New York Knicks fans rejoiced when Carmelo Anthony escaped from his Rocky Mountains aerie, and flew across the country to grab his rightful place at the mecca of basketball, Madison Square Garden. Knicks fans have had their dreams filled with orgiastic fantasies of Carmelo joining forces with Amar’e Stoudemire to recruit the future services of Chris Paul. And, if this does occur, the Big Three in Miami and Boston will no longer be viewed as impossible impediments to an NBA crown, but manageable speed bumps.
Melo was returning to his birthplace, the city his family left when he was eight, and at the age of 26 could claim his stake in the city. After suffering through nearly a decade’s worth of abysmal basketball at Madison Square Garden, Knicks fans jumped at the prospect of Carmelo Anthony putting the basketball universe in its proper order, with the Knicks rightfully moving to the center of the game’s power nexus.
Amar’e Stoudemire had awakened Madison Square Garden, but Carmelo Anthony had been the precious bauble that Knicks’ backers desperately wanted. Would Melo end up in the hands of Russian oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov’s New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets (or whatever they’re going to be called in the future) or would the Knicks be able to land this coveted basketball diva – unlike what happened in their pursuit of LeBron James who would have been a supernova of athletic brilliance and off-the-court celebrity.
Knicks owner James Dolan inserted himself into the negotiations with the Denver Nuggets – and it has been posited – pushed Knicks President Donnie Walsh to the background. The Knicks gave up the nucleus of a young and improving team, mortaged the future with a surplus of draft picks surrendered to the Nuggets, and landed the object of Big Apple desire, Carmelo Anthony.
This is a narrative that should be applauded. Knicks fans should congratulate James Dolan for landing a player that has been hailed as a franchise savior, but the story is more complex and far less simple than that.
Melo’s Playoff Impotence
In Carmelo Anthony’s eight-year NBA career, his teams have won two playoff series. Both of these series wins occurred in 2009, when Chauncey Billups was acquired from the Detroit Pistons in exchange for Allen Iverson, and the Nuggets made it to the Western Conference Finals. The Billups deal was a tacit acknowledgement that the Iverson/Melo experiment was a failure, and Iverson received the blame for its lack of success because of his ball-dominating ways.
Melo supporters will steadfastly contend; that his stay in Denver was characterized by a failure to surround the Nuggets’ franchise player with enough talent to succeed in the playoffs. During Anthony’s stay in Denver, the Western Conference was loaded and it was an achievement, in and of itself, to make the playoffs. Denver’s inability to win playoff series can’t be blamed on Melo, but instead the accusatory finger has to be pointed at the Denver front office, and its failure to spend money and attract suitable talent to play with it’s franchise star.
The preceding paragraph is a plausible argument, but is Carmelo Anthony the type of player that elevates the games of his teammates? After being swept in the first-round of the 2011 playoffs by the Boston Celtics, Melo’s Knicks could be painted with the same brush that was used to characterize his Denver teams. With Chauncey Billups injured and able to suit up for only Game 1 and Stoudemire a victim of a tweaked back that rendered him ineffective for Games 2, 3 and 4, New York’s competitive chances were placed on the superstar shoulders of Carmelo Anthony.
No one can really believe that Melo should have carried the Knicks to victory versus the Celtics, and he did submit a stunning performance in Game 2 when Stoudemire’s balky back eventually forced him to the bench, but Anthony is nowhere near a complete basketball player.
Melo is a superb scorer. He can break down wing defenders one-on-one, he can back guys down into the post and score in the paint, in Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni’s offensive system his 3-point field goal percentage has dramatically improved, he possesses court vision - but everyone knew most of this about Anthony. Everyone knew that New York was acquiring a player with immense offensive talent, but certain ugly truths have also been revealed.
Carmelo Anthony is a crappy defensive player. In fact, it could be argued that he isn’t even a lousy defensive player, but that he is indifferent to defense. It’s almost as if the very concept of defense is below him.
Do I really need to hustle and close out on my man who is shooting a wide open 3-pointer? Do I have to get on the floor for a loose ball? If I come home with a black eye, which could prevent me from taking part in the next photo shoot arranged by my wife LaLa, is she is going to have my ass?
I know that you are shaking your head, wondering how this ass clown can attack Melo’s game when he recorded these numbers versus the Celtics:
26.0 ppg 10.3 rpg 4.8 apg
Yes, those are nice numbers, but we all knew he could score. The Knicks invested maximum money, and lost untold future talent, on a guy who is a dilettante on the defensive end. As a team leader, Melo is expected to understand how to rotate on defense. If he doesn’t quite understand the defensive rotation or makes a mistake, how about hustling to amend the error? Anthony will jog toward his man who is letting fly with another uncontested three.
People will argue that D’Antoni does not emphasize defense, so why should Melo exert himself? Because unless a superstar leads on both ends of the floor, through hard work and hustle, an NBA championship will constantly fall out of the team’s reach. D’Antoni went so far as to place Anthony on Boston point guard Rajon Rondo – either to keep him out of foul trouble or to hide his matador moves.
Examine the Miami Heat and look at the effort that LeBron James and Dwayne Wade expend on the defensive end. Watch D Wade close out on a 3-point shooter and sprint at the open man, with Braveheart abandon, and attack his shooting hand. D Wade doesn’t jog, or raise a token hand at his man but puts pressure on the shooter. Both he and LeBron excel on both ends of the court.
Celtics bully and defender extraordinaire, Kevin Garnett, raised Boston’s collective commitment to defense when he arrived from Minnesota. Paul Pierce, who was a sometimes apathetic defender, bought into KG’s call to arms and restored his commitment to defense.
Battling Kobe’s Lakers in the 2011 playoffs, with a cast that isn’t supremely gifted, New Orleans Hornets franchise player Chris Paul battles on both ends of the court. Paul is a tenacious defender and seldom gives less than maximum effort. If your team’s leader works hard on the defensive end, everyone is forced to buy into it. It’s the product of peer pressure, collective will, a fight to retain your job, and a desire to win.
The Carmelo Effect
Carmelo forced Denver to deal him. Anthony wanted a maximum contract that would be unaffected by the next collective bargaining agreement. He didn’t want to sacrifice one cent to come to New York, and he didn’t care how much talent or draft picks the Knicks had to expend to get him. If Melo’s desire to come to New York was all about basketball and winning a championship, he would have waited to sign with New York as a free agent, but he wanted his cash. It didn’t matter if that money was Russian-backed rubles or cash from Cablevision subscriptions, Carmelo wanted the ultimate score.
Carmelo and his wife LaLa Vasquez are now making a bid to become the First Couple of the NBA, and unseat Lamar Odom and his wife Khloe Kardashian from this lofty social status. Carmelo and LaLa will appear at public relations events, galas, gain maximum exposure, unveil their reality television series, and attempt to amass a fortune in endorsements, but none of this will bring the Knicks closer to an NBA title. And none of these ancillary endeavors will make Melo a better basketball player.
What Anthony’s brief time in New York has revealed, is that Melo is a vital component to a Knicks renaissance, but the next piece added to construct New York’s Big Three will be more important. Chauncey Billups will return for the 2011-12 season, but throughout the season, and the Knicks will covetously eye Chris Paul with unvarnished desire.
In Commissioner David Stern’s NBA, where hand-checking has been rendered obsolete, a one-on-one perimeter defender has no conceivable chance of effectively slowing down an elite point guard. For the Knicks to move to the next level, the next components added by Donnie Walsh or his successor, will have to be an elite point guard and defensive-minded complementary players. Walsh must question whether Deron Williams would have been a better addition than the future reality television character known as Melo.
Barring a work stoppage, when the 2011-12 season starts, Carmelo Anthony will be 27-years-old. Entering the prime of his career, Melo must ask whether he wants to have a career that has parallels to Vince Carter, or will he produce a body of work that is championship driven and displays his maturation as a player?
Embracing and actively pursuing a celebrity lifestyle will not make Anthony’s New York adventure any easier. When things go bad, and they always do, Gotham media types will ask whether Carmelo’s off the court commitments are undermining New York’s aspirations for an NBA title.
Will his legacy be that of one of the all-time NBA greats? And, at this moment in time, is he even worthy of being labeled a Top 10 player in today’s NBA?