet 16 tilt with Auburn, the Orangemen were riding high. They jumped out to a big lead versus the Tigers, moving in front by 17 points. Auburn, however, pulled within a bucket with eight minutes to go on the lights-out shooting of Marquis Daniels and Nathan Watson. That’s when Carmelo took over. He scored Syracuse’s next seven points to put the game on ice. Boeheim, who marveled afterward at his freshman’s sense of timing, earned the 650th victory of his career.
Carmelo and Boeheim also made headlines in Syracuse’s Elite Eight victory over Oklahoma. The 18-year-old went for 20 points and 10 rebounds, while the coach’s signature 2-3 zone completely handcuffed the Sooners. On the strength of a 63-47 laugher, the Orangemen advanced to the Final Four for the first time since 1996.
Facing the University of Texas—the team many experts predicted would capture the title—Syracuse had its hands full. Point guard T.J. Ford was a lethal penetrator and the Naismith winner as national player of the year. In Brandon Mouton and Royal Ivey, the Longhorns had two athletic swingmen, and forward James Thomas was a rebounding machine. The squad was the deepest team Rick Barnes had ever coached.
What Barnes and the experts didn’t count on was Carmelo’s ability to dominate a game—an almost unheard of quality in a player his age. From the opening tip, the game belonged to the fabulous freshman. He poured in a career-high 33 points on 12-of-19 shooting and pulled down 14 rebounds. At one point, Carmelo joked with Barnes about the Texas defense. Both knew that no one was stopping Carmelo this night, and the Texas coach couldn’t help but smile. Though the Longhorns battled hard, Syracuse ran away late in the contest, cruising to a 95-84 victory.
The Championship Game was a television executive’s dream. The storylines were thick with drama. Kansas coach Roy Williams was agonizingly close to his first title. So was Boeheim. Rumors also swirled that Williams would bolt the Jayhawks to take the North Carolina job. His two best players, Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison, were suiting up for the their final college contest. And, of course, there was Carmelo.
Syracuse charged from the gate to an 18-point lead in the first half. McNamara couldn’t miss from the outside, and Carmelo was putting together another masterpiece. But Kansas refused to go quietly. The Jayhawks sliced the lead to 80-78 with under a minute remaining, and then had a chance to tie the contest on their last possession. Warrick, however, blocked a 3-pointer by Hinrich to seal the deal. Carmelo (20 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists) finished just shy of a triple-double. He was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, making him the third freshman ever to claim the award. The others were Louisville's Pervis Ellison in 1986 and Utah’s Arnie Ferrin in 1944.
Less than three weeks later, Carmelo announced his intentions to leave college for the NBA draft. He cried several times during the press conference at Syracuse’s Manley Field House. Boeheim didn’t fight his star’s decision. Carmelo was certain to earn millions as one of the draft's top three picks.
With the Cleveland Cavaliers the odds-on favorite to win the lottery, James—an Ohio boy—was the popular choice as the #1 selection. Then it was a toss-up between Carmelo and Darko Milicic, a 7-0 forward from Montenegro. When the Detroit Pistons secured the second spot in the draft, they opted for the big man, partly because they wanted more size in the paint and also because they liked the future of Tayshaun Prince, who already played Carmelo’s position.
Fortunately for the Nuggets, Detroit’s decision allowed Carmelo to fall into their laps. Coming off another miserable year—the team went 17-65 in 2002-03—the 6-8 forward was exactly what the franchise needed to re-energize its fans, not to mention its offense. The Nuggets averaged a paltry 84.2 points per game, the second lowest mark in the league. Carmelo slotted easily into a starting lineup that included Andre Miller at the point and Marcus Camby and Nene Hilario in the front court. Coach Jeff Bzdelik also figured to get contributions from Earl Boykins, Voshon Lenard and Jon Barry.
Denver’s most highly touted rookie since David Thompson in 1975, Carmelo was sure to benefit from the teachings of Kiki Vandeweghe, a former All-Star and the team’s GM. The rookie showed up for camp about 10 pounds overweight, but he was in shape by Denver’s preseason game against the Pistons at Syracuse’s Carrier Dome. Carmelo pumped in 19 in the first half, and then returned to the floor briefly in the fourth quarter with fans screaming his name.
Tens days later, Carmelo made his regular-season debut. In a rousing 80-72 victory over the San Antonio Spurs, he scored 12 points and grabbed seven rebounds.
As the season progressed, Carmelo experienced most of the normal ups and downs of an NBA rookie—though there were considerably more ups. Two of those came in wins over the Cavs and James. Both contests attracted national media attention, and Carmelo displayed his amazing sense of cool, letting the game come to him instead of forcing the action.
By season's end, Carmelo proved he was worthy of the #3 pick. In fact, he was the main reason why the Nuggets rose to a record of 43-39, a surprising turnaround from last year's 17-win year. Carmelo averaged 21 a game, including a 41-point outburst in March against Seattle. He shot almost 43% from the field and 78% at the free throw line. Named to the NBA All-Rookie Team, he garnered tremendous support as Rookie of the Year. But James had the inside track on the hardware. Carmelo wound up the runner-up in the voting to his buddy.
But Carmelo had more success in the standings. Denver returned to playoffs against the top-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves. Though the Nuggets were eliminated in five games, they gave their fans a treat with a win at home. Carmelo was fantastic in the victory, scoring 20 points with 10 rebounds and four assists. e showed his inexperience three night later with a dreadful 1-for-16 shooting performance. He sat out the last contest of the series with a mild knee sprain.
Carmelo assumed he would get more rest over the summer—he wasn't invited to play for the U.S. hoops team going to the Olympic Games in Greece. In July, however, he was a late addition when several NBA stars bowed out. Carmelo joined fellow rookie standouts James and Dwayne Wade, as well as perennial All-Stars Allen Iverson and Tim Duncan.
As had been the case since the original Dream Team dominated the Olympics in 1992, there were golden expectations for the Americans, particularly with Larry Brown in charge. But a rout at the hands of Puerto Rico shook the confidence of the U.S. squad. Though they fought back to win their next two games, the best they earned was a shot at the bronze medal, which they won after a victory over Lithuania.
For Carmelo, the Olympics proved another valuable experience—oddly, because he saw little playing time, just 47 minutes in the entire tournament. Unaccustomeed to being a bit player, he complained about his role, which drew the ire of Brown and made headlines back home. Carmelo learned from his missteps. When asked if he wanted to represent the U.S. in Bejing in 2008, he said he was already on board.
Back home, Carmelo refocused on his health and his relationship with Bzdelik. The two had their differences at times during the '03-04 season, mostly in how to execute the offense. But they shared an important quality—both hate losing.
Off the court, Carmelo remained very busy. He was hired to co-host the three-part cable TV series, "Spike 52's Greatest Moments in NBA History," with Bill Walton. He was also helping with a wheelchair-bound friend named Nicholas Owens, and he hosted a charity basketball exhibition in Denver.
With many of the experts predicting the Nuggets to join the Western Conference’s top echelon in 2004-05, they got off to an awful start, stumbling to a mark of 13-15. The team’s play was puzzling. Denver had made a big splash in the off-season by signing New Jersey Nets star Kenyon Martin, who gave them an excellent starting five. Denver also had plenty of depth on the bench.
With the club bumbling along under .500, management fired Bzdelik and replaced him with former Lakers star Michael Cooper. He did even less with Denver’s talented roster. Carmelo was as much to blame as anyone, shooting poorly from the field and often sleepwalking through practice.
Denver’s season turned in late January with the hiring of George Karl. The veteran coach introduced a new sense of discipline to the club, and he allowed the Nugs to run, provided they took care of business on the defensive end.
Karl was particularly tough on Carmelo. He pushed him every day in practice, challenging him to work hard on every facet of his game and to fully accept his role as a team leader. Carmelo responded amazingly well to his coach’s proddings. So did Miller and Camby. Carmelo pushed his scoring average to more than 20 points a game, while Miller looked rejuvenated at the point and Camby became a terror in the paint on defense. Carmelo also credited Vandeweghe and Martin for helping him regain confidence in himself.
The Nuggets finished the year at 49-33, good for second place in the Northwest Division and the seventh seed in the conference playoffs. Carmelo just about matched his numbers from his rookie campaign, but it was his willingness to take control when his team needed him that showed his growth as a player.
The bad news in Denver was the team’s opening-round matchup, San Antonio. Though the Nuggets suprised the Spurs with a Game 1 victory on the road, they couldn’t muster any more magic. Denver dropped the next four games and lost the series in five. Carmelo’s frustration was evident in Game 3, when he earned a $7,500 fine for shoving Manu Ginobili.
Carmelo’s transition to life as a pro was going smoothly—for the most part. Aside from an arrest for marijuana possession, he had been a good citizen. Some criticized him for acting immature at times, but for a kid who should still have been in college, he demonstrated amazing composure. Carmelo signed for $18 million over six years, and managed his money responsibly. He boughta high-rise condo in downtown Denver keptin close contact with his mom (who lived in a house he bought for her).
On the court, shooting was been the most inconsistent part of Carmelo's game. But his work with former Duke three-point specialist Chip Engelland, who helped Grant Hill and Steve Kerr develop into dangerous outside threats, was been a big help.
Carmelo and the Nuggets continued their progression in 2005–06. He finished eighth in the NBA at 26.5 points a game, and Denver won the Northwest Division title. Five of the team’s 44 victories came on buzzer-beating game-winners by Carmelo. He seemed to get better as the season wore on, earning Player of the Month honors for March. But it all came undone in the playoffs, when the Nuggets lost a best-of-three series to the lowly Los Angeles Clippers.
Re-energizing the fair-weather Denver fans would not be easy. Carmelo did his best, starting the 2006-07 campasign right where he left off the previous one. He was the NBA’s most prolific scorer early on, stringing together six straight 30-point performances in November. He recorded six more in early December. But just when it looked like Carmelo was maturing into a veteran star he made a rookie mistake. The Nuggets and Knicks got into a shoving match which quickly escalated into a fight. Carmelo was caught on tape popping Mardy Collins and then running away. The league office cringed every time the footage was aired. Carmelo got slapped with a 15-game suspension that kept him off the court until January 22.
At the start of the season, Carmelo seemed like a no-brainer to make his first All-Star Game, but his behavior led to his absence from the West roster. When injuries struck Yao Ming and Carlos Boozer, however, the league named him to the squad. Carmelo responded to this stroke of good fortune by scoring 20 points and pulling down nine rebounds in his All-Star debut.
By then Denver had made a move that it would ultimately regret—though it seemed like a no-brainer at the time. The Nuggets traded for Allen Iverson, a player they hoped would be a nice complement to Carmelo. The tean managed to find enough shots for both players, and by April Denver was really clicking. The Nuggets lost just one game that month and surged into the sixth playoff spot. Carmelo finished the year averaging 28.9 point, good for second in the NBA behind Kobe Bryant.
Carmelo kept his hot hand during the team’s first-round showdown with the Spurs. But just as they had two years earlier, the Nuggets won Game 1 and then wereswept out of the series by Duncan & Co.
All was forgiven in 2007–08, as the Nuggets played solid basketball, and Carmelo was voted into the All-Star Game's starting lineup. He was the second leading vote-getter in the Western Conference behind Kobe. Carmelo finished the year with a 25.7 scoring average, good for fourth in the NBA. He raised his rebounds (7.4) and steals (1.3) to career highs.
The Nuggets finished with 50 wins for the first time in 20 years, though in the power-packed West this barely got them into the playoffs. Against the Lakers in the first round, Carmelo scored well and was a monster under the boards. Los Angeles, however, simply overwhelmed Denver. For the fifth year in a row, the Nuggets went home after the first round.
Carmelo eased his pain somewhat over the summer, when he helped the USA “Redeem Team” win Olympic gold in Beijing. The Americans beat their opponents by an average 32 points a game. In a victory over Argentina, Carmelo set an Olympic record when he made all 13 of his free throw attempts. He scored 13 points in the gold medal win over Spain and average 11.5 over the eight-game tournament.
The 2008–09 season marked a turning point for Carmelo. Early on, he showed the attitude and bearing of a veteran star. No longer a precocious neophyte, he seemed comfortable for the first time with the mantle of leadership. Gone were the cornrows. Gone too was Iverson, dealt to the Pistons for hometown hero Chauncey Billups. The two developed an immediate rapport and led Denver to 54 victories, tying the franchise mark for wins since coming to the NBA. It marked the first time the Nuggets had ever registered back-to-back 50-win seasons. They finished atop the division and had the second-best record in the conference.
Carmelo’s season was marred somewhat by a broken hand in December, which he decided to splint instead of losing precious time to surgery. He returned to the lineup at the end of January and ended up playing in 66 games. He averaged 22.8 points a night.
The Nuggets made it through the first round of the playoffs with an easy win over the New Orleans Hornets. The series included a 58-point victory—tying the largest winning margin in playoff history. Carmelo dropped 34 on the Hornets in the series finale. Next up were the Dallas Mavericks. The Nuggets took care of them in five games, one of which ended with a buzzer-beating 3-point bucket by Carmelo.
The Nuggets entered the Western Conference Finals against the Lakers as mere window dressing to a postseason that everyone assumed would end with an NBA Finals showdown between Kobe and LeBron. But just as the Orlando Magic gave the Cavs a hellish time, so too did the Nuggets make life miserable for the Lakers.
Carmelo scored 39 in Game 1 as Denver nearly stole a win. The Nuggets led 103–102 when Carmelo fouled Bryant with five seconds left. Kobe hit both free throws to give L.A. the win. It was Denver's 11th straight playoff loss to the Lakers. Carmelo was furious at himself, and not just for the foul. He also threw an ill-conceived lob pass that fell into Trevor Ariza’s hands at a crucial moment late in the fourth quarter.
Game 2 also went down to the wire. Carmelo showed his mental toughness with a spectacular effort at both ends of the court. Martin hit a short jumper in the waning moments, and Billups sealed the deal with three free throws to even the series with a 106–103 victory. L.A. came back to win Game 3, and again it was an Ariza steal of a Carmelo pass that led to defeat.
Game 4 may one day be looked upon as a turning point for the Nuggets. Carmelo, hobbled by a sore ankle and slowed by a stomach virus, was unable to perform at his best. Denver’s supporting cast stepped up and blew the Lakers off the court, 120–101. Six Nuggets scored in double figures, including Billups and J.R. Smith, who tallied 24 apiece. Nene and Martin each posted double-doubles, and bench players like Linas Kleiza hit big shots when called upon.
The Nuggets wound up getting bounced in six games, but the series was an important benchmark for Carmelo nonetheless. People around the NBA are now calling him one of the league's elite players—because he showed the ability to lift his teammates to a higher level.
As the 2009-10 season opened, Carmelo picked up right where he left off in the ’08 playoffs. He totaled 71 points in the team’s first two games, joining Nick Van Exel and Alex English as the only Nuggets to reach the 70-point plateau to begain a season. More important, Denver started the year 2–0, something it hadn’t done in a generation. Carmelo was named Player of the Month for the Western Conference as the Nuggets went 12–5. By the All-Star break, he was the NBA’s leading scorer and a starter for the West squad. He led his teammates with 27 points in a losing cause.
In Denver's first game after the break, Carmelo went head-to-head with LeBron in a game against the Cavs on their home floor. Both players reached 40 points. Carmelo scored his last two over James’s outstretched arms to win the game with two seconds left.
He kept up his production the rest of the year, helping the Nuggets win 53 games. Often nagged by a sore ankle, Carmelo nonetheless ended the regular season with a 28.2 scoring average, good for third in the league. When the MVP voting was in, Carmelo finished sixth—the first time he had edged into the Top 10.
The starting five of Carmelo, Billups, Martin, Nene and J.R. Smith was good enough to make Denver a winner over the 82-game schedule. Unfortunately, come playoff time, the deck was stacked against the Nuggets. Led by Carmelo’s 42 points, they won the opener in their series against the Jazz. From there it got ugly, as Utah took three straight. The Nuggest clawed back in with a win in Denver, but the Jazz finished them off 112–104 in Game 6. The Jazz blanketed Carmelo with two players, forcing him into a 6-for-22 performance.
Despite Denver’s early exit in the 2010 playoffs, no one questioned whether Carmelo possessed the intangible qualities of a winner. For years, the common wisdom around the league was simple: Pair him with the right veteran star and quality role players, and don't be surprised to see Carmelo sporting a championship ring.
Heading into 2010–11, it looked more and more likely that he would earn that ring in a city other than Denver. Because he could opt out of his contract after the season, the Nuggets decided to deal him if the price was right. Adding to the intrigue was the announcement by Chris Paul at Carmelo’s wedding over the summer that he, Carmelo and Amare Stoudemire should join the Knicks—a la the Big Three in Miami.
As the February trade deadline neared, rumors started flying. Carmelo was headed to the Knicks, Nets and Bulls at one time or another. The specter of a lockout also complicated matters. The Nuggets gambled that one of these teams would meet their high asking price. When none of them did, it ratcheted up the suspense another notch.
Finally, two days before the February 24th cutoff, the Nuggets and Knicks pulled the trigger on a multiplayer trade. New York received Carmelo and Billups in exchange for Raymond Felton, Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari. The Knicks had to kick in three draft choices. New York also received Anthony Carter, Shelden Williams and Renaldo Balkman. With two big-time offensive finishers, the Knicks’ fortunes were starting to look up. However, the question was whether the team would run smoothly with both players needing a lot of touches.
With Billups acting as floor general, the team managed to iron out this problem and finish with the #6 in the East. However, both Billups and Stoudemire were injured during the playoffs. The Knicks fell to the powerhouse Celtics in four straight. Carmelo sparkled in Game 2, tying his personal postseason high with 42 points in a 96–93 loss. He averaged 26 points and 10 rebounds in the series.
The Knicks struggled for much of the 2011–12 campaign, as Carmelo missed a total of 11 games due to injury. During his absence, Jeremy Lin came to the fore, but once Carmelo returned they failed to find the hoped-for chemistry. Lin could not get Carmelo the ball where he wanted it, and often Carmelo had to pop out to the perimeter before receiving a pass.
Coach Mike D’Antoni was replaced during the season by Mike Woodson, which worked in Carmelo’s favor; Woodson preferred a halfcourt offense over D’Antoni's running attack. New York responded by winning 18 of its last 24 games to make the playoffs, and Carmelo ended the year averaging 22.6 points per game. Alas, the Knicks, crippled again by injuries, fell in the first round to the Miami Heat 4 games to 1. That one win came courtesy of 41 points from Carmelo. It was New York’s first postseason victory in 11 years.
The next stop for Carmelo was London for the 2012 Olympics. As expected, Team USA won gold without much of a fight. Coach Mike Krzyzewski asked Carmelo to be the team’s sixth man and he filled this role magnificently. Against Nigeria, he canned 10 of 12 shots from beyond the arc on his way to a Team USA Olympic-record 37 points.
Carmelo was the picture of consistency during the 2012–13 NBA season. At one point, he scored 20 or more points in 31 straight games to break Richie Guerin’s 51-year-old team record. With veteran Jason Kidd brought in to replace Lin (who left via free agency), Carmelo was getting the ball when and where he needed it and the entire offense ran smoothly most of the year. The one exception was when Stoudemire was on the court. He and Carmelo essentially played the same position, so sometimes things bogged down. It also didn’t help that neither is a Grade A defender.
Nevertheless, the Knicks won consistently and finished the year with a 54–28 record, good for first place in the Atlantic Division and a #2 seed in the playoffs. Carmelo vied with Kevin Durant all spring for the NBA scoring lead and ending up edging the Oklahoma City star, 28.7 ppg to 28.1 ppg. His strong finish also prevented LeBron James from sweeping the Player of the Month awards, as Carmelo took the honors for April after James had won it five straight times.
Back home and playing for the team he rooted for as a kid, Carmelo couldn’t be happier. After years of frustration, Knicks fans again have something to cheer about. It’s the win-win situation New York management dreamed about when they traded for him in 2011. Now the focus is on win-win-win, as Carmelo must prove that he can be a winner on the postseaon and lead a team to the NBA Finals.
CARMELO THE PLAYER
Carmelo’s basketball instincts are impeccable. He understands how to use his size and strength to back players into the paint. He then has a variety of moves to convert baskets or draw fouls. His court vision is excellent, and he enjoys giving up the ball to an open teammate. While he’s not a tremendously gifted leaper, his body control and athleticism are well above average.
Carmelo can score from anywhere on the floor. Going to the basket, he’s a slasher who finds room where none appears to be. His jump shot is dependable, his form is solid, and his range is deep. He has become a dangerous long-distance shooter, especially when the game is one the line.
The most underrated part of Carmelo's game is his defense. Though not known as a lockdown guy, he typically draws an opponent’s high-scoring forward, which means a different challenge every night. Rarely if ever is he outscored by his man.
© Copyright 2013 Black Book Partners, LLC. All rights reserved.