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Waiting for Melo

Carmelo Anthony hosts three distinct basketball personalities in one body, and the Thunder are hoping the Team USA version makes an appearance soon. Their season might depend on it.

Hoodie Melo, NBA Melo, and Team USA Melo Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Imagine sharing the world with the best version of yourself. How annoying would that be? People would never stop comparing you with Premium You. Could you blame them? He looks just like you, sounds just like you, wears the same clothes, and does the same job. Just, way better. So noticeably superior, in fact, that all anyone can talk about is how they wish that guy was the dude who showed up to work every day. And, sure, there would be some upside — maybe you get a couple of jobs based on being Premium You’s doppelganger. But, in the end, everyone would come away disappointed. This is Carmelo Anthony’s life.

There are three Melos — Olympic Melo, Hoodie Melo, and the genuine article, Carmelo Kyam Anthony, from Baltimore, Maryland, by way of Red Hook, Brooklyn. The existence of the first two Melos is a fascinating development. It is a tacit admission of our collective disappointment with an elite player, who was never as elite or cool as he, or we, wanted him to be.

Olympic Melo is an icon, the perfect scoring wing for the modern game. He’s the all-time leading scorer in United States Olympic basketball history and a four-time Olympian, winner of three gold medals. He’s a devastatingly efficient small-ball player: too slippery for big men to find, too burly for guards to grapple with. Team USA coach Mike “Molder of Men” Krzyzewski has often played him at the 5. Olympic Melo is a spot-up specialist who, after a chain of passes from the greatest players in the world, sticks the dagger in the heart of zone defenses.

To the uninitiated, it might seem bizarre that, on teams that have featured LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul, Anthony Davis, and numerous other heavy hitters, it was Carmelo Anthony, an old-fashioned high-volume scorer, who was the go-to guy. Such is the gap in performance between Olympic Melo and the NBA version.

There was Olympic Melo, during the Rio games in 2016, turning back an unafraid Australian team (featuring multiple NBA players) almost by himself, leading Team USA to a 98–88 victory. He scored 31 points on a variety of quick-decision takes, grabbed eight rebounds, and made more 3s (9-of-15 from deep) than the rest of his star-studded team combined.

Regular Melo is a different player. He holds the ball longer, forcing shots over set defenses. He shoots more at a less efficient clip. Basic Melo has a career usage rate north of 31 percent, and he historically takes about 20 shots per game, many of them from isolation plays. When the rock goes into Melo at the elbow, his teammates recognize, as he jab steps and jab steps and shoulder fakes and jab steps again, that said orb is not coming back out. Player movement creaks to a halt. Melo-centric offenses tend to stagnate.

There are reasons for this. The international 3-point line is more than a foot and a half shorter than the NBA line. Meaning, all those NBA long 2s become Sloan-friendly 3s in Olympic play. And, of course, Olympic Melo’s teammates are, like, freaking incredible. The passing that Melo finds so odious in everyday life is a must in international play. No Team USA player has ever notched a usage rate above 30 percent, not even Michael Jordan. When the United States beat Australia, Coach K closed out the game with Olympic Melo at center, alongside Durant, Paul George, Klay Thompson, and Kyrie Irving. Of course Olympic Melo is unselfish. It’s different when you’re sharing the court with Ron Baker or Courtney Lee (who’s fine), or another player who’s used to dominating the ball. Like Nuggets Allen Iverson.

Or Russell Westbrook.

The under-talked-about irony of all this is Olympic Melo, a player who exists for only a fortnight once every four years, is the most relevant of the three Melos. When Basic Melo was traded to Oklahoma City, the move was framed as potentially bringing about the long-awaited NBA debut of Olympic Melo. For years, Melo has lived in the shadow of his better self.

Enter Hoodie Melo. The holes in players’ games have always been rich texts for discussion, both smart and dumb, written and spoken, spoken and yelled. Imagine if Giannis could shoot! Imagine if Brandon Ingram ate five sandwiches made of creatine every day! What if Kawhi Leonard had a personality? The time when we might have expected Melo, who turns 34 in May, to play defense, to pass, to meaningfully change his game, has long since passed. So Olympic Melo was created as an avatar for basketball fans’ disappointment. What, then, does Hoodie Melo represent? He’s the embodiment of Melo’s lack of cool factor.

The coolest, most charismatic Knicks player during Melo’s time with the team was J.R. Smith. Earl was just as guiltless a gunner in those days. He was infuriating but also fun. Melo has rarely been fun to watch. And he’s never been cool. My dude tries too hard. Anthony spent six full seasons in New York City, a global hub of culture and art and finance and fashion, and he once wore an off-white fedora with an acid-wash band that had a matchstick poking out of it to a game. My guy looked like Uncle Sam after it rained at a Phish concert. Then there’s this Tuskegee Airman jawn, the Dr. Zhivago, and this apparent Lids sponcon.

So when Hoodie Melo emerged during Knicks summer practice sessions, we latched on. Here, finally, was the streetwear Melo. The charismatic Melo. The cool Melo. After years of trying to establish a brand — via his relationship with Jordan Brand, his eye for investments, his taste in watches and fine cigars — it was a simple hoodie that captured the internet. A few weeks later, Nike debuted a new Therma Flex warm-up jacket with a hood. Olympic Melo is a champion. Hoodie Melo is a trendsetter. Now Carmelo is just the guy who’s fucking up the Thunder.

At Thunder media day, Carmelo, in Hoodie Melo cosplay, was asked if he’d be OK with coming off the bench.

The question is interesting because playing the 4 and coming off the bench are two things that Olympic Melo would do, without question. Fast-forward to December, and the Thunder are a disappointing 10–12. They’d be sitting on the outside looking in if [extremely sports-talk radio voice] the playoffs started today. This past Sunday, OKC barely managed to fend off a gutted San Antonio Spurs squad, 90–87. The Spurs started Dejounte Murray, something called Brandon Paul, Kyle Anderson, Danny Green, and the lovingly embalmed corpse of Pau Gasol, and almost won the game. Melo took only 10 shots, making four, with six rebounds in 30 minutes. He scored nine points.

In the Thunder’s previous game, they beat the Minnesota Timberwolves 111–107. Melo took seven shots in 29 minutes and scored nine points. It was the first time in his career that he’s scored in single digits in two consecutive games. Melo once laughed about coming off the bench. But his play, perhaps willingly, is now taking a backseat to that of his younger colleagues, Westbrook and Paul George.

After the win over the Spurs, Melo was introspective.

“For me personally it’s about doing something different,” he said. “Seeing where the team needs me on a night-to-night basis. Just be willing to do that. Be willing to sacrifice. Not every night having to score 20 or 30 points. I’m good with that. It’s a good feeling as long as we’re winning.”

As long as we’re winning.

Melo has never had to reckon with his basketball mortality. He’s been relatively healthy for most of his career. And he’s made it out of the first round of the playoffs only twice, including a lone trip to the conference finals. He hasn’t experienced as many heartbreaking playoff losses as his Banana Boat brothers. He hasn’t had to carry the crushing defeats that seem to take so much out of a player. Meanwhile, Dwyane Wade, after a humbling season in Chicago, is playing fewer than 25 minutes a game for the first time in his career. Chris Paul has struggled through a series of injuries over the past several seasons, each seeming to come at the worst possible time. Now he’s below his career average in almost every category after missing more than half the games this season for a Houston Rockets team that, considering Steph Curry’s recent injury, might be the best team in the league.

So maybe there’s a fourth Melo, Role-Player Melo, lurking somewhere just beyond the horizon. One who applies the quick decisions and decisive shot-taking of Olympic Melo to the NBA, in smaller doses. One who doesn’t care if he scores 20, as long as his team is winning. Imagine that.