Five months ago there was no rivalry between LeBron James and
Carmelo Anthony. They were good buddies drafted by bad teams in
different conferences, so they would face each other only twice a
year. Lavishly hyped but still in their teens, both seemed more
likely to boost their teams' attendance than their win totals. "I
kind of figured Carmelo would score in the mid-teens, average
five or six rebounds, and everyone would be really happy," says
Denver Nuggets general manager Kiki Vandeweghe, who took Anthony
with the No. 3 pick. A similarly cautious optimism was voiced by
Cleveland Cavaliers G.M. Jim Paxson when he discussed the
draft's top selection: "LeBron was O.K. in summer league and
the exhibitions, but he didn't play like a guy who was going to
get 20, six and six."
With a quarter of the NBA schedule remaining, however, it appears
that there was something to the preseason comparisons between
these rookies and the pair who helped revive the troubled league
in 1979-80: Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. James and Anthony were
both scoring more than 20 points per game at week's end; not only
were they the most productive rookies since Tim Duncan averaged
21.1 points for the San Antonio Spurs in 1997-98, but they were
also obliterating the record for NBA teenagers (15.4) set by Kobe
Bryant in his second season with the Los Angeles Lakers. Even
more impressive is the surprising fact that these two kids have
emerged as the engines driving two of the league's most improved
teams toward playoff berths (box, opposite). Then there is their
neck and neck race for the Rookie of the Year award. Let the
arguments--and the rivalry--rage on.
James has turned out to be a better scorer than anyone imagined,
averaging 20.7 points through Sunday to Anthony's 20.3, while
contributing 5.8 rebounds and 5.6 assists. (Only Oscar Robertson
and Michael Jordan racked up 20 points, five boards and five
assists as rookies.) While Anthony is not James's equal as a
passer, handing out only 2.7 assists per game, he is snatching
more rebounds (6.2) while playing 3.7 fewer minutes. He is also
shooting a better percentage (42.6 to 41.4), his accuracy having
improved each month: Despite more frequent double teams, it
reached 49.2% in February. From three-point range Carmelo also
holds the edge, 33.3% to LeBron's 28.6%. "They [often] end up
with similar stat lines," says Vandeweghe, "but they're two very
It is easy to envision what the 6'8", 240-pound James might
become five years from now: a playmaker like Magic but with more
athleticism and scoring ability. It's harder to pigeonhole the
6'8", 230-pound Anthony. Months of training with Nuggets
assistant Adrian Dantley have helped add numerous wrinkles to
Anthony's already mature post-up game. His explosive first step
allows him to beat almost anyone off the dribble, and thanks to
one of the quickest second jumps in the league, he has made
scores of putbacks. In the paint he seeks out contact; at week's
end he had gone to the line more often than all but 11 players.
Anthony reminds his G.M. of the small forwards of the 1970s, a
prolific bunch that included Dantley, Alex English and Bernard
King. "You had six or seven small forwards who could get 25
points, nine rebounds and four assists every night," says
Vandeweghe. "The difference is that Carmelo could be a better
passer than any of those guys. He's like Larry Bird: He likes the
ball in his hands so that he can draw the double team and hit the
After carrying Syracuse to the NCAA title in his only college
season, Anthony is already being tested as a leader in the NBA.
The Nuggets got off to a stunning 32-23 start--they were 17-65
last season--but through Sunday they had lost eight of nine,
putting their playoff prospects in peril. Carmelo has done
everything he could to end the swoon. In a 103-94 loss to the
visiting Indiana Pacers on Sunday he had 29 points, fueling a
furious comeback from a 22-point deficit. But his efforts have
only underscored Denver's desperate need for scoring help up
While Anthony's position has never been in question, the same
cannot be said of the more versatile James, which helps explain
the Cavaliers' 6-19 start. On Dec. 15 Paxson shrewdly dealt
talented Ricky Davis to the Boston Celtics in a six-player trade
that not only gave James enough touches to become his team's
leading scorer but also supplied him with a mentor in veteran
small forward Eric Williams. Then last month Paxson dealt
22-year-old forward Darius Miles for another finished product,
point guard Jeff McInnis, relieving James of the playmaking
chores. Cleveland has gone 13-8 with McInnis, who at week's end
had 67 assists and only eight turnovers in his last seven games.
"LeBron was having to bring it up, get us in our offense and
score 20 a game," says Paxson. "It was too much."
As mature as James appears to be in public, coach Paul Silas has
no trouble remembering that LeBron is fresh out of St. Mary-St.
Vincent High in Akron. "He's very playful," Silas says.
"Sometimes in practice he just goes running around dunking the
ball, almost giddy." So occasionally Silas and Denver coach Jeff
Bzdelik must remind their prodigies of the importance of
rebounding (Anthony has a habit of leaking out on the fast break,
allowing his man to sneak in for offensive rebounds) and of
playing tough D every night (James tends to let down against
weaker offensive players).
The bigger picture, however, is that they've exceeded all
expectations, hurdling obstacle after obstacle with the grace of
Edwin Moses. "At his age LeBron's already doing things nobody
else has done," Williams says. "I told him, 'You know, at your
age you might grow another two inches.' And LeBron said, 'My
doctor said there's a chance that might happen.' Now can you
imagine LeBron with all that strength and quickness at 6'10"? If
that happens, he changes the game."
That's a topic for another day. For now there's the Rookie of the
Year battle to resolve. Let's give a slight advantage to Anthony
(the elder by seven months), based on the Nuggets' better record
in the tougher Western Conference. But there are five weeks
remaining, and the honor should go to the player who does the
most for his team during that crucial stretch. Because isn't that
how these two are going to be judged for the next decade or two:
by who can take his team the furthest?
Twice in the past nine years the media's votes have yielded
co-Rookies of the Year, and another shared award would
undoubtedly spawn conspiracy theories. At the end of this season
there should be one winner and one guy stung by the slight,
vowing to work harder this summer. Let's add a splash of vinegar
to this rivalry.
COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN PICK A WINNER With James (left) and Anthony averaging 20 points, the rookie race may be settled by how their teams do.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH [See caption above]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER AN EARLY EDGE In their first matchup, in November, Anthony and the Nuggets squeezed past James's Cavaliers 93-89.
There was something to comparing them with BIRD AND MAGIC as
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