Carmelo Anthony is not the Michael Phelps of Olympic basketball

Carmelo Anthony competes for USA Basketball in 2012
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.

The next Michael Jordan? What about the next Tim Duncan?

3299457410_eb020f576b_oEver since Michael Jordan retired—for the second of three times—in 1999, NBA fans and executives have been entranced by a perpetual search for the next Michael Jordan. He might have been staring them right in the face the entire time.

In debates about the most Jordanesque players of the post-Jordan era, the most commonly invoked names are Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. Bryant played the same shooting guard position as Jordan, won five championships, and was known for his killer instinct in the clutch. Upon retiring after this season, he finished with the third-most points in NBA history—right ahead of Jordan. But the fact that Bryant shared with spotlight with Shaquille O'Neal for his first three titled with the Lakers—or, one could argue, even took a backseat to the big fella—may detract from the feasibility of comparing him to Jordan. 

James, one of the most versatile and athletic players in league history, has won four MVP awards—three more than Kobe, one less than Jordan—and three championships. And he isn’t done. He just ended Cleveland’s 52-year pro sports championship drought, in his home state of Ohio, by overcoming the best regular season team in NBA history in an unprecedented comeback from a 3-games-to-1 NBA Finals deficit. But he’s often knocked for losing four times in the Finals, compared with Bryant’s 5-2 mark and Jordan’s sterling 6-0 Finals record.

Naturally, the perpetually under-the-radar Tim Duncan doesn’t enter the usual conversations about the “next Jordan.” He’s a big man, meaning that comparing him to wing players Jordan, Bryant, and James is essentially a comparison of apples and oranges. And his game isn’t quite as exciting to watch. But after Duncan on Monday announced his retirement after 19 NBA seasons, it’s time to give the “Big Fundamental” the recognition he deserves and often doesn’t receive. My colleague Eitan Rosenberg has noted that certain NBA players are so frequently discussed as being underrated that they become overrated, and then they’re so often touted as overrated that they become…underrated again. Well, I simply can’t remember a time during my two decades of NBA fanhood that Tim Duncan was “overrated.” No, he probably wasn’t the next Jordan. But he was arguably the most accomplished player of the post-Jordan era—yes, even more accomplished than Kobe and the unfinished career of LeBron.

In 19 seasons, Duncan averaged 19 points, 10.8 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2.2 blocks per game. The numbers are deflated by the 40-year-old’s statistical dip in recent years, including 8.6 points per game in his final season. He won five championships—including as San Antonio's best player (with all due respect to fellow Twin Tower David Robinson) in just his second season—and two MVPs. During the same period, fellow superstar big men Kevin Garnett and Dirk Nowitzki won just one championship apiece; by that measure, Duncan sets himself apart from Garnett and Nowitzki in the big man category more than Jordan outpaces Bryant and James in the pantheon of wing players.

The Spurs have 50 games or more for 17 consecutive seasons. What has enabled their remarkable run of sustained dominance? Duncan’s willingness to sacrifice. In his final season, he took a base salary of $5.3 million, while a declining Bryant was paid a league-high $25 million. San Antonio’s season ended in a disappointing second-round playoff loss, but the team won a franchise-record 67 games in the regular season after it was able to sign Duncan’s de facto replacement, LaMarcus Aldridge, in free agency—all because Duncan’s sacrifice gave them the salary cap flexibility to do so.

Kobe’s Lakers, meanwhile, hampered by their aging superstar's massive contract, continued their descent with a 17-65 record this past season—the second-worst mark in the NBA. Unlike Kobe, who announced his impending retirement in the middle of the season, Duncan had no high-profile "farewell tour" and didn't announce his retirement until now—precisely because his team, unlike Kobe's, was a championship contender until the very end of his career. That's typical Duncan for you. Fair or not, I'll remember not only the high point of Kobe's career, but also the sour taste of the end. Duncan didn't ride off with the storybook ending of a championship, but his financial sacrifice ensured his team's success for years to come, while there's no telling how long the Lakers will take to rebuild.

With LeBron’s career still ongoing, the debate over the post-Jordan era’s top player comes down to Kobe and Duncan. The argument for both stars has merit, but what it comes down to for me is their relative contributions to their teams’ success. When the Spurs won their last title in 2014, the team’s best regular season player was arguably Tony Parker, while Kawhi Leonard won Finals MVP. But Duncan was indisputably the Spurs’ top player for their four other championships. Kobe was the undisputed alpha dog on only two of his five Lakers’ championship teams. Duncan got the last six years of David Robinson's career as well as solid supporting stars in Parker and Manu Ginobili, but he didn't get to play with another superstar in his prime, as Kobe did with Shaq. Their records in the Finals—5-2 for Kobe, 5-1 for Duncan—are essentially a wash. (Though the only thing standing between Duncan and a Jordanesque 6-0 Finals mark is Ray Allen’s miracle 3-pointer in Game 6 of the 2013 Finals.) The Lakers had a three-peat, but also had their fair share of ups and downs during the Kobe era. Duncan’s Spurs never repeated as champs, yet the only sure things in life during his 19 NBA years were death, taxes, and 50 wins for San Antonio.

When I’m building an all-time starting five—based not only on player legacies, but also positional fits—I’m seriously considering Duncan for my power forward spot. Kobe, however, isn’t in consideration for the shooting guard spot already occupied by Jordan. It’s a close call, but I’m choosing Duncan as the top player of the post-Jordan era—just for now, because the final product of LeBron’s career may eclipse him.

But maybe we shouldn’t even be talking about Jordan, or finding the next Jordan. Maybe we should be asking: Who will be the next Tim Duncan?