I wonder about the group chat, the legendary MMS congregation of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, and Chris Paul—four of the NBA’s defining generational stars. While LeBron remains the single greatest anomaly in the sport, the rest of his Banana Boat brethren are at very specific transitional phases in their careers, each of them playing for a new team, in a new role. I think about the messages Anthony might have contemplated sending on Tuesday night to his brothers, but didn’t. Or maybe it was a side chat with Paul and Wade, with the text scrawled across his input bar, wiped, and typed again:
How did it feel?
Anthony has played 1,042 NBA games in his 14-year career, counting both regular season and playoffs. He has started in all 1,042. He has been the unquestioned first option in all 1,042. Melo finds himself in uncharted water. And on Thursday night, he’ll have to swim in it. When he faces off against Kristaps Porzingis and the Knicks in his new home of Oklahoma City, he won’t be the Thunder’s no. 1. He won’t be their no. 2, either.
None of this is news. We’ve had over a month to consider Melo as a full-time power forward, and the full-time third option on a team; hell, at media day, he was asked if he’d be OK with coming off the bench. Anthony let out the kind of reflexive laugh that happens only when something truly takes you by surprise. It’s an adjustment, and Melo would be the first to tell you that. But there’s more to it than simply moving up or down a spot in a team’s hierarchy.
From the outside, there is a tendency to treat the game and its players like toy bricks, capable of being rearranged simply by taking a brick apart and interlocking to others in a different location. That framing informs the way we talk about these types of transitions, but it also ignores the decades of habits, tendencies, and muscle memory that become rigid over time. There were moments in Tuesday’s Rockets-Warriors game when CP3 looked completely out of place on a Mike D’Antoni–coached team simply by giving into his most basic instincts. Chris Paul plays with a look-both-ways cautiousness that is sensible at best and momentum-killing at worst. Several possessions were wasted because Paul is so accustomed to using his dribble as a metronome for his own internal processing. He struggled to get into the same flow that almost all of his teammates were in, because for years, he’d established his own flow in the opposite way. Frankly, it was jarring to watch.
Changing jobs often comes with deconstructing one’s own identity in the process. Which is funny when we consider Melo’s case. Anthony has always had alter egos created to obscure whatever was lacking in the Melo we saw in the foreground: Team USA Melo and, more recently, Hoodie Melo, have come to represent a sweet-shooting version of a player rid of the burdens of carrying a franchise in the America’s biggest market; Woke Melo and Business Melo represent what that experience has brought to his worldview. OKC could use a player like Team USA or Hoodie Melo, but these transitions are never as easy as simply donning a new mask.
CP3 and Melo have watched as Wade made his graceful descent down the hierarchy over the last seven years, but even then, the staggeringly different team contexts for all three players don’t allow for simple one-to-one comparisons. Wade may have become a second option in Miami, and he may have given up millions of dollars over the years to help his teams fill out the roster, but the on-court transformations were always left to someone else. In the Heatles era, LeBron became the best power forward in basketball, forging a path as an ace 3-point shooter out of sheer necessity; Chris Bosh became the league’s new archetypal center and thrived, however reluctantly. Wade, for his part, sacrificed his usage rate, which dropped from astronomical to just extremely high. His game—the midrange power-ballet off the dribble and in the post, the on-ball blocks that shouldn’t be possible for a player his size—remained in mint condition, so long as he was healthy.
The one-year layover in Chicago was an unmitigated failure, but it likely crystallized Wade’s sense of place in the league. There he was, again, the second option, playing alongside a bigger, stronger version of himself. This time, however, there was no space for him to be the only player he’s ever known himself to be. Playing with LeBron was like entering an oasis, custom-built for his talents; playing with Jimmy Butler was like dueling banjos, except one banjo was out of tune and the other was actually a battle ax. Chicago was meant to be a homecoming, but it made sense that the actual serenity of home would lie in a reunion with James. LeBron is all-accommodating—and perhaps the last bastion of Wade’s insistent style. “For me, coming to Cleveland is comfort,” Wade told ESPN. “I’m playing with a guy — I’ve lost championships with that guy, I’ve won championships with that guy. So, definitely made it comfortable to walk in here and be myself.”
Being himself, at the age of 35, in an ill-fitting starting lineup, will more likely than not result in what we saw on opening night: One of the five best shooting guards of all time looking like just another guy. Wade made the transition to being the second option by putting himself in an infrastructure that didn’t require him to change much. But he’s in a different context now. The Cavs have been one of the most prolific 3-point shooting teams in the league over the past three seasons, but looked notably gun-shy on Tuesday because of the lack of spacing that their starting backcourt of Wade and Derrick Rose creates. Wade still has the skills to be a third option in Cleveland, but it might call for the first real adaptation of his career.
It wasn’t too long ago that stars simply ripened on the vine until they fell off, only to be caught at the end of their NBA lifecycle by a team desperate to find an ounce of what faded glory is left. Hakeem Olajuwon played for the Raptors; Patrick Ewing played for the Sonics and Magic; Karl Malone and Gary Payton served as prototypes of the current generation by glomming onto the dynastic Lakers. The less said about all of those stints, the better.
It’s a different age now, and players have a much greater degree of agency in their decisions. What is unprecedented is how Stars of a Certain Age are actively looking to change their roles to face a team like the Warriors. When there is a clear foil at the top of the summit, it becomes easier to acknowledge your own shortcomings, suppress the ego, and link up. What once was thought of as the easy way out is now one of the only ways to ignite actual competition. It’s fitting that the generation that jump-started the NBA’s modern superteam era will be the one that will tread the new path to aging gracefully. But whether or not Paul, Melo, and Wade can make the smooth transition into this phase of their careers is still a question to be answered.