March 3, 2011

Carmelo Anthony, Delusion and Quandary

That Carmelo Anthony is a tough nut to crack, isn't he?

Before I talk about him, here's something else: as fans, we like to have the top NBA players easily splittable into different slots. These are mine:

A. The elite-MVP-caliber-type player: LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard, and now, Derrick Rose.
B. Amazing players who are a Slot C player away from being in Slot A: Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Steve Nash.
C. Elite second option/complimentary players: Rajon Rondo, Pau Gasol, Chris Bosh, Russell Westbrook, Amar'e Stoudemire, Carlos Boozer, LaMarcus Aldridge, Joe Johnson.
D. Experienced team players with limited but effective roles: Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Lamar Odom, Chauncey Billups.
E. Guys that play well in a good system: Al Horford, Josh Smith, Luol Deng, Al Jefferson, Luis Scola, Kevin Martin, David West, Andrew Bogut, Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, Caron Butler, and Everyone in the 76ers.
F. Talented young scorers/fringe all stars: Monta Ellis, Rudy Gay, Danny Granger
G. Talented youngsters in bad teams still finding their slot: Blake Griffin, John Wall, Kevin Love, Stephen Curry, Tyreke Evans, Brook Lopez

A pretty exhaustive list I know, and I'm sure there will an argument here or there about shifting one or the other into another group. But this list leaves out two very important players. The first is Carmelo Anthony, my muse for this article. The other is Dirk Nowitzki.

I couldn't find a list in the seven above for any of these two guys. They are not young enough to be in Slots F or G. They are too talented to be considered a limited veteran like Garnett, Pierce, or Duncan in Slot D. They are way better than any 'system' player like Josh Smith, David West, or Luis Scola in Slot E.

Which leaves me with the first three slots. Dirk and Melo have both played in great, stacked, and successful teams for most of their careers, and so it is hard to argue that they belong in Slot B. Since both of them have been primary scorers and volume shooters in good teams, there is no way that they can settle for Slot C like Gasol, Bosh, or Joe Johnson. But then are they really good enough to be mentioned in the same breath as LeBron and Kobe in Slot A?

I'm going to leave Dirk alone for now - his place in the history of the NBA's elite will demand a different, exhaustive discussion. Let's get back solely to Melo. Last week, Carmelo Anthony was traded to my favourite team, the New York Knicks. After a decade of futility, losing records, and embarrassment, the Knicks had paired someone I consider a Slot C, complementary player, Amar'e (he can NEVER be the leader in a great team) with someone from Slot D, Billups. Add to this mixture my favourite rookie and glue-guy, Landry Fields.

For a decade, I have suffered, watching a revolving door of underachieving, overpaid, and infuriating players stroll in and out of the Knicks. Here is a short list of some of those who came, who saw, and who lost in New York: Shandon Anderson, Howard Eisley, Stephon Marbury (once my favourite player), Keith Van Horn, Tim Thomas, Jerome James, Michael Sweetney, Jalen Rose, Steve Francis, Penny Hardaway, Renaldo Balkman, Zach Randolph, Larry Hughes, Darko Milicic, and Eddy Curry.

But in Melo, we have someone different. He is a multiple-time All Star, and is one of the league's best scorers. He is in his prime, with a lot of playoff experience, a great late-game mentality, and a lot of more years left to go as an All Star level guy. Carmelo Anthony is gifted enough to be one of the league's best pure scorers ever.

But in the last sentence above, I answer my own conundrum. He is "gifted to be", means, "he can be, but he isn't." And "best pure scorers" begs the question, "Is he anything else?"

Yes, he's a good rebounder, and yes, he is an adequate passer. But unfortunately, there is not much else. Melo has been considered to being a liability on the defensive end, and unlike the elite players, he isn't exactly a leader on the court. Soon after he left Denver, his former coach George Carl echoed the enigma that is Carmelo Anthony: "Melo is the best offensive player I’ve ever coached," said Karl, "But his defensive focus, his demand of himself is what frustrated us more than anything."

And all this is why, despite now having a core of Melo, Amar'e, and Billups, the Knicks are still far from being a contender. This is why many people still believe that the Knicks are still one more important piece, and a few more little pieces, away from being elite. Despite being one of the best players in the league, Carmelo Anthony cannot carry even a good team on his shoulders like LeBron, Kobe, Wade, Dwight, or Rose can. At least not yet.

I hope against everything I've written above that I'm proved wrong. I hope that the unlikely happens, that Mike D'Antoni, the anti-defensive guy, is someone able to make Carmelo Anthony into a defensive guy and a leader. Okay, ignore what I just wrote. That's never going to happen.

At the end of the day, though, it is all about the Knicks. They may not be in the elite league of the Celtics, Heat, Lakers, or Spurs, or in the almost elite league of Bulls, Magic, Mavericks, and Thunder, but they are way, way, waaaay better than anything I've seen in about a dozen years. For a team that has struggled to have a winning season and make the playoffs, the gift of a first round playoff exit and excitement in its fans is improvement enough.

The Knicks have become important again, not only by winning more games, but by becoming an enticing destination for other NBA stars. No one wants to play with Eddy Curry, Keith Van Horn, and Tim Thomas. People want to play with Chauncey Billups, with Amar'e Stoudemire, and most importantly, with Carmelo Anthony.

A year, two, or three years from now: Which slot would you reserve for Carmelo Anthony?

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