Carmelo Anthony is now the villain. One year ago New York couldn't wait to trade for him, and now the city fears his return. The fear is Anthony will slow the Knicks' offense, stop the ball and ruin everything Jeremy Lin has accomplished in the last week.
But look at this from the view of the Knicks' opponents, who shouldn't be focused on Anthony as saboteur. Instead, rival teams should be concerned that the breakthrough partnership of Lin and coach Mike D'Antoni -- in combination with the bottom-line pressure to win in New York -- is exactly what Anthony needs to elevate his career. Instead of fighting the progress of the Knicks, Anthony is likely to embrace it and become better than ever.
That's what I think is going to happen, because I've seen it happen before. It happened to Paul Pierce, who seven years ago was his generation's version of Anthony. Pierce was a terrific scorer who was viewed throughout the NBA as a sulking, self-indulgent ball-stopper with an array of teamwork skills he didn't care to use. When Doc Rivers arrived as coach of the Celtics in 2004, he and Pierce had it out. The coach convinced Pierce to push the ball up the floor and share it with less talented teammates in faith that it would circulate back to him.
This isn't the first time I've compared Anthony to Pierce, but it's never been more relevant than now. New York fans who love their new point guard's up-tempo energy and galvanizing playmaking are worried that Anthony is going to end the "Linsanity." As one fan tweeted on Monday: "Wonder if @carmeloanthony knows or cares how terrified #Knicks fans are about his return."
Responded Anthony: "I didn't realize that. Thanx4update"
Anthony is not going to be the ruin of the Knicks. Instead he is going to follow the example of Pierce, with the understanding that his transformation won't be easy and the results may not be immediate. Pierce had setbacks along the way, including an implosive seven-game loss in the 2005 playoffs to the underdog Pacers. But three years after the arrival of Rivers, when Boston became a title contender by acquiring Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, Pierce was a fully formed star who helped win in a variety of ways.
The Celtics won 66 games while passing the ball as beautifully as any team of modern times, and during the playoffs, Pierce was arguably the best player in the NBA, scoring 41 points to win a Game 7 against LeBron James and earning Finals MVP despite a knee injury. "Thank you, thank you," he said while embracing Rivers on the court after winning the 2008 championship, because Pierce would not have become a certain Hall of Famer if he hadn't been convinced to improve.
Anthony is on the same path as Pierce.
When Rivers arrived in 2004, Pierce was a stubborn 27-year-old small forward who thought he had established himself by playing in three All-Star Games and reaching a conference final.
Anthony is a 27-year-old small forward who has played in four All-Star Games and reached a conference final. Much the same as Pierce eight years ago, Anthony is not a finished product.
Anthony possesses many of Pierce's best qualities. He can shoot with range, post up and drive to the basket while maintaining poise. Last season he averaged a career-high 7.6 rebounds in 50 games with Denver, and this season with the Knicks he was averaging 4.2 assists and taking fewer shots than normal before suffering a strained right groin last week.
Anyone who has watched Anthony knows he can be a very good passer. Anyone who assumes he won't make the effort to improve is underestimating him. He needs to make quicker decisions with the ball -- to attack quickly with the pass, dribble or jump shot -- and the emergence of Lin has now created an environment in which that can happen.
After trading for Anthony one year ago, the Knicks played too slowly because that was the preferred pace of Anthony and point guard Chauncey Billups. They couldn't define themselves as a quick ball-rotating team because neither Billups nor Anthony was inclined to play that style.
Now that they've established a fluid style around Lin and Tyson Chandler -- a style that will be embraced happily by Amar'e Stoudemire -- you're going to see Anthony trying to adapt. He understands he will be blamed if he holds the Knicks back. More important, he can refer to many examples of players who experienced similar maturation at the same stage of their careers.
Pierce isn't the only star who showed humility as he approached his peak years. The whole point of Sam Smith's book, The Jordan Rules, was that Michael Jordan had been too selfish to win before he learned to share the ball and earn his first championship at age 28. Isiah Thomas was 27 when he reached the NBA Finals for the first of three straight seasons. Shaquille O'Neal was 28 when he won his initial championship after failing miserably during the previous three seasons in Los Angeles, and Kobe Bryant was 29 when he became MVP and led the Lakers to his first NBA Finals without Shaq. Each of those players was accused of being too self-obsessed to lead a championship team. Each of them developed teamwork and leadership skills that appeared beyond their reach until they proved otherwise.
Anthony's best friends in the NBA include Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul and James, who at 27 has finally submitted to developing a post-up game after years of half-court frustration in the postseason. These are bottom-line winners who will encourage Anthony to take the next step in his career. If earning the respect of his peers means anything to Anthony, then he isn't going to slow the offense and stop the ball.
Adapting his style won't be easy. That's why D'Antoni is going to be crucial to Anthony's transformation. Carmelo, not Jeremy, should be the Knicks' best player and most popular star, but Anthony won't fulfill his potential until he develops a relationship of trust with his head coach. Anthony didn't have that bond with George Karl in Denver and he hasn't had it with D'Antoni, and the reasons why it hasn't developed don't matter anymore. Anthony cannot succeed unless his team is winning, and no NBA team can win in a big way unless the star and coach are working together. Anthony needs to invest in the relationship as soon as possible for these three reasons.
• He's running out of time. This is Anthony's ninth season. He's only 27, but he has accrued the mileage of an older player. The reason Jordan, Thomas, O'Neal and Bryant made their career-improving adjustments at a similar age was because they recognized they were in their peak years. Their previous style wasn't working well enough, and they couldn't afford to postpone the improvements any longer.
• He has no choice. Imagine if Anthony doesn't learn to excel without the ball. If the Knicks fail to make the playoffs or go down quickly, the blame will fall upon Anthony and D'Antoni. A new coach will be brought in, and who's to say he won't demand personnel changes? Of all the big-money contracts in New York, Anthony's will be the easiest to trade.
• D'Antoni has done this before. Few coaches are better at raising the value of their players. Steve Nash was an All-Star who became a two-time MVP by playing for D'Antoni. Everyone knows what D'Antoni's system has done for Stoudemire as well as for Lin, who would have considered a move to Europe if he hadn't been salvaged by D'Antoni. So long as players are unselfish and show faith, they are rewarded by the spacing and ball movement generated by the offense. Anthony wouldn't be in New York if not for D'Antoni quickly transforming players of limited value -- Danilo Gallinari, Raymond Felton, Wilson Chandler and the legendary Timofey Mozgov -- so they could be packaged to Denver in the trade.
The Knicks' defense has improved around Chandler and Jared Jeffries, and Lin has turned into their version of Doug Flutie. But they need Anthony. The story of Lin's breakthrough won't have legs unless Anthony joins with Stoudemire in carrying the Knicks at their current pace. The Bulls and Heat are going to feel confident in developing a game plan to limit the point guard. What they will fear is the potential of Anthony elevating his game within the empowering structure of D'Antoni's offense. If that happens -- as it should -- then the legend of Lin will have long-term impact.