The closest Carmelo Anthony ever got to vying for a title was the 2009 Western Conference Finals. In a series that pitted him against Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and the freshly ascendant Lakers, the Nuggets fell in six surprisingly tight games — Melo’s dream of a conference coup careening to a crushing end on his 25th birthday.
The general atop the victor’s ramparts? None other than Phil Jackson, who, in his current role as president of the Knicks, finds himself charged with pushing Melo and his ever-changing cast of rag-tag teammates over the franchise’s trophy-less hump.
In this sense, Phil and Melo are like A-list actors in a direct-to-DVD sequel of a buddy-cop-turned-tragicomedy. The plot: supposed saviors who never quite got around to the whole “saving” part. The movie’s doomed to get middling reviews, but still holds up as a fascinating study of how a once-proud kingmaker and would-be-king seek redemption beneath the brightest, most unforgiving of lights.
It’s the story of two walking, talking anachronisms: Jackson, who won double-digit championships before analytics rendered obsolete much of his philosophical canon, and isolation virtuoso Anthony, the incendiary gunner and perennial All-Star who never quite made it to the Finals. Jackson and Anthony both have something to prove, and to a world that seems like it’s passed them by.
You’re familiar with the back story, of course. The Knickerbockers were an unmitigated Phantom Menace-meets-the-Mondale-campaign-level of disaster porn last season. Such a disaster, in fact, that much of the resulting existential fan-rage was directed not at the sad-sack role players, or the bumbling authoritarian ownership, or even Derek Fisher, the muscularly blank-stared de facto head coach. Instead, the men most often found burnt beneath the microscope were Jackson — Lord of the Eleven Rings himself — and, to a slightly lesser extent, Anthony.
Both, the second-guessers had convinced themselves, were carpetbaggers who’d promised results — results that seemed further than ever from being delivered. In fact, Phil’s greatest front-office success to date may have come this off-season, in the form of a spate of ostensibly competent role players. Melo’s legacy in Madison Square Garden, meanwhile, hinges on a scoring title, one (admittedly bananas) 62-point explosion, and a harder-than-it-should-have-been playoff win over the Boston Celtics—in 2013.
Phil’s mandate as the incoming executive/spiritual figure was to restore order to an organization whose inner workings were beginning to resemble a factional border skirmish in the former Yugoslavia, while simultaneously improving the actual on-court product.
The initial returns have not been great: The Knicks won 17 games last season, the seeming inevitability of a Jackson-led Great Restoration running headlong into reality’s cold, brick-hard backhand. Still, while it took a year and one hyper-weird dalliance with Andrea Bargnani, all indications are that Jackson has assembled the rudiments of a squad capable of competing for a playoff seed.
The injury-ravaged Knicks of a season ago never had a prayer of mimicking the triangular mold of Jackson’s championship teams. That tends to happen when Lou Amundson is your closest approximation to Dennis Rodman. After such a singularly stressful year, it was, for Phil and the Knicks, very much back to the drawing board — the one next to the abacus next to the Apple II. The outlines of a flow chart are there, its project manager being, after all, one of the best in the business. It’s the floor team that still needs more talent poached to its corner.
Manacled as Phil’s project point man (for the time being, anyway) is the mercurial Melo, a player who would be very much in the mold of MJ and Kobe if it weren’t for the pesky fact that he isn’t, at all. Phil’s attempting to meld manna not with a once-in-a-generation talent in need of mental fine-tuning, but a formidable-yet-flawed forward whose peak may already be behind him. At 31, Carmelo Anthony is already something of an afterthought when it comes to the hierarchy of the league's elite. As incredible as it seems, Carmelo somehow feels dated — a less psychotic (and jarringly less successful) version of Kobe, doomed to a legacy below the fold.
Like Jackson, Anthony has yet to become a savior. Then again, it’s that very quick-fix mentality — the dreams of instant salvation — that’s derailed the Knicks so often before. More crucially, it distracts from (and even outright ignores) the dozens of other things that must go right in order to appropriately supplement, and complement, the savior. “Success in sports is a long, hard slog,” and, “Feel the slow burn of incremental progress!” don’t exactly play well as clickbait. Some teams toil for years, are good for a minute or three, then decline precipitously. Mediocrity and mismanagement are hardly unique to Madison Square Garden, of course, but these are Carmelo Anthony’s Knicks, and this is Phil Jackson. Things were supposed to be different this time.
Still, these names are by no means bereft of gravitational heft. There’s still something there and — so long as the inner mass is stable, patient and true — there’s no telling what New York’s orbit might eventually pull in.
As the half-rumors and autumn gossip of a potential Melo trade gently swirled about, we were left imagining a world where the two men — both eminently successful, both slightly out of time — could stumble on, and stay on, the same page… of The Art of War or whatever book the Knicks are reading this week. Melo is a complicated dude, and not just because of his reputation as an aggrieved chucker in a passer’s world. Peers hold Melo in high esteem for a reason, and while his style seems distant and strange to those of us obsessed with the fashionably egalitarian aesthetics of the Spurs and Warriors, it’s also been damned with faint praise for years.
He’s such a great scorer, we’re wont to say, with the obvious implication being that we’d never limit LeBron or Jordan to merely that (nor ought we). And it shouldn’t matter that Anthony will never be in the GOAT conversation, because he never really had a chance to be, both in the “dolphins aren’t dogs” sense and the more circumstantial, out-of-the-scope-of-his-control sense. Carmelo still has some good years left, even if it’s only to choose his hill to die on. He’s not just that spoiled debutante we all saw trying desperately (and cynically) to claw his way out of Denver; he’s a fine basketball player on the wrong side of 30 whose legacy is coming into ever-sharper focus.
It’s tempting to remember the surly youngster admonishing “snitches,” who never saw a shot he didn’t like, but that’s not him, and it’s not even the lion’s share of him. Be it sticking to the company script, the steadfast success of the Carmelo Anthony Foundation, or something as seemingly benign as taking his teammates to Puerto Rico for some good old-fashioned team-building (Lou Amundson in Puerto Rico!), Melo has quietly grown into something resembling a leader. That it’s not the obvious, bully-ish sort — that he’s not Kobe or MJ — shouldn’t be a mark against him a priori.
What Melo and Phil are, however, are two stubborn men in a malleable league. Jackson has made no secret of his disdain for the direction of the game, with his now infamous “goink” incident — and the subsequent explaining-the-”goink” incident—resulting in a pair of black PR eyes to go along with a tone-deaf ear. Phil has long touted a now seemingly arcane, size-wins-the-day, Peloponnesian-War-dated version of basketball. And in a weak Eastern Conference with a star seemingly committed to dancing to Jackson’s yesteryear tune, maybe that can work. Hell, maybe it can spark some kind of paradigm-pendulum shift. After all, the notion that Carmelo Anthony alone would be the palette cleanser to New York’s empty-caloried binge diet was always, and will always be, patently absurd. And nor is Jackson a kind of magician, so much as a man who seems almost poisoned by his own past success — an ever-looming, now wounded warrior-giant that for the first time is attempting to build a contender upon a fantastically fallow foundation.
The Knicks are learning the hard way that saviors, in the NBA as anywhere else, can be pretty tough to come by. But by dint of fate’s strange hand, Carmelo and Phil — two men from polar sides of the championship spectrum — now find themselves trying to create some kind of hero’s alchemy. So far, their experiment has yielded little in the way of needle-moving results. At the same time, last season was always going to be a throwaway year, and if Kristaps Porzingis winds up coming anywhere near the ceiling many envision, it may well prove worth it — and then some.
Still, the crux of the narrative holds true: In a fast-changing NBA landscape, Phil and Melo have only a finite amount of ticks on the Knicks’ perpetual doomsday clock to prove they aren’t some sad relics ill-fitted for Daryl Morey’s Spreadsheet Revolution — stubborn traditionalists belting out sonnets at a poetry slam. If New York’s two stubborn-proud Don Quixotes can somehow find their common ground, perhaps the resulting tools will prove enough to yield their wished-for windmill of a third Knicks title. If not, everything they’ve ever done proves they have no problem at all going down swinging — albeit on their own, starkly different terms.
(Contributed to The Cauldron by Alex Siquig)