Victors are determined decisively on the court, but one great joy of fandom outside the lines has no clear winner. We love to weigh the merits of our favorite players against each other, and yet a taproom full of basketball fans can never unanimously agree on the GOAT. In this series, we attempt to settle scores of NBA undercard debates — or at least give you fodder for your next “Who is better?” argument.
THE MATCHUP: Carmelo Anthony vs. Bernard King
After leading Syracuse to the NCAA title as a freshman in 2003, Anthony averaged 20 points per game as a 19-year-old rookie. It took two more seasons for the shoot-first forward to establish himself as a perennial top-10 scorer, and he remained one until Year 11 of a career still in search of an NBA championship. Battling injury during a 17-win 2014-15 campaign, Anthony notoriously held off his season-ending knee surgery until after his eighth All-Star Game. He has fallen into increasingly rapid decline in the years since.
From 2005-14, Anthony averaged 26.3 points (55.4 true shooting percentage), 6.7 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.6 combined blocks and steals in 36.7 minutes per game. Playing alongside post-prime stars Allen Iverson, Chauncey Billups and Amar’e Stoudemire, Anthony led the Denver Nuggets and New York Knicks to the playoffs in the first eight seasons of that nine-year run, reaching the 2009 Western Conference finals.
Anthony finished top-10 in MVP voting twice, peaking with a third-place finish with the Knicks in 2013.
In 57 playoff games during his prime, Anthony averaged 27 points (51.9 TS%), 7.4 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.7 combined blocks and steals in 39.6 minutes per game. He twice advanced past the first round.
King’s prime may be harder to pin down than anyone else in NBA history. He averaged 24 points as a 21-year-old rookie on the New Jersey Nets, but substance abuse issues limited him to just 19 games for the Utah Jazz in a third season sandwiched by a pair of trades that led him to the Golden State Warriors.
King earned Comeback Player of the Year honors in his fourth season — his first with the Warriors — and his first All-Star selection the following year. It was not until a sign-and-trade deal with the Knicks that he ascended to peak form, averaging a league-best 32.9 points a game before blowing out his knee in March 1985. He missed nearly two full seasons but managed a few unlikely resurgent years with the Washington Bullets, even averaging 28 points per game as a 34-year-old before requiring yet another knee surgery.
In an 11-year span from 1980-91 that included nearly two full seasons on the shelf, King averaged 23.5 points (57.1 TS%), 5.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.1 combined steals and blocks in 34.2 minutes per game. His teams reached the playoffs just three times in his prime, never advancing past the Eastern Conference semifinals. He did not play with a contemporaneous star until joining an aging Moses Malone on the Bullets.
King also twice finished top-10 in MVP voting, peaking with a second-place finish to Larry Bird in 1984.
In just 23 playoff games during his prime, King averaged 27.3 points (61.4 TS%), 4.7 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.1 combined blocks and steals in 36 minutes per game. He too advanced past the first round twice.
The production is awfully close, but Anthony’s more consistent availability in his prime gives him an edge that is reflected in the superior advanced statistics he accumulated in both the regular season and playoffs.
There is a case to be made that Anthony peaked at age 24, when he went toe-to-toe with Kobe Bryant in a conference finals that was deadlocked at two games apiece before the Los Angeles Lakers extinguished the Nuggets, but there is little doubt his inside-out game reached its apex in the 2012-13 season. Anthony led the Knicks to 54 wins and a six-game second-round playoff loss to Paul George’s Indiana Pacers, and his lone first-place vote spoiled what would have been a unanimous MVP campaign by LeBron James.
Scoring at all three levels, often as a nightmare offensive matchup for opposing power forwards, Anthony averaged a league-best 28.7 points (56 TS%) to go with 6.9 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.3 combined blocks and steals in 37 minutes that season despite missing 15 games due to a string of minor injuries.
Anthony averaged a similar 29-7-2 in the playoffs, but his true shooting percentage dipped below 50 percent, and the Knicks lost as favorites to an underrated Pacers team, robbing us of a prime Melo-LeBron meeting in the conference finals. Anthony shot 37 percent in New York’s first three losses of the series.
While King’s statistical apex came during the 1984-85 season, when he led the league in scoring for a Knicks team that was already well on its way to being lottery-bound when he blew out his knee, his best season came a year earlier. In 1983-84, he carried New York to 47 wins before losing a seven-game battle to the eventual champion Boston Celtics in the second round, finishing second to Bird in the MVP race.
Having mastered his offensive repertoire, King averaged 26.3 points (61.9 TS%), 5.1 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.2 combined blocks and steals in 34.6 minutes that season, playing all but five games at age 27.
King was an absolute monster in the playoffs, averaging a 35-6-3 on 62 percent true shooting in two series that went the distance. That included 42.6 points per game in a first-round win over Isiah Thomas’ early Detroit Pistons. He then gave a loaded Boston team all it could handle in the conference semifinals.
At the height of his powers, King almost singlehandedly defeated a Celtics team on its way to the first of four straight Finals appearances. Meanwhile, Anthony lost to a Pacers team that never reached a Finals.
King had few opportunities to leverage his playoff clutch-ness, but he sure made the most of one of them.
In the finale of a five-game series against the Pistons in the first round in1984, he scored 44 points on 17-of-26 shooting and added 12 rebounds in a 127-123 overtime victory on the road despite experiencing flu symptoms and missing a big chunk of the third quarter with foul trouble. The Game 7 loss to the Celtics in the next round resulted in one of Bird’s most masterful performances, but King countered with 24-6-5.
King played only one more playoff series in his prime, another best-of-five first-round series with the Bad Boy Pistons that went the distance in 1988. Still battling back from the knee injury, he finished with 18 points on 6-of-15 shooting and five boards opposite Detroit’s bruising frontcourt in a blowout Game 5 loss.
Incredibly, Anthony has never once played in an advance-or-go-home playoff game in his career. His Nuggets never won more than a single playoff game in any one season for the first five years of his career, and then stomped both the New Orleans Hornets and Dallas Mavericks in the first two rounds of the 2009 playoffs. The biggest games of his career were Games 5 and 6 of the 2009 Western Conference finals, when he respectively dropped a game-high 31 points in a narrow defeat and 25 points in a blowout loss.
With a chance to force a Game 7 against the Pacers at Madison Square Garden in 2013, Anthony scored 39 points on 15-for-29 shooting in 106-99 loss. The rest of his team shot a combined 34 percent in elimination.
Anthony’s 26 game-winning shots in the final 30 seconds of regular-season games — the most by anyone since 2003-04, according to STATS Inc. — are a notch in his favor, and his performance in the 2003 NCAA tournament should dispel any notion that he could never rise to the moment, but he does not have anything on his NBA résumé that approaches what King did against the Pistons in 1984. For two players with so few chances to showcase their clutch abilities in do-or-die games, one can make all the difference.
• Anthony: 10-time All-Star; six-time All-NBA selection (2x Second Team, 4x Third Team); 2013 scoring champion
• King: Four-time All-Star; four-time All-NBA selection (2x First Team, 1x Second Team); 1985 scoring champion
King has the two First Team All-NBA nods, which are the most impressive of either star’s accomplishments, save for maybe the scoring titles. He was named a First Team forward alongside Bird and ahead of prime Adrian Dantley and 34-year-old Julius Erving in 1984 and over young Terry Cummings and Ralph Sampson in 1985. He made the Second Team behind Bird and Erving in 1982. The NBA did not name a Third Team until the 1988-89 season, and there is a chance King may have earned at least one more nod in the 1980s.
Anthony had the unfortunate reality of playing in an era when LeBron and Kevin Durant had the First Team All-NBA forward spots on lockdown. All-timers Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki also regularly took home All-NBA honors in the six seasons Anthony earned a nod, mitigating the impact of King’s advantage there.
Melo owns such an advantage in All-Star selections — an illustration of his sustained success — that they carry a little more weight in this discussion than most others. He was among the best 25 players in the game for a decade. The list of players with more All-Star selections is a veritable who’s who of NBA history.
We have not weighed NCAA and USA Basketball accomplishments heavily in this category. The question is: Who enjoyed the better NBA career? It also may be even more unfair to do so in this instance, since pros were not allowed to participate in the Olympics until after King’s prime. (King was cut from the 1986 U.S. Olympic team as a sophomore at Tennessee.) However, Anthony was the best player on an NCAA title team as a freshman and is the most decorated Olympic basketball player ever. It is hard to ignore either here.
For the culture
As players, Anthony and King represented similarly hopeful but ultimately disappointing tenures with their hometown Knicks, mostly due to means beyond their control. In a broader sense, both approached superstar status, only to be overshadowed by contemporaries who joined the list of all-time legends.
But their broader cultural contributions to the game go well beyond their accomplishments on the court.
King detailed his troubled childhood in Brooklyn in an autobiography, and his experiences with what he described as racist law enforcement in an ESPN “30 for 30” episode on his tenure at Tennessee is a harsh reminder of the obstacles King and other black men had to overcome in the 1970s and still do today.
King was arrested five times in the final 18 months of his amateur career, leaving a year of eligibility behind to join the NBA. Three of those were minor driving offenses that resulted in just $2 in fines. The fourth was an alleged burglary, and the fifth was for alleged prowling, possession of marijuana and resisting arrest. The burglary and prowling charges were dropped. King pleaded guilty to marijuana possession and resisting arrest, resulting in a $100 fine. He said his coach once told him local police would “do anything to get him.”
King has on many occasions described how his transition from Brooklyn to Knoxville led to the substance abuse issues that plagued him for decades — issues that resulted in some truly abhorrent alleged behavior.
On New Year’s Day 1980, King was charged with forced sexual assault, sodomy and possession of cocaine while a member of the Utah Jazz. He pleaded no contest to misdemeanor attempted forcible sexual abuse after taking a series of lie detector tests in which he conceded he had no recollection of the night’s events.
In August 1994, King was arrested on third-degree assault charges for allegedly choking a 22-year-old female friend in his Manhattan apartment. She was treated for bruises on her neck, according to reports.
And in October 2004, King was arrested on domestic battery charges for allegedly assaulting his wife. Police said King’s wife had bruises and bleeding on her face and told authorities, “He pushed me down to the floor three times.” She later dropped the charges, and King was ordered to attend marriage counseling.
After appearing in a “Miami Vice” episode and costarring in the 1979 film “Fast Break” during his playing career, King has otherwise largely avoided the public eye in retirement. He has occasionally appeared as a commentator on NBA TV and the MSG Network. King was inducted into basketball’s Hall of Fame in 2013.
Anthony was also born in Brooklyn, where his mother died when he was just 2 years old. He moved to Baltimore at age 8, and like King he used basketball as a distraction from the dangers of his neighborhood.
Anthony was twice arrested early in his NBA career, on a marijuana possession charge in 2004 and a driving while impaired charge in 2008. He has avoided further incidents, instead turning his focus to activist efforts in recent years. In addition to his ongoing charitable contributions to the communities he has grown up and played in, Anthony, the son of a Puerto Rican father, was a leader in relief efforts following Hurricane Maria, and he helped arrange for 4,500 Baltimore kids to attend the March for Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C.
He has for years been a vocal and financial advocate for the Black Lives Matter movement. He marched in the protests following Freddie Gray’s death in Baltimore police custody. He spoke out in the wake of the 2016 police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. He joined friends LeBron James, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade in making an impassioned speech on race-related shootings at the ESPYs that summer. In recent days, amid several public comments on the need for reform, Anthony revealed a new limited-edition apparel line that will donate all profits to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to fight against social injustice.
THE DAGGER: Carmelo Anthony has had the better career.
Previously on “Whose NBA career is better?”:
• Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James
• Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell
• Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson
• Kobe Bryant vs. LeBron James
• Kobe Bryant vs. Tim Duncan
• Shaquille O’Neal vs. Hakeem Olajuwon
• Stephen Curry vs. Jerry West
• Charles Barkley vs. Karl Malone
• Kevin Garnett vs. Moses Malone
• Patrick Ewing vs. David Robinson
• Dwyane Wade vs. Dirk Nowitzki
• Chris Paul vs. Isiah Thomas
• Ray Allen vs. Reggie Miller
• Kevin McHale vs. James Worthy
• Gary Payton vs. John Stockton
• Walt Frazier vs. Scottie Pippen
• Jason Kidd vs. Steve Nash
• Grant Hill vs. Tracy McGrady
• Carmelo Anthony vs. Vince Carter
• Clyde Drexler vs. Dominique Wilkins
• Pau Gasol vs. Manu Ginobili
• Dwight Howard vs. Rajon Rondo
• Horace Grant vs. Draymond Green
If you have an idea for a matchup you would like to see in this series, let us know.
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