The Fault in Our Superstars

Sports pundits throw around the term “superstar” loosely, seemingly attaching the phrase to every great player in their respective sports. LeBron James is a superstar basketball player. Mike Trout is a superstar outfielder. Aaron Rodgers is a superstar quarterback.

But the question is what sets a superstar apart from the rest, meaning what puts the ‘super’ in front of ‘star’? ESPN First Take’s Stephen A. Smith defines the term ‘superstar’ as someone who fulfills two simple qualifications: they have to be elite offensively and defensively, and they have to be box-office. Superstars not only need to be great players, but they also need to be the main attraction in a game, someone who you are willing to pay money to watch play.

Many argue that in order for a player to be considered a superstar, they have to accomplish something in the postseason as well. For how could a player be ranked above the rest if they don’t make their team better? Is Chris Paul really a superstar point guard if in 10 years in the NBA, he has yet to make it past the second round of the playoffs? Then again, Charles Barkley has never won a championship, yet he is a Hall-of-Famer and widely considered a superstar during his career.

In the case of Carmelo Anthony, the 12-year veteran is certainly earning superstar money after signing a 5-year, $124 million deal with the Knicks this past offseason. Anthony holds the fourth-highest salary in the league, behind the likes of Kobe Bryant, Amar’e Stoudemire, and Joe Johnson. Ironically, aside from Bryant, none of the five highest players in the NBA (Dwight Howard being fifth) have won a championship, and only Howard has reached the NBA Finals.

There’s no debate regarding Anthony’s superstar offense; he is known league-wide as being one of the hardest players to guard one-on-one. Kobe Bryant, the closest player the league has seen to Michael Jordan, has openly stated that ‘Melo is the toughest player he has ever had to guard because of the combination of Anthony’s strength and quickness.

Anthony’s post game is lethal because he can back you down on the block, and he can make tough turnaround jumpers at will. When he’s handling the rock, Anthony can blow by anyone with supreme quickness, and he can finish at the rim as well as anyone.

Take a look at his most recent experience in the 2012 London Olympics. Designated as a pure-scorer on an already stacked squad offensively, Anthony thrived off the bench with his instant offense and hot hand. He scored 37 points on 10-12 from 3-point range against Nigeria, which broke the U.S. single game record for points scored. It seemed as though he was unstoppable, although having an entire team of All-Stars probably helped his cause. He eventually scored 28.7 points per game in the proceeding NBA season, which led the league, and helped the Knicks reach the second-seed in the Eastern Conference.

In terms of defense, however, Anthony hasn’t proved to be consistent enough to fulfill the first qualification of a ‘superstar’, as per Stephen A. Smith’s definition.

According to Basketball-Reference.com, Anthony is ranked 72th in the league with a 107.21 defensive rating, which is a measure  of how many points the player allowed per 100 possessions he individually faced while on the court. In perspective, the league-leader in defensive rating is Tim Duncan at 95.35. However, ‘Melo isn’t a terrible defender by any stretch of the imagination. He’s just the type of player who will play marginally on defense in order to save energy to dominate on the offensive side of the ball.

In fairness to Carmelo Anthony, his sole purpose as a basketball player is to score points for his team. The Knicks did not expect him to be a Defensive Player of the Year when they traded for him, which is why they acquired Tyson Chandler, who is an elite defender, to shore up the Knicks frontcourt. The combination of Anthony’s scoring and Chandler’s defense was a key in the Knicks reaching the second-seed in 2012 and making it to the second round of the playoffs.

In terms of being a box-office commodity, the Knicks have generally been a must-see show when they arrive in town, mainly due to Anthony’s exploits. Since his first full season as a Knick in 2011, Anthony has helped the Knicks become top-five in road attendance across the league for four straight years, until their collapse in 2014. This season, with Anthony only playing 34 out of the Knicks’ 45 games, the Knicks road attendance dropped all the way down to 19th in the league. So it’s safe to say that when Anthony is on top of his game and the Knicks win in turn, he gets the turnstiles turnin’.

Alas, the question still remains, is Carmelo Anthony a superstar if he generally only focuses on his offensive game? The answer to that question would be no. As an offensive machine, Anthony is roughly in the top three of the league, alongside Kevin Durant and LeBron James. But defensively, even though he can play defense when asked, Anthony isn’t consistent enough to be considered elite offensively and defensively.

Unfortunately, according to Stephen A. Smith’s standard definition, this means Anthony is not a superstar in the NBA. Players like LeBron, Kobe (in his prime), Stephen Curry, etc. score, defend, and draw fans nightly, and those are the players that have the unique distinction of being called ‘superstars’.

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