On a night in 2002 before one of the most hyped high school basketball games of all time, the most meaningful and fascinating friendship in NBA history began. Nearly two decades later, this friendship has come full circle as LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony join forces on the Los Angeles Lakers.
Five years ago, legendary writer and current Sports Illustrated columnist Howard Beck wrote one of the greatest basketball stories of all time as he covered the entire friendship and career synchronicity between Anthony and James up to that point. The story featured exclusive interviews with the stars and covered every nook and cranny of their friendship.
This story for Lakers Nation will expand on what’s happened in the five years since, including how they finally came to play together, which was alluded to in Beck’s story.
Before we get into the last five years, it’s important to remember a few key details. Anthony and James were high-school phenoms playing in front of thousands of fans before they graduated.
Melo was a year older than LeBron, so he went to college at Syracuse, where he won them a national championship in 2003. James was already gracing Sports Illustrated covers as “The Chosen One” while still in high school.
Both superstars were drafted in 2003 along with future superstars Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. LeBron went first to the Cleveland Cavaliers and Melo went third to the Denver Nuggets after the Detroit Pistons drafted one of the all-time busts in Darko Milicic.
While many know that part of the story, it’s easy to forget that it was completely reasonable to think Carmelo would have a better career than LeBron as even Steve Kerr predicted this. Acclaimed sports journalist Dan Le Batard even wrote a column in the Miami Herald in June of 2003 where he said, “James isn’t even the best player in his own draft… Carmelo Anthony will be better immediately and forevermore.”
If you think about it, this actually made a lot of sense. LeBron was a high school prospect with an insurmountable amount of hype. Players like Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett took a few years to get fully acclimated to the NBA whereas talent scouts saw that Melo would have been able to help a team right off the bat. In many ways, this actually held true.
As social media and pundits have tried to discredit Melo’s career, it’s important to remember that he made the playoffs every single year while he was with Denver including those first two years. He even ended their nine-year playoff drought in his rookie season.
LeBron didn’t make the playoffs until his third season, ending the Cavaliers’ eight-year drought. Although it took him two extra years, James went on to make the NBA Finals in his fourth year.
Neither was able to get over the hump and win a championship, however, which led to James moving on to the Miami Heat and Anthony to the New York Knicks. The former, of course, was finally able to get over the hump and win it all for the first time in 2012.
By the time Beck wrote his article, Carmelo was adding more playmaking to his game as he averaged a career-high 4.2 assists on the Knicks while LeBron was aiming for his sixth straight NBA Finals. This was where their careers truly began to diverge.
Melo was essentially stuck in New York hitting game-winners, climbing up the all-time scoring chart and having great performances such as his record-setting 62 points in Madison Square Garden while the Knicks regime made questionable decisions around him.
Meanwhile, LeBron would go on to help orchestrate one of the greatest comebacks in NBA history back on the Cavaliers when they beat the 73-9 Golden State Warriors during the 2016 NBA Finals.
The next year, LeBron extended his Finals streak to seven as Anthony began to have understandable issues with Phil Jackson publicly airing out his grievances through the media. Regardless, Melo continued to dazzle with his scoring prowess as he had more great performances and even made his 10th All-Star appearance.
Finally, Anthony was ready to move on and was granted a trade to the Oklahoma City Thunder to play with Russell Westbrook and Paul George. Up until this point, he was a 10-time All-Star averaging nearly 25 points per game for his career, but things were about to change.
Melo has the respect of players around the league, but Westbrook was simply too ball-dominant at this point in his career with George as the second option to have a third option like Anthony thrive and be able to be himself in this environment. Anthony even infamously balked at the idea of coming off the bench with his legendary status but had to accept that reality as time went on.
As LeBron made his eighth straight Finals while losing to the Warriors for the third time in four years, his future became unclear, similar to Anthony’s.
While Anthony bounced around a little bit, LeBron was the next superstar on the move, joining the Lakers. During the 2018-2019 season, LeBron was acclimating as the Lakers didn’t make the playoffs, but he still looked spry.
After Anthony wound up out of the league completely, many pundits believed he would never be back. But finally, the Portland Trail Blazers came calling as Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum were on board with the addition.
Melo actually played well in his two seasons with Portland, proving he most certainly belonged in the league, averaging 15 points a game in his first season and contributed in the playoffs. He and LeBron even met up in the Lakers’ first-round playoff matchup as many cherished the long-time friends squaring off in the postseason for the first time.
The Lakers eventually won the championship, and LeBron was still one of the NBA’s premier players in 2021 while Melo once again did well for Portland, shooting over 40 percent from the 3-point line.
However, Melo has accepted fitting into a lesser role on teams as he now finally joins the Lakers.
“Well I mean every year, as you know, there’s so much movement in the NBA. Nobody knows what’s gonna happen, one player is always connected with one organization somewhere whether they’re there or not. And it seems like just throughout my whole career, I’ve always been connected with the Lakers someway, somehow. Whether it was through my brother Kobe, regardless of what it is, I’ve always been connected to them someway, somehow,” Anthony said during his introductory press conference.
Melo was originally courted by the Lakers in 2014, as was LeBron. These two players always wanted to play together since they were drafted, and now the dream has finally come true.
Melo and LeBron comparisons were inevitable from the start, but the two are very different players although they are both top-10 scorers and future hall-of-famers.
As LeBron and Melo enter their 19th season, they represent more than just basketball, but many people’s childhoods or teen years as they grew up right alongside them.
These two aren’t just basketball players, but cultural icons and social justice enigmas. With these two being the last active players in the NBA from the 2003 Draft, it’s important to appreciate them while they’re here, which Lakers fans will be able to do in abundance on their path to the 2022 NBA Championship.
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