Don't blame Carmelo for Knicks' woes -- he's miscast as the savior

Friday November 22nd, 2013

Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks are off to a 3-8 start, including 1-6 at Madison Square Garden.
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Is Carmelo Anthony ever going to lead a team to the NBA championship? That's an easy question to answer when phrased in just that way. The answer is "no," he's unlikely to triumph as long as he is the No. 1 player.

Does that mean Anthony is doomed to never win the championship -- that he is so toxic that no team can win with him? To those who put it that way, my answer is an emphatic "no." In fact, I'd argue that it's easy to imagine Anthony's winning the championship as long as he is placed in the same role as Dwyane Wade, or Pau Gasol, or Paul Pierce, or Manu Ginobili.

Anthony has become such a lightning rod for the last-place Knicks (3-8) because he has been cast -- wrongly -- as his team's savior. Maybe it has to do with the fact that Anthony led Syracuse to the national championship and all of his NBA teams to the playoffs, which is something LeBron James has not done. And yet, we can all agree that Carmelo is not the equal of LeBron. He is one tier below LeBron -- it couldn't be more obvious. So why do people complain about Anthony as if he should be expected to do for the Knicks what James has done for the Heat?

If Anthony is your No. 1 player, then your team is probably not going to win the championship. But that doesn't mean he's not capable of ever winning the final game in June. All it means is that he needs to be paired with a complementary star, which -- as his highly esteemed peers Wade, Gasol, Pierce or Ginobili would tell you -- is the formula of success for every All-NBA player in the league today.

With apologies to longtime readers, I'm going to repeat myself by comparing the career track of Anthony to that of Pierce, who was accused of being a selfish, one-dimensional scorer, because he lacked star talent around him. Opinions of Pierce were spun right-side up when he was 30, because that's when the Celtics surrounded him with Kevin Garnett, who instantly became their No. 1 player, and Ray Allen, who was their third-best player. Pierce became the No. 2 star in Boston, and he had no problem with that.

Pierce and his new teammates were so successful together because they were in their 30s. Former Celtics coach Doc Rivers has said repeatedly that Garnett, Pierce and Allen probably would not have bonded in their 20s because they were too focused on establishing their individual careers. By the time they reached their 30s, they had proved themselves statistically, and all that was left for them to accomplish was the ultimate goal of winning as a team.

Anthony has reached that crossroads. He is going to turn 30 in late May, weeks after the end of the regular season. He surely recognizes that he and Dwight Howard are the two most polarizing stars in the league today, but the difference between them is that Anthony is aggressive. When Howard's teams have needed him to take charge in recent years, he has appeared to back away. No one can say that about Anthony. He attacks challenges. Howard backed away from the pressures of Los Angeles, but Anthony wanted to go to New York to perform on the biggest stage, and when Anthony's team has been in trouble, he has tried to lead as best he can -- by scoring.

Just because he rates below James and other stars at the highest level doesn't mean that Anthony isn't extremely valuable. The reason James and Garnett went years without winning the championship was because they lacked a co-star like Anthony.

Anthony can be to a championship team what Pierce was to the 2007-08 Celtics. In 2015, when the Knicks have cap space, Anthony will be 31. By then, he won't care whether he's the No. 1 star any more than Pierce cared. Pierce was happy to defer to Garnett; even when Pierce was named MVP of the 2008 NBA Finals, there was never any doubt that Garnett was the Celtics' most important player. The same thing will be true with Anthony if whoever is running the Knicks in 2015 is able to use their cap space that summer to acquire a star to complement Carmelo's scoring.

GIVE AND GO: Can Knicks turn around defense?

The only time Anthony has ever played meaningful games with more talented teammates has been at the Olympics, where he openly deferred to James and Kobe Bryant. The United States has won the last two gold medals and there has been no hint of a problem from Anthony, even when he came off the bench behind Kevin Durant in the 2012 gold-medal game in London. After so many years of criticism for his failure to reach an NBA Finals, Anthony would embrace the opportunity of playing with his version of Garnett.

Think about how difficult it might have been for Pierce and Wade to surrender control of their franchises in Boston and Miami, respectively. If each of those strong-minded stars was able to defer to a superior newcomer like Garnett or James, then surely Anthony would do the same in New York in order to win the championship.

While we're at it, can we dispel this idea that the Knicks were wrong to trade for Anthony in 2011? Who else were they going to acquire? The only other star who turned out to be on the market at that time was Deron Williams, who went to the Nets when they failed to land Anthony. (The Knicks were never going to be able to trade for Chris Paul because they lacked the young talent and payroll relief that commissioner David Stern was seeking in his unfortunate role as caretaker owner of New Orleans.) In the months afterward there was talk that the Nets had made the superior deal, but I don't think anyone would say that Williams is more valuable than Anthony today.

The Knicks gave up a lot of replaceable role players to acquire Anthony:

Danilo Gallinari, who has averaged 15.5 points and shot 41.6 percent from the field in 128 games with the Nuggets. He sustained a torn ACL last April.

Raymond Felton, who is back with the Knicks after disappointing seasons with the Nuggets and Trail Blazers.

Wilson Chandler, who has averaged 12.3 points in 77 games with Denver.

Timofey Mozgov, the "deal-breaker," who has been DNP for more than 40 percent of his games as a Nugget, and has averaged 4.7 points in 13 minutes when he has played.

Eddy Curry, who has played 108 minutes since the trade.

Anthony Randolph, who has averaged 6.9 points with two teams since the trade.

• Two second-round picks that turned into Quincy Miller and Romero Osby, who between them have played a total of 27 NBA minutes.

• A first-round pick in the 2014 draft, which may turn out to be the most valuable piece surrendered by New York.

Not only did the Knicks receive Anthony, but they also acquired Chauncey Billups, whose contract (via amnesty) enabled them to land Tyson Chandler. So they were able to exchange those role players (whose value had suddenly increased thanks to coach Mike D'Antoni's offensive system) for one of the NBA's most prolific scorers and a championship center.

The Nuggets did as well as they could have done in the deal -- they made three straight postseasons and won 57 games last year. But they would also acknowledge that their preference would have been to keep Anthony and not make that trade. It was a tremendous move for New York.

The Knicks look like they have no spirit right now, but is that Anthony's fault? While Tyson Chandler recovers from a broken leg and Amar'e Stoudemire provides 3.6 points per game, Anthony is left to lead a hopeless roster of Andrea Bargnani, J.R. Smith, Felton and Metta World Peace -- all reclaimed by the Knicks after being dumped by their former teams. And we're supposed to believe their losing record is the fault of the star who is averaging 26.1 points and 9.5 rebounds? Forgive me if I fail to understand the logic.

All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving and the Cavaliers are struggling under new coach Mike Brown.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

The Headlines

Kobe Bryant's imminent return. The five-time champion practiced on Tuesday and Wednesday before sitting out Thursday with soreness as he continued his recovery from Achilles surgery. The 5-7 Lakers have established a decent base in which to reinsert Bryant when he returns in the coming weeks. The status of Steve Nash remains less promising, however. "He's going to try and do everything he can to come back,'' coach Mike D'Antoni of Nash's back problems. "Whether he can get over this, we'll see. We think he can."

The disparity between conferences. Miami has the best player and team and Indiana is off to a 10-1 start, but otherwise all of the action is happening in the West. Through Thursday, four teams had earned winning records in the East; nine were above .500 in the West. The Pistons, Wizards and Magic were tied for No. 8 in the East at 4-7; in the West, 14 teams have records of 4-7 or better.

Cavaliers struggle. Coach Mike Brown has expressed his authority while occasionally benching and chastising players -- including Kyrie Irving -- during Cleveland's 4-8 start. Irving called a volatile players-only meeting that led to the brief disappearance of second-year guard Dion Waiters, who said he was absent because of illness. Waiters is shooting 37.4 percent. Center Andrew Bynum is averaging 15.5 minutes and shooting 34.1 percent in eight games, and No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett is shooting 13.5 percent in 11 minutes per game. The good news is that Brown has the authority to hold his players accountable. He has been expressing himself firmly, and for all of their problems the Cavaliers remained within a half-game of the No. 8 spot in the miserable East.

Clippers consider Lamar Odom. The Clippers are hoping to be persuaded that the 6-10 Odom can come back to make perimeter shots and score in transition after two unproductive years and off-the-court concerns. The bigger issue for the Clippers is their defense, which Odom is unlikely to influence.

LeBron James and David Beckham teaming up? James acknowledged that he is interested in partnering with Beckham on a Major League Soccer team in Miami. "There's a lot of soccer players here,'' James said. But will James himself remain in Miami beyond this season? (It's a rhetorical question, not meant to be answered until after the playoffs.)

The end for Kwame Brown? The 76ers waived the No. 1 pick in the 2001 draft. He was never in good enough condition to earn a spot with one of the NBA's least talented teams. "If he can find a career-best fitness level,'' Philadelphia coach Brett Brown said, "he still has value.'' Brown scored in double figures (10.9 points with the 2003-04 Wizards) once in his 12-year career.

Fans show range in Oklahoma City. Two fans made half-court shots in back-to-back games this week, each earning $20,000 in an OKC promotion. In all, five fans have made shots from the Thunder's court during NBA games since last March. "We might go broke after these guys, they're hitting every half-court shot,'' Kevin Durant said. But reported that a team sponsor, MidFirst Bank, has paid out the $100,000.

Get to Know: Maurice Harkless

The 6-9 forward is averaging 9.2 points while starting all 11 games for Orlando. Harkless, 20, is in his second NBA season after leaving St. John's as a freshman from Queens, N.Y.

1. He didn't become serious about basketball until he was 12. "I liked football and soccer better when I was younger, but as I grew I started liking basketball more," Harkless said. "But I never really thought about being an athlete when I was younger. I wanted to be a lawyer. My uncle -- he passed away, rest in peace -- was always big on education, and he'd always say that I should be a lawyer. I'm really good at arguing with people. I mean, with the refs, I try not to get too much into that. I try to stay away from it as much as I can. Those arguments, you don't want to have.''

2. He learned the importance of height. "I played for my junior high school team in the eighth grade," he said, "but I didn't really play AAU basketball until my sophomore year in high school. I didn't get really good until my junior year because I was still growing. I went from 6-3 to 6-6 into my junior year. That helped a lot.

"That's when I started getting recruited by a lot of different schools. The first offer was from Hofstra. My next offer was from UConn, and I committed right away in the beginning of my junior year. It was a school I loved watching. I went up there for an unofficial visit and I fell in love with the school. I thought it was the right fit for me.''

As he became aware of recruiting interest from other schools, he de-committed.

"UConn was pretty close to home," Harkless said, "but St. John's was right in my backyard.''

3. Three years after he had been identified as a major recruit, Harkless went 15th to Philadelphia in the 2012 draft. Two months later, he was traded to Orlando as part of the four-team deal that sent Dwight Howard to the Lakers.

"It's ridiculous how fast things went," Harkless said. "But you have to have confidence -- that's the thing in this league. If you don't, this league will eat you alive. Every night I was guarding someone: LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, the list goes on and on. It was a challenge that I looked forward to every night.''

Harkless watched Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan growing up.

"My 'wow' moments in the NBA are being on the court with these guys," he said. "KG's been in the league for almost as long as I've been alive. Kobe, too. It's crazy.''

Bryant snapped him out of that moment quickly when Harkless guarded him.

"He hit me with an elbow right in the neck. Went away right after that.''

The Breakdown

An NBA advance scout looks at the Nets, who have stumbled to a 3-8 start despite paying an estimated $190 million in salary and luxury taxes.

"They've looked disjointed. They're not rebounding, they're not defending in the half court and they're not getting back on defense, which is a bad combination.

"They haven't been able to stop the simple pick-and-roll set that every team runs. In a recent loss at Sacramento, they couldn't contain the dribbler and stop penetration -- or when they did, nobody was rotating out to the shooters.

"As a big man defending the pick-and-roll, you have to tell Deron Williams or another on-the-ball defender things like, 'Send him to your right, send him to your weak hand, I'm your help, I'm over here, you've got to get over the screen.' But the communication looks like it isn't there.

"In the back of your mind, you wonder if their guys want to do all those things. Have they done it before? Yes. Can they do it now? Probably. Will they do it? There comes a time when people are done in this league, and their time is past. We'll see where these guys are.

"Paul Pierce is not getting open jump shots. Everything he's trying to get is on his own off the dribble. They're not getting the two quick passes to create open jump shots. Everybody is looking to make the scoring pass and there isn't a lot of quick ball movement.

"Their coaching staff is trying to define what they're all about, and that hasn't been good for Kevin Garnett. It would have been easier for KG if he'd gone to an established system where he could fit in. If somehow Garnett would have gone to Chicago, he would have slid right in as a backup to Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah. Tom Thibodeau's defensive system would have been established and he would have found his role there right away. Instead, he's with a team that has a lot of moving parts and they haven't found their niche.

"Joe Johnson doesn't look happy either. They all need to have the ball in their hands, including Williams. And then nobody is making a play for anybody else. KG catches the ball and moves it, and it stops with the next guy. So then KG feels compelled to shoot because the defense is expecting him to pass, and there's no shot there when he does. And now the defense has him thinking that he has to establish his jump shot here, so they're stunting at him and he's not getting comfortable with his shot.''

Quote of the Week

"The players, the coaches, the fans know there's somebody in charge. They may not like what I'm doing but it's much better than having nobody there.''
-- James Dolan

The Knicks' owner gave a rare interview, to the New York Post's Mike Vaccaro, in which Dolan sounded like a reasonable owner. He said Isiah Thomas should work again in the NBA but not for the Knicks. He insisted he does not regret the contract for Amar'e Stoudemire because his presence helped lure Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler to New York. He suggested that general manager Glen Grunwald was fired because the Knicks are rebuilding their management team by incorporating analytics and new technologies. He also played a video at a concert he gave in which he told the audience: "Welcome everybody from the Rangers game and thank you for bringing me a win. It's too bad you didn't come to the basketball game. Actually next game — we will win the next game, it's guaranteed."

"That's it,'' Dolan told Vaccaro. "How that turned into what showed up in the papers the next day ...''

It is stunning that Dolan doesn't give more interviews like this one. Why does he leave it to others to explain his moves and thereby define him?

The All-John Calipari Team

John Calipari has sent these players to the NBA draft from Memphis and Kentucky over the last six years.


C DeMarcus Cousins, Kentucky, No. 5 in 2010
F Anthony Davis, Kentucky, No. 1 in 2012
F Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Kentucky, No. 2 in 2012
G Eric Bledsoe, Kentucky, No. 18 in 2010
G Derrick Rose, Memphis, No. 1 in 2008


*C Enes Kanter, Kentucky, No. 3 in 2011
F Tyreke Evans, Memphis, No. 4 in 2009
F Patrick Patterson, Kentucky, No. 14 in 2010
F Terrence Jones, Kentucky, No. 18 in 2012
G John Wall, Kentucky, No. 1 in 2010
G Brandon Knight, Kentucky, No. 8 in 2011
G Marquis Teague, Kentucky, No. 29 in 2012

*Kanter attended Kentucky but never played because the NCAA ruled him permanently ineligible.

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