It took almost 20 years, but the opening week of free agency gave us something the basketball world had been waiting for since 2003. Carmelo Anthony announced Tuesday that he was joining the Los Angeles Lakers, teaming up with LeBron James for the first time in his career. Now, two players whose careers began similarly, before going in wildly divergent directions are making a championship run, albeit in very different roles.
This union might not be the star-powered, unbeatable duo dreamed up 15 years ago, but it could put the perfect cap on the careers of two players who were destined to be compared to each other from the second they entered the NBA.
It begins in 2003
Saying the 2003 NBA Draft was legendary does a disservice to how it altered the NBA. Still spoken about with reverence almost two decades later, the unparalleled class wasn’t necessarily as highly touted as it came to be known.
This was always the draft of LeBron James. The next big thing, compared to Michael Jordan while still playing at St. Vincent St. Mary’s high school in Akron. Foregoing college, James was as can’t-miss a prospect as there’s been in modern sports, and the Cleveland Cavaliers winning the No. 1 overall pick added to the legend of the local hero finally bringing success to a beleaguered franchise.
In any other draft Carmelo Anthony would have been the No. 1 overall pick. Any year except the arrival of the “great one.” Unlike LeBron, Anthony decided to go to college, playing one year at Syracuse for Jim Boeheim and lighting the Big East on fire, averaging 22.2 points and 10.0 rebounds en route to a National Championship, the Orangemen’s first in school history. Melo’s original plan was to stay for 2-3 years, but having felt like he accomplished everything he set out to do while at Syracuse, he left and entered the NBA Draft.
The 2003 class now had a Cerberus at its top. LeBron James, the best high school player ever. Carmelo Anthony, the best player in all of college basketball. And Darko Milicic, the best international prospect, entering at a fortuitous time where other Euro bigs like Dirk Nowitzki and Pau Gasol were dominating the NBA, capturing the imagination of general managers around the league.
It was on that draft night in 2003 that LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony met. Both knew LeBron would be No. 1 overall, many thought Carmelo would be second to the Pistons, but it wasn’t to be. Detroit infamously selected Milicic, arguably the biggest bust in NBA history, while the Nuggets selected Anthony at No. 3.
Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, and the rest of the class went on to create nine NBA All Star players, and reshape the league for the next decade and beyond.
James and Anthony’s greatness shined immediately
That anticipation, that promise that LeBron and Melo brought to the NBA was felt immediately. The Cavaliers narrowly missed the playoffs, the Nuggets bounced in the first round — but that didn’t matter, the stars had arrived.
It’s impossible to overstate just how close in ability James and Anthony were during their rookie campaigns. Almost mirrors of each other:
- LeBron James: 21.9 pts, 5.5 reb, 5.9 ast
- Carmelo Anthony: 22.0 pts, 6.1 reb, 2.8 ast
LeBron had a slight edge in the most obvious stats, Carmelo in the more granular, shooting better from the field and three. In the end a close rookie of the year race went to LeBron, edging out Melo 508 pts to 430, with 38 more first place votes going to James. It was clear that both players would be inexorably linked. Compared throughout their careers. The new wave of the NBA had arrived.
As super teams formed, it was clear these two stars couldn’t be together
LeBron made his infamous “decision” in the summer of 2010, joining fellow 2003 draft stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami. The union was the first modern “super team,” with three of the sport’s biggest stars finding a way to split money, time, and stardom in South Beach.
The move left Anthony as the odd man out. That 2003 class had lots of good players, but only four legendary ones — and three were now on the Heat. No matter where Anthony went he would demand identical money to LeBron, and no team could accommodate two players with similar skill sets, playing the same position.
Looking for his own path, it quickly became apparent that Anthony was ready for a move too. Away from the success he had in Denver, and to a bigger market, with more exposure, and the hope he too could form his own “super team.” In 2011 Anthony was traded to the New York Knicks, joining Amare Stoudamire, but notably missing a third star.
Mired in playoff defeat after playoff defeat, it soon became apparent that Anthony’s arrival in New York was never going to be like James going to Miami, where the Heat were winning championships, living up to their billing, and taking the NBA by storm.
LeBron’s return, and Carmelo’s ennui
After years and championships away from Cleveland, LeBron made the decision to come back to the Cavaliers, bringing with him a hero’s welcome. Like a conquering king claiming victory in a far off land, he was ready to finally come back as bring the city the championship they deserved.
Meanwhile in New York, Anthony became reviled. Fans questioned his attitude, his work ethic, and his approach to the team — and even his incredible stats and performances weren’t enough to sway the tough New York public. The dream of Knicks dominance washed away, and the entire experience left a sour taste in the mouths of fans.
While LeBron was contemplating his next move, Anthony was lost in the shuffle
Once again ready to leave Cleveland, rumors abounded that LeBron James was looking to form another super team, this time in Los Angeles. The Lakers, having spent years preparing by clearing their books, signed James in 2018.
Meanwhile Carmelo had been unceremoniously traded to the Thunder the year before, having the worst season of his career and bouncing to the Hawks, then Rockets in a series of moves signaling the disappointing close to a Hall of Fame career.
LeBron was writing his next chapter. The book was closing for Carmelo.
Portland, a lifeline
The Blazers were in dire need of bench help. So pronounced was the need that Portland signed Anthony to a one year, non-guaranteed deal. Despite not playing for a year, Melo was back — and he shined.
Not only did Anthony show flashes of the player he’d once been, but it was like his joy for the game returned. Melo won the Western Conference player of the Week, and quickly proved his career wasn’t over.
LeBron James and Anthony Davis won a championship in Los Angeles. The Blazers lost in the playoffs, and while nobody at this point was confusing James and Anthony based on ability, it was joyous watching him get his swagger back.
Then, it all came together
On the night of the NBA Draft the Lakers went all-in on completing their big three, trading for Russell Westbrook. The now-elderstatesmen of the NBA were looking to make one big run at a championship, and needed to round out their roster with cheap veteran, and young talent.
Anthony, now a free agent after another successful bench run in Portland was the perfect addition to this super team. Then it happened.
With one video Melo let Los Angeles know he had arrived. This time to play with LeBron, hoping to close out his career with the championship that had alluded him. Two of the brightest stars in NBA history took very different paths to get to this moment, writing their stories in the process, now share a singular goal. It’s not about money, or proving who is better of the two, it’s about winning titles. Now we’ll see if two basketball legacies, born on the same night and taking different paths through history can unite for one run in Los Angeles. No matter what, it’s going to be fun to watch.