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Carmelo Anthony hoping to craft own ending to career

Move to Portland gives former scoring champ a chance to finish things on his terms

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

MILWAUKEE – These days, the vaunted 2003 NBA draft is looking like quite the boneyard.

Of the 58 players selected that night, only three are currently active. The first is LeBron James, tearing it up for the Los Angeles Lakers at a Kia MVP-worthy level. The second is Kyle Korver, a career sniper now playing for the Milwaukee Bucks. The third is Carmelo Anthony, back in the NBA after signing with the Portland Trail Blazers.

The rest of that Class of 2003 reads like some combination of an NBA Who’s Who and a bunch of dearly departed trivia answers. One, Luke Walton, has been an NBA coach for four seasons now. Another, James Jones, is Phoenix’s general manager.

Then there’s Anthony, back at age 35 after an unplanned year’s hiatus, hoping to craft a better ending.

His send-off by Houston last autumn didn’t suit Anthony at all. First the Rockets benched him, unwilling or unable to work the 10-time All-Star into their pecking order behind James Harden and Chris Paul.

Anthony already had parted badly with the Oklahoma City Thunder after one mediocre season there, heading to Atlanta in a massive, three-team trade. The Hawks waived him five days later.

After he got in Houston’s doghouse, Anthony was left to twist in the wind for more than two months until the Rockets shipped him to Chicago in some financial housecleaning. The Bulls, who had wooed Anthony in free agency years earlier, cut him loose after a week.

During and after all this, Anthony kept working out with his trainer, sometimes scrimmaging with current or former NBA players in the summer and getting up shots at a New York gym.

The Blazers and Anthony are two games into this union now. Anthony scored 10 points with four rebounds Tuesday in New Orleans, then upped his numbers to 18 points and seven rebounds Thursday at Milwaukee. He has made 10 of 24 shots (41.7%) and is 5-for-8 on 3-pointers.

He has started both nights, and Portland is 0-2. Obviously, it’s too soon to know what sort of impact Anthony will have on the fading Blazers, who fell to 5-11 after Thursday’s loss.

Likewise, it’s not fair yet to judge what this opportunity will mean for Anthony. Even a likely Hall of Famer, one of the most hungry and prolific scorers in recent history, deserves more than a couple games to get his legs, play himself into NBA shape and learn his new team and teammates.

“It was just kind of more relaxed,” Anthony said, comparing Thursday’s experience to his debut 48 hours earlier. “More finding that pace, finding that rhythm. Learning how to play with the guys on the team. Learning how to play in this system. And where to be on the court. Those things are still going to take some time. But for the most part, it’s playing basketball, making reads and just using my instinct.”

Anthony’s supporters and detractors both had plenty to chew on in the Bucks game. He can still make shots and has a nose for the ball when he or one of his teammates misses. But he’s moving, well, like a 35-year-old who hasn’t played in a year. He has little lift. Defensively, his spirit wasn’t very willing even when his flesh wasn’t so weak. The analytics in both OKC and Houston showed him to be a significant liability on that end.

It had been nearly 23 months since Anthony last faced the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo, who crammed the box score with 24 points, 19 rebounds and 15 assists. A rather considerable torch got passed in the older player’s absence. The league to which Anthony has returned is faster and more athletic still, and he knows it.

It remains impossible to separate Anthony from his Draft class considering how big a role — good and bad — they’ve played in his career.

First, there was Darko Milicic, the No. 2 pick-turned-Draft-bust taken ahead of Anthony. The Detroit Pistons and boss Joe Dumars have paid for that reach several times over, but it remains an open question how Anthony’s career might have played out differently had he been the rookie added to the Pistons’ 2004 NBA championship squad.

Then it was James and Wade (and eventually Chris Bosh) — Anthony’s banana-boat buddies — finding championship success in Miami while he settled for fat contracts, individual acclaim and way more criticism. He was so eager to get from Denver to New York in 2011 that he didn’t object to how the sign-and-trade deal stripped the Knicks of helpful pieces.

In the free-agent frenzy of 2014, when James went back to Cleveland from Miami, Anthony locked in again with the Knicks for the biggest possible payday. All along, Anthony seemed to consider himself the equal of, or a close second to, James in status and brilliance. Yet today, James (three rings), Dwyane Wade (three) and Bosh (two) have done all the winning.

Anthony? He’s done the earning, nearly $260 million in his career. His deal with Portland will add another $2.1 million, assuming he’s still on the roster after Jan. 10.

These days, Anthony is as proud of his Draft class as ever, regardless of their varied outcomes. “For one, I think we were the best,” he said with a smile Thursday morning, after Portland’s shootaround. “I have to say that — no disrespect to ’96 or the other classes. I’m a little biased.”

Anthony — who appears to be in excellent shape despite his layoff — talked a bit about modern training, and its role in extending careers.

“What LeBron is doing is incredible. But that’s just a testament to the work he puts in, the work he puts in on his body, the work he puts in on his mind,” he said.

“Nowadays, with age right now, that goes out the window. If this was years ago, if somebody was 33, 34, 35, you’d think, oh, he’s old. But I think it’s a mental thing, if you’re putting in the work you need to do to take care of yourself.”

New teammates and familiar opponents seem happy that Anthony is back. There’s universal appeal to denying or delaying Father Time, the reaper they’ll all eventually face. Blazers coach Terry Stotts went so far as to say Thursday that this chance might “jump-start his career again,” though a shorter run might be fine, too.

“Whether that’s in sports, but no matter the profession, you kind of want it to end on your terms,” Stotts said.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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