Johann von Goethe’s epic poem Faust follows a brilliant scholar and intellectual named Heinrich Faust, a man dejected by the idea of the limits of his worldly knowledge. A demon named Mephistopheles takes an interest in Faust, and decides to makes a bet with God that he can turn God’s favorite human (also Faust) away from the path of righteousness. God agrees, and one night Mephistopheles takes the form of a poodle (for reals) and reveals himself to Faust just as he is about to commit suicide in the throes of existential despair. He offers him all that his heart desires, and in exchange, Faust will serve the devil in the afterlife. I’ll spare you the details because this thing was written more than 200 years ago. All you need to know is things start going his way, he wins the love of his life Gretchen, and everything seems to be going smoothly. Eventually shit hits the fan, and Faust loses the love of his life and everything turns shitty.
The idea of the ‘Faustian bargain’ is just one manifestation of a recurring cultural archetype that has been around since the inception of myth itself. Man is unhappy, man makes selfish supernatural pact to get what he wants, supernatural pact backfires in spectacular fashion. The examples of this throughout the history of myth and legend and pop culture are countless. Timmy Turner and basically every wish he’s ever made. Legendary blues guitarist Robert Johnson allegedly met the devil at a crossroads and exchanged his soul for the ability to shred guitar. Annakin Skywalker pledged allegiance to Darth Sidious to save his wife from being killed in childbirth, and instead slaughtered a bunch of kids and became a robo asshole bent on galactic domination.
The story of Carmelo Anthony is yet another example of the Faustian bargain, and how sacrificing your future for the spoils of the present will almost always come back to bite you in the ass. Carmelo Anthony was drafted third overall by the Denver Nuggets in the 2003 draft, coming off a national championship with the Syracuse Orange and being perhaps the most heralded college prospect of his time. Almost overnight the Nuggets went from perennial mediocrity to up and coming western conference contenders. Led by Anthony, the explosive young guard JR Smith, and Brazillian sparkplug slash singularly named forward Nene, the Nuggets enjoyed an unprecedented stretch of success. In 2006 the Nuggets acquired aging superstar Allen Iverson, who was flipped a year and a half later for point guard Chauncey Billups. Between 2006 and 2011 the Nuggets won at least 50 games in each season and did not miss the playoffs once. From an outsider’s perspective, things in Denver seemed to be on the up and up. They had the rare combination of a young core of players, wily veterans, and an experience coach in George Karl.
However in 2011, the NBA was on the verge of a labor dispute and player lockout, and Anthony’s discontent in Denver was growing. Sources suggested Anthony was feuding with head coach George Karl, and had requested a trade during the summer despite his contract expiring at the end of the 2011 season (Karl has since confirmed the rumors of the feud in a book released in 2016). He became seemingly bent on getting out of Denver as quickly as possible, even though he could leave of his own volition once his contract expired at the end of the season. Shortly after the lockout ended, Melo was traded to his primary destination and hometown New York Knicks in exchange for a king’s ransom of Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton, Danillo Gallinari, Timofey Mozgov, and two first round picks. Rumor has it that Knicks owner James Dolan forced the trade through despite the pleas of his front office staff to wait until free agency, when they could acquire him for nothing.
Eager to surround their new star with a deserving supporting cast, the Knicks went all-out that summer to sign All-Star forward Amare Stoudemire, veteran PG Baron Davis, and center Tyson Chandler. The Knicks hit a string of unfortunate injuries in the 2011-2012 season, with Davis tearing his ACL and Stoudemire breaking his hand punching a fire extinguisher out of frustration. The underachievement was chalked up to injuries, and more importantly the investment in Melo seemed worth it. He put up record scoring numbers, was named to the All-NBA third team, and the Knicks earned a 7th seed playoff berth, getting knocked out by Lebron James and the eventual NBA champion Heat in the first round. Expectations for Melo and the Knicks were as high as ever, and they delivered. Melo kept his epic scoring clip up through the 2012-2013 season, and with a healthy cast surrounding him, he and the Knicks enjoyed their most successful season during his tenure. They won 54 games and made it to the eastern conference finals, which would be the deepest playoff run of his career. Melo averaged 28ppg and was named to his first All-NBA second team. However this would be the pinnacle of the Knicks during the Melo era and was the first step in a precipitous fall to mediocrity.
The Knicks started out the 2013-14 season losing nine straight games, despite Melo playing some of the best ball of his career. A combination of injuries and underperformance led to by all accounts a dud season. Davis never played in the NBA again after his injury. Stoudemire never played a full season again after breaking his hand. JR Smith had essentially partied his way out of New York and found greener pastures with Lebron James in Cleveland. For a team with such high expectations to so grossly underperform, a change had to be made. So right before the All-Star break the Knicks shipped Marcus Camby, Steve Novak, Quentin Richardson, a first round pick, and two second round picks to Toronto in exchange for Italian big man Andrea Bargnani. Bargnani was an epic bust, and the the Knicks not only continued to flounder but further crippled their ability to fill out their roster with young talent by trading their draft picks. Melo, clearly frustrated, informed the Knicks he would not be resigning… yet eventually signed a 5 year max contract the next summer, including the last no-trade clause offered in NBA history. He could have taken less money from a contender, but he chose the financially irresistible contract from the Knicks instead.
The inability to develop young players via the draft and the financial hamstring of bad contacts like Stoutemire and Chandler put the Knicks in neutral for the next few seasons. Melo continued to put up Hall of Fame type numbers despite the Knicks being a perennial laughingstock. A horrendous on-count product and a carousel of ill fitting coaches and front office personnel turned the Knicks from a free agent destination to a pariah. Yet is Melo completely to blame for the Knicks stagnation? Not at all. Most of the blame can be laid at the feet of Knicks owner James Dolan, possibly the worst owner in sports. No only did he push through the Melo trade to revitalize a dying interest in the Knicks, who had a new rival in town (the Nets) and needed desperately to remain relevant. But he brought in a series of inept, antiquated, and out of touch personnel to lead the front office and coach the team.
The sideshow culminated in the hiring of Phil Jackson as the president of basketball operations in 2015. Phil tried to implement his famed triangle offense via his puppet coach Kurt Rambis, which relied heavily on ball movement and a scripted set of reads. This scheme did not fit the personnel on the Knicks current roster, and rather adjust his scheme, he instead did his best to run Melo out of town. He publicly called into question (aka subtweeted) his commitment and effort and openly shopped Melo in the trade market, before being fired in early 2017.
The Melo saga in New York finally came to an end, when in the summer of 2017 they traded him to the Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott, and a second round pick. An objectively meager haul for a future Hall of Famer, whose value was shrunk and diminished thanks to years of front office questioning, misutilization of his skills, and the effect of being on a shitty team for years and years.
Fortunately the Knicks find themselves in a much better position now. They drafted Latvian big man Kristaps Porzingis in 2016 who turned out to be one of the NBAs up and coming bright stars, with his unique combination of size and skill. They drafted French guard Frank Nktilika, a long guard with a lot of defensive upside, in the 2017 draft. And they traded for Tim Hardaway Jr via the Hawks, who is a capable NBA scorer. However there is no denying that the Knicks have a long rebuild ahead of them. They finally are in control of their own draft picks and have a decent young core of players. It was a running joke in the NBA for many years as to how meager the Knicks draft selections were year in and year out. The have finally freed themselves from the vicious cycle of mediocrity where the team only got worse, free agents didn’t want to go there, and because they traded all their draft picks away they couldn’t develop young talent. Yet even where they stand now, they are at least 3-4 years from drafting and developing enough talent to be relevant again, and even that is a conservative estimate. Often a rebuild can be thrown for a loop thanks to an unfortunate injury or a bust pick.
Melos situation is not uncommon in the NBA; a superstar player stuck on a non-contending team wanting desperately to get out. However what makes this situation truly Faustian was the way Melo decided to change his situation. Rather than waiting half a season to enter free agency in 2011 and then going to New York, he made the proverbial deal with the devil and essentially demanded a trade out of Denver. In the process of acquiring Melo, the Knicks essentially traded away what future they had as a franchise to get better now. The same thing happened in 2013-14. The Knicks knew they needed to bring in another complimentary star in order to get melo to stick around, and they sold what remains of the farm for Andrea Bargnani, who turned out to be a bust and was out of the NBA completely within 2 years.
As we know hindsight is 20/20. Had Melo known demanding a trade, rather than waiting 6 months to sign in free agency, would have hamstrung the Knicks through his tenure there, perhaps he would have stuck it out in Denver. Or at least waiting 6 months and left in free agency. And had he known the Knicks roster would essentially become the walking wounded, perhaps he wouldn’t have resigned in 2014. Or at least signed a shorter contract. In any case it’s hard to fault Melo, our tragic Faustian hero, for making a deal with the devil. He knew Dolan (the devil in this metaphor) would do anything to get him there, and he used that leverage to fulfill all his worldly desires.
The tale of Faust ends with him at the gates of heaven. His bet with Mephistopheles was only partly completed, and Faust is allowed into heaven, with an angel declaring “he who strives and lives to strive can earn redemption still”. Throughout his career, there is no question Melo strove to be the best player he could. One could knock him for his lack of defensive effort or his penchant for isolation scoring, however you can never question his desire to win. And isn’t that desire to strive all that matters? Perhaps Faust’s heaven is Melo’s OKC Thunder. He’s joining defending MVP Russell Westbrook and Paul George in one of the most dynamic teams in the stacked western conference. Perhaps this new chapter in Melo’s career will finally deliver him his worldly desires.