Barring an unforeseen change of fortunes, Carmelo Anthony is likely to land on one of the most infamous lists in sports as one of the greatest players never to win a championship. Anthony spent his prime with a New York Knicks team that struggled to attract talent to play alongside him, and with his career nearing its end and his Portland Trail Blazers currently outside of the playoff picture, the odds of Anthony ultimately hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy before he retires appear incredibly slim.
But what rarely gets remembered is how close Anthony’s first team, the Denver Nuggets, came to winning him that elusive ring. In 2009, the Nuggets reached the Western Conference Finals and took the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers to six games before ultimately falling. Anthony still thinks about that loss, and argued in an Instagram interview with Dwyane Wade that not only should the Nuggets have beaten the Lakers, but that they would have swept the Eastern Conference champion Orlando Magic in the NBA Finals.
“I was sick, because we were supposed to beat them that year,” Anthony said. “I don’t like saying ‘We should have.’ I don’t like saying all that. But when you re-evaluate everything, we really wanted Orlando in that Finals that year. We was like, ‘If we get Game 1 in L.A. or Game 2, we’re going back to Denver, we’re sweeping them.’ We was going to beat them. We was going to beat them that year if we would’ve won in L.A. If we would’ve won both games, we would’ve beat them. And we would’ve swept Orlando that year.”
The Nuggets came far closer to beating the Lakers than most realize. They won Game 2 in Los Angeles, and nearly won Game 1 before backup Anthony Carter suffered a critical turnover with the Nuggets down only two with 30 seconds remaining. They split the next two games in Denver before the Lakers claimed the final two battles of the series. How it would have shaken out if the Nuggets had won Game 1 is unknowable, but they did manage to give the champions a real series. That’s an accomplishment in itself, even if it doesn’t come with a trophy attached.
Perhaps if Anthony had known what was to come, he would have remained in Denver. In his final full season as a Nugget, Denver won 53 games. He has topped that total only once since, and it’s not as though the Knicks team he joined in 2011 was a ready-made contender. As close as Anthony came to a title in 2009, his best chance at actually winning one likely would have involved remaining with the team that had gotten him so close rather than joining the team that, by that point, had gone nearly four decades without a ring. To some degree, Anthony has himself to blame for his ringless career.