Bitter returns: Dwight vs. Melo

J.A. Adande, who lives in L.A., and Israel Gutierrez, who lives in Miami, are teaming up this season for a look at the NBA from two perspectives.


Starting Tuesday night, the NBA schedule looks like one of those ESPN college basketball themes, like "Rivalry Week" or "BracketBusters." Call it "Bitter Returns." Dwight Howard is back in Orlando on Tuesday night, and Wednesday night Carmelo Anthony goes back to Denver.

There are so many angles to this, but we should start with the fans. It's really about them this time. After all, Howard and Anthony have already played against their old teams, they just haven't played in a visitor's jersey before the crowds who used to adore them. The question is: Which fan base should be more upset with its erstwhile star? To me, it's Orlando.

At least Carmelo gave Denver ample notice and never wavered from his desire to leave. This allowed Nuggets general manager Masai Ujiri to patiently draw out the best deal, playing the Knicks and Nets off each other until he was able to extract Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton, Timofey Mozgov, a 2014 first-round pick and $3 million from the Knicks. It gave the Nuggets a deep, versatile team with contributions coming from everyone, rather than an offense that featured four guys standing around watching Melo try to score. The Nuggets have even won more games than the Knicks since the trade. It's a flagrant violation of my Headline Rule, which dictates that the team that gets the player in the headline wins the trade.

Dwight Howard's I-want-out-I-want-to-stay-get-me-outta-here vacillations made the Magic lose leverage, deprived them of time and effectively cost the team's CEO, general manager and coach their jobs. Although the Magic look wise for avoiding Andrew Bynum's weak knees and wacky hairdos -- and they got hidden gem Nikola Vucevic in the four-team trade that sent Howard to the Lakers -- Orlando has gone from playoff team to the lowest depths of the Eastern Conference.

The surest sign that the Nuggets had it better than the Magic? You don't see The Denver Post doing "Forget You" videos for Anthony, as the Orlando Sentinel did for Howard.


It's not even close when you compare these two scorned exes.

Magic fans are still in rehab, given how painful that parting was and how painful this season has been. The folks in Denver have long ago lost Carmelo's cell number. The Nuggets shouldn't just be OK with the fact that Melo nudged his way to the Big Apple. They should actually thank him every time he returns to Denver.

Never mind that the Nuggets actually got a quality return in the trade, allowing them to remain relevant in a brutal Western Conference and potentially make a splash this postseason. That's just good work by a quality general manager.

The real reason the Nuggets should be thankful is that it's not yet proven that a team can win at the highest level with Anthony as its centerpiece. His Nuggets reached the conference finals in 2009, but that happened to be one of Melo's worst statistical seasons as a Nugget and had a lot to do with the addition of Chauncey Billups that season.

Anthony has been less like LeBron James or Kobe Bryant and more like Melo's former teammate, Allen Iverson, whose greatest success came when he was surrounded by elite defenders and rebounders. So unless the Nuggets were going to go that route in building around Melo, they were probably better off bucking the NBA rule about needing a superstar and building the balanced, deep roster they have now.

Howard, on the other hand, not only left his Orlando fan base dizzy from his indecision and ultimate betrayal, but also left as one of the very few dominant centers, if not the only remaining one -- and that's a piece you can build a championship contender around in any era.

His reception in Orlando won't be as intense as LeBron's when he returned to Cleveland the first time (in Quicken Loans Arena that night, you could actually see and hear what true hate looks like). But it won't be pretty.

And it shouldn't be.


You touched on something there. Although Howard is in for the rougher reception (I'm not sure Melo will receive even the same vitriol the Denverites directed at Russell Westbrook for his shenanigans with Rocky the mascot), Howard is the one with the brighter future once this week is over.

This is more about their peers than about the players themselves. Howard is like the last big man standing. With centers either disappearing or being de-emphasized around the league, Howard still has a good chance to go down as the best center of his generation. Granted, at this stage, it feels like having the best film-developing shop, but it's always good to be No. 1 at what you do.

I don't think we'll be calling Carmelo the best small forward as long as LeBron and Kevin Durant are around. And Carmelo is falling behind his classmates in the 2003 draft. Dwyane Wade has two championships, and LeBron has one. I'd even say Chris Bosh has enjoyed a more desirable pro career than Carmelo. Although Carmelo has scored more points, Bosh has been to one more All-Star Game and has one more championship ring. Kendrick Perkins won a championship in Boston and is on a contender in Oklahoma City. David West's Pacers could outlast the Knicks in this year's playoffs.

Carmelo might end up as this era's Patrick Ewing: a star in New York, but without another Hall of Famer in his prime alongside him to get him a championship. Meanwhile, the Lakers' play lately gives you the idea that this could work for them next season. It's too late for them to climb out of the bottom playoff bracket this year, but the way Howard, Bryant and Steve Nash have adapted to their roles indicates that, in 2013-14, they could live up to the high expectations they carried into this season.

Another reason for Howard to look forward to next season? He'll have his first visit to Orlando out of the way.


If Howard wins the long-term battle, consider him 2-for-2 because he has the edge in the short term over Carmelo, too.

Consider what's staring Melo in the face for the rest of this season. He has a legitimate All-Star with him in Tyson Chandler. But besides that, now that Amar'e Stoudemire officially appears too damaged to ever be truly relied upon, what gives Anthony hope? That he's reunited with two of his former Nuggets teammates, J.R. Smith and Kenyon Martin? That Stoudemire's contract has the Knicks strapped? That he and Felton can make for a dynamic one-two perimeter punch?

Not exactly the stuff NBA dreams are made of.

In fact, if the Knicks aren't careful and get stuck with a 3-seed or lower, there's a good chance they could face a Boston or Chicago team with the type of defense that gives New York fits.

And what happens if Melo is ousted in the first round again? Will he be longing for his Denver days? Will New York turn on him?

Meanwhile, Howard is only now starting to earn some love out in L.A. Since the All-Star break, he seems to have committed himself to a role he's been fighting since he arrived. His Lakers look like a legitimate playoff team, and that's without an All-Star, Pau Gasol, who should return well before the postseason begins. And the prospect of playing with Kobe for another couple of years or so doesn't seem nearly as bad when you see just how effective he can be even with 16-plus seasons under his belt.

Howard wants to be loved, and he'll get a good taste of how much love L.A. has to offer its NBA superstars if he continues this ascension and plays like one in the postseason. Plus, if he chooses to re-sign with the Lakers, he'll be with a franchise that has a history of building elite teams quickly.

That's a lot more than you can say about James Dolan and the Knicks brass.

That's a checkmate for Howard. His number might not get retired in Orlando, even if it's just out of spite. But who needs that when he can still be an L.A. legend?


There's one flaw in that premise: You're basing it on the assumption that Dwight Howard will stay in Los Angeles. Although you might think it would make sense to re-sign with the team that can guarantee him an additional $30 million and has a history of assembling championship contenders, when was the last time we saw Howard follow the logical path? He wanted out of a warm climate with no state taxes and a franchise that put him within three victories of a ring in 2009. He did not have the Lakers on the top of his list of destinations. His first year in L.A. has been an ordeal, some of it by his own making.

At least you can say Carmelo got what he wanted and hasn't wavered since he arrived in New York. He's "the man" in Manhattan, and he might show the thirsty Knicks fans what it's like to advance in the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade.

The irony is that the way Carmelo's looming trade saga soured the first half of the 2010-11 season led to changes in the collective bargaining agreement that prohibited the Lakers from locking up Howard to a max-dollar extension when they traded for him. Financially, it makes more sense for Howard to become a free agent after the season. One of the reasons he's been uncomfortable in L.A. is he feels he has received a disproportionate amount of blame for the Lakers' underachieving season (with no one taking his surgically repaired back into consideration). If he does head elsewhere, technically you can blame Carmelo.

Think about that: The net result of the Carmelo trade could not only improve the Nuggets but also deal the Lakers a major setback. The mere possibility should make Denver fans give Carmelo a standing ovation.


It all depends on how this season ends for their respective teams.

Howard could make the playoffs and lose in the first round but put up a good fight, and L.A. would be remembered as the team that fought hard and, with some slight tweaking, has strong potential for next season. That'll make fans almost forget the rough beginning and have Dwight feeling better about the prospect of staying in L.A.

If the Knicks lose in the first round, there's no such feeling in New York, and maybe then you'll see a change in Melo's demeanor (think a Reggie Rose type of rant).

Or, you know, Dwight can do what he always does, throwing everyone for a loop and, say, forcing his way to New Orleans because he can oddly relate to pelicans and thinks Austin Rivers is the perfect perimeter complement to his game.

Wouldn't shock me.