THERE IS nothing quite like a Knicks home game. This is not a compliment, just a fact. No other arena in the NBA exudes such a potent mix of tradition, self-regard, paranoia, loathing, loyalty and expectation as the Garden. Its denizens are a vehement bunch, full of bankers and doctors and guys from Long Island named Sal, many of them permanently disillusioned. This is a place where a grown man who spent $130 on the jersey of a 25-year-old player will, if that player has one bad half, stand up and berate him at full throat. It is a place where hero worship goes to die.
This is an article from the Jan. 21, 2013 issue
Yet on this particular Friday night, four days before Christmas, the Garden is downright festive, and not just due to the holiday season, though the Knicks City Dancers, clad as they are in fur-topped Santa bikinis, do lend a certain jolly air to the occasion. For the first time in forever, the Knicks are winners, perched atop the Atlantic Division standings. What's more, they are winning in a very un-Knicks-like manner. There is no Anthony Mason hip-, ass- and shoulder-thumping, no Patrick Ewing 18-foot-baseline tedium, no Jeff Van Gundy grind-it-out masochism. These Knicks hoist up three-pointers and pass with abandon. Their roster includes a goofy white guy who holsters imaginary six-shooters (Steve Novak), a hyperathletic head case who specializes in the no-no-no-yessss! shot (J.R. Smith), a center who finishes alley-oops as if he's just slain a Bengal tiger (Tyson Chandler) and an ancient-but-still-prescient point guard (Jason Kidd). And then there is the player at the center of it all, a man as divisive as he is talented: Carmelo Anthony.
For most of his career Anthony has been alternately thrilling and annoying to watch. He is capable of stunning displays of offense, as technically proficient a scorer as exists on the planet. "There is nothing Carmelo can't do on a basketball court," says Phil Weber, an assistant with the Knicks last season and now an offensive consultant with the Heat. "His shooting form is perfect. His body control is amazing. He's as gifted as he wants to be."
Then again, Anthony is also capable of equally unimpressive displays of defense. Or bad shot taking. Or not caring. As a coach who spent time around the Knicks last season says of Anthony's play during the Mike D'Antoni era, "Melo wasn't malicious. He wasn't confrontational. He just wouldn't play or put out any effort. It was sabotage through disinterest."
This season is different, though—or so the narrative goes. This year we are seeing Anthony's best self. At 28, in his 10th year in the NBA, he was averaging a career-high 29.3 points per game through Sunday and is one of the favorites in the MVP race. His teammates speak glowingly of him. The talking heads are effusive.
To hear Anthony tell it, his transformation is not only real but also premeditated. The impetus was simple. As he says, "I went through so much hell last year." (Quick recap: Anthony suffered a variety of injuries, after which Jeremy Lin ascended, after which Anthony moped, after which he either did or didn't run D'Antoni out of town and the Knicks lost to the Heat in the first round of the playoffs.) So last summer Anthony did some soul scouring and came to a series of decisions, which he enumerated on a recent Saturday morning at the Knicks' training facility in Greenburgh, N.Y.
1) He would institute an NBA information blackout. No ESPN, no Inside the NBA, no New York Post. "To keep my mind sane, I wanted to try it," he says. "To see what it's like to not listen to that, see what it's like to not read that, to see what it's like to be in a space I've never been in before. A clarity space."
2) He would "dig deep in [himself]" and become "an unselfish leader." Anthony saw the new team arrayed around him, full of veteran role players such as Kidd and Chandler, and realized the offense would be what he calls "a sacrifice system for me." In other words, he'd have to swing the ball and make the smart play instead of always shooting. Says Anthony, "Credit to Coach Woodson and Jason, but at the end of the day, it was something I had to decide I really want to do."
3) He would protect himself from himself. There is a part of Anthony—the part that breathed in all the negativity last year and couldn't exhale it—that he says he's pissed at. "Maybe I know it's there, and I don't want to accept it," he says. "So it's like, let's just push that to the side and not even pay that any attention." He pauses. "My mind-set this year is all about positivity."
From some athletes this might sound like spin, but that's never been Anthony's style. The first time I interviewed him at length, during his rookie year, 2003, he spent the entire time typing on his phone and mumbling clichés, often simultaneously. He did not, I recall, lack for self-regard. The second time, at the World Basketball Championships in Japan in '06, he was guarded and defiant. So I was surprised to hear about this sudden introspection, this almost New Age enlightenment (clarity space? positivity?) from a guy who'd spent his life weaving an ever-thicker protective cocoon of confidence. Not that I blamed him: You try emerging from the circumstances—single mother, a house across from the Baltimore projects known as the Murder Homes—that Anthony escaped.
Translating this mind-set to the court is a different trick, though. Anthony always struck me as a certain type of basketball player: Call it the Myopically Brilliant or the Blindly Talented. He was like a basketball contractor. If you need someone to score, you hire Carmelo. But don't expect defense or passing or leadership. For those you'd need to hire someone else. You paid money; Carmelo provided buckets. End of transaction.
Yet here Anthony was, making the case that he's done something that few if any players blessed with his talent have done while still in their prime: changed. Not just superficially, but substantively.
Now, whether you believe him or not—whether you think this Knicks run will continue and Anthony will finally realize his full potential, or he will at some point revert—well, that depends on your perspective.
It is a cold night in Syracuse, as all December evenings are up here, and Jim Boeheim is sitting in his large, well-appointed office. A signed jersey from his recent 900th win is framed on one wall, above a couch with orange throw cushions. Through a series of tall windows, the two glistening courts of the Orange's practice center are visible. The facility is named after the man who, at the behest of Boeheim's wife, Juli, donated $3 million to it: the Carmelo K. Anthony Basketball Center.
On this night the Knicks are playing the Nets at the Garden, and Boeheim has cued up the game on one of the two flat screens in his office. Most nights he watches about half a dozen games, both college and NBA. ("Not for scouting; I just love basketball," he says.) He follows the progress of Anthony, who is not only one of Syracuse's most famous alums but also someone Boeheim has coached as an assistant on the last two U.S. Olympic teams.
The Nets game begins with Anthony guarded by Gerald Wallace. "The big difference this year is that [Carmelo's] a better shooter," Boeheim says, and indeed Anthony is hitting a career-high 42.1% of his three-pointers. "He didn't used to have that range." Back when Anthony played at Syracuse, the coach and star had a deal: If Anthony missed two jumpers, he had to head down to the post. Apparently it worked; Anthony says he still hears Boeheim's voice when he misfires.
There's something else Boeheim notes about Anthony: "Even when we had him, when something's bothering him, he doesn't play his best." Boeheim points at the screen. "You can tell he's comfortable now." This is due in large part, Boeheim says, to how the Knicks have built their team around him. From ownership to management to coaching, the message has been clear: This is Melo's team. Not Lin's. Not D'Antoni's. This year the Knicks look to Melo to lead by scoring. "I think he likes that responsibility," Boeheim says, leaning back in his chair. "That's what he feels he's getting paid for, to do that. He can be a perfect team player. In the Olympics he would just go in and play and make his shots and come out. He's fine with that. But in the NBA, I think he feels he should be the one they direct things through, and you can't really argue with that. The thing that bothers me is that when he was with the Nuggets, people said, 'They didn't win playoff games.' Well, they got in the playoffs; they hadn't gotten in before. You're not going to win a lot of playoff games when you're the seventh or eighth seed and you're playing the Spurs or Lakers in the first round. It doesn't mean you can't play or you're not a good leader or you're not a winner."
On this night Anthony is playing as an undersized power forward, as he has all season. Doing so allows him to exploit mismatches: Put a smaller man on Anthony, and he posts up. Use a traditional four, and he can't match Anthony's quickness. Anthony's greatest attributes are his feet, which, as Weber says, are "unusually quick in a small area, which is somewhat unique."
On the TV, Chandler rips down an offensive rebound. "I love Chandler, but they can't play him with [power forward Amar'e] Stoudemire," Boeheim says. The problem is spacing. With only one big man on the court and the shooters in the corners, there is room for Anthony to operate, especially at the elbow. Leave the shooters, and you give up the most efficient shot in the game: a corner three. Leave Chandler, and he rolls for the lob. But put Stoudemire and Chandler on the floor together—which has always been the problem, not Amar'e and Carmelo—and defenders can pack the paint.
"Oh, jeez," says Boeheim as Anthony misses J.R. Smith on a cut. The turnover raises a question: If Anthony is going to be considered an elite player, doesn't he have to do more than just score? Doesn't he have to do what LeBron and Tim Duncan and Chris Paul have done and make his teammates better?
"I think he does make other guys better, because he forces double teams," Boeheim says. To judge Anthony purely on passing is unfair, he argues. "Sure, LeBron can make passes that Carmelo can't make, but [Kevin] Durant just scores, and nobody criticizes him." Boeheim pauses. "Carmelo is a scorer. If you have him on your team, you want him to score, that's what he does."
It's clear, as the evening wears on, that Boeheim adores his former pupil, and he admits to feeling protective of Anthony. Still, Boeheim understands the reality. "I think he's now at a place where he can lead a team to a championship," Boeheim says, "but he still has to have the right people around him, just like anybody else. Ultimately it comes down to championships—that's what this country comes down to. You either win championships or you don't, and Carmelo knows that."
There are plenty of people in the greater New York City area who love Carmelo. Hundreds of thousands, I imagine. But that's to be expected: He's the best player on a first-place team and a lock to start the All-Star Game. He was born in Brooklyn, attended college upstate and is the type of athlete—tough and "√ºberconfident," as his longtime trainer, Idan Ravin, puts it—who can survive in the city. I wanted to talk to the people who don't love Melo. To those who remain skeptical. And, in New York, no one is more skeptical than the press.
I meet up with Frank Isola in midtown Manhattan on the afternoon of a home game against the Bulls. During his 17-plus years as the Knicks beat writer for the Daily News, the 48-year-old Isola has seen a lot: the Ewing era, the Latrell Sprewell days, the Isiah Thomas mess. Isola still has the Knicks garment bag, inscribed with his name, that former team president Dave Checketts gave him. ("It was different then," the writer says.) Like many in the New York media, Isola has a complicated relationship with the team. Once welcomed, he has become an outsider during the Jim Dolan era. The team hasn't won a playoff series since 2000. Says Isola, "What am I supposed to write?"
This city is hard on its own. Earlier in the day I spoke with Brian Koppelman, a filmmaker (he wrote Rounders), essayist (he has contributed to SI), season-ticket holder and longtime Knicks fan. He remains wary of Anthony. "Other than his season with Boeheim, he's never won or made anyone around him better," Koppelman said. "People don't change. They modulate their behavior but their nature stays the same. Remember the scorpion and the lion?" The parable goes as follows: A scorpion asks a lion (or, as in many versions, a frog) to carry him across a river on his back and the lion declines, concerned he'll be stung. The scorpion assures the beast this won't happen, for then they'd both die. When the lion begins to cross, the scorpion stings him anyway, sealing both their fates. When the lion asks why, the scorpion says it's simply his nature. "So here's the problem," Koppelman continued. "Does Carmelo play for his interests or the interests of the team? Right now, those two things dovetail. But what happens when the team runs into adversity?"
This was a recurring theme in my reporting. "I have no idea which Carmelo to expect," one Western Conference G.M. told me. "Last year he wasn't a franchise player. This year he is. Who knows what he'll be next year?"
For his part, Isola has warmed to Anthony. "He's much more mature than I expected," the writer says as he makes his pregame rounds on the Garden floor, stopping to joke with players and assistant coaches. "Carmelo is like Patrick Ewing. Patrick got N.Y.C. He knew he'd get a lot of s--- if the Knicks lost and not enough credit if they won. He understood it. [Stephon] Marbury was the opposite. He didn't get it. He was always pissed. Carmelo gets it."
On this night the Knicks fall behind early, triggering boos, and Anthony becomes frustrated at what he perceives as overly physical play by the Bulls. As the game wears on, his body language becomes increasingly negative. By the third quarter Chicago is up 70--49, and a fan in the upper deck is screaming, "Stop letting them get offensive rebounds!" Anthony has long since evacuated his clarity space. With 6:45 left in the fourth Anthony, who has 29 points on 25 shots and one assist, protests a call and is ejected.
After the game, in the Knicks' locker room, Mitch Lawrence, Isola's colleague at the Daily News and a frequent critic of, well, most things, shakes his head ruefully. "I just wrote my last column about how Carmelo's matured," he says. "Oops!" Lawrence grimaces. "MVPs don't get thrown out of games. MVPs go down fighting."
Sometime after 11 p.m., much to the consternation of the beat writers on deadline, Anthony finally emerges. He is wearing a leather flat cap backward, jeans and what appears to be a camouflage flak jacket. He looks like he's on the front lines of some futuristic fashion war or starring in an '80s music video. He looks around at the reporters and smiles. "S--- happens," he says.
A few weeks later, when Kevin Garnett goads Anthony into an altercation, he will not react as benignly, stalking Garnett after the game and receiving a one-game suspension. Tonight, though, he seems relaxed. He laughs, smiles and, before heading out into the night, promises that the loss was a blip on the screen.
Knicks fans are not so sure. The next day I exchange messages with Chris Gregory, a 57-year-old retired NYPD sergeant who lives in the Bronx. Gregory has been a Knicks fan dating back to the days of Dave DeBusschere and Walt Frazier. He has never cared for Anthony, who he believes quits on the team. His reaction to Anthony's performance against the Bulls? "He's a crybaby and an a------."
For most of us it would be awkward, if not embarrassing, to watch video of ourselves at our jobs. Anthony does it almost every day. When I sit down with him at the Knicks' practice facility and pull up footage of their Dec. 13 game against the Lakers on an iPad, he moves seamlessly into analysis mode.
On the first possession he catches the ball in transition on the right wing and immediately launches a three-pointer. Asked what he was thinking, Anthony looks up. "Just to take that shot," he says. "Coming into the game is kind of like a heat check for me." That's an unusual concept; generally one must hit at least one shot before a heat check is in order. "I had a feeling all day," Anthony explains. "I felt good about my shot at shootaround."
As we watch, crouched on a pair of blue plastic chairs on the sideline, Anthony's teammates finish up on the court. At the near basket small forward Ronnie Brewer, mired in a shooting slump, disconsolately fires threes off the side of the rim. (Steve Novak, trying to buck him up, says, "Shoot it, baby! Don't ever think about it.") Across the building a small boy wearing a Carmelo jersey waits, hoping to get it autographed.
Anthony has long since finished his own workout and is wearing a gray cutoff shirt and sweatpants pulled up to the knees, having taken an ice bath for a still balky ankle. He looks noticeably trimmer than in seasons past, the result of a combination of dieting—two weeks carb-free last summer—and ball busting. In particular, from Kobe Bryant. Whenever Bryant sees Anthony, apparently, he rides him. The gist of it seems to be, You're a fat chucker who hasn't won anything. "He'll be like, 'You ain't been in the gym,'" says Anthony. "Now I could have been in the gym all summer, but I see him one time and he says, 'You ain't been in the gym.'" Anthony smiles. He and Bryant are close, having played together on the Olympic team, and Anthony understands that Kobe's chiding comes from a good place. "Last year he would call me and ask me what the F I'm doing if I'm not shooting the ball, if I'm not playing my game."
On the iPad the miniature Anthony follows his first three by hitting another (from the wing) and then another (a questionable attempt from the top of the key). "A lot of people might think that's a bad shot," Carmelo says, "but if I'm coming down in transition and the defense is on its heels, I don't consider that a bad shot." O.K., then, I ask, what is your definition of a bad shot? Anthony thinks for a second. "A forced shot, a contested shot that you have no chance of making at all," he says. "Somebody's open, you miss them and you force up a shot, that's a bad shot. It's a shot that you second-guess, a shot you didn't really want to take but you took it."
A shot that you didn't really want to take but you took it. This is the push-pull that has dominated Anthony's career. He knows the right thing to do on the court but doesn't always do it. Take the hockey assist—the pass before the pass that leads to a basket. For a player who gets doubled as much as Anthony, it's hugely important. "Coach Woodson always talks about, 'Melo, sometimes you ain't going to get the direct assists, sometimes you got to make the hockey pass,'" Anthony says. "For me and the team and the guys, we know that that's the most important pass." He pauses, the old Melo creeping back onto his shoulder. "But if you look on the stat sheet and see I got two assists.... If you didn't watch the game, you wouldn't understand."
There are some around the team who believe that it is Kidd, more than Woodson, who has turned Anthony around. And while Anthony is quick to credit Woodson, he clearly respects Kidd greatly. The two talk every day, Kidd asking him what he sees and vice versa. The result, Anthony says, is like having "a third eye." Kidd also appears to function as something of an on-court therapist. "He'll talk to me during the game," Anthony says. "It's like, 'Melo, in this situation, don't worry about it, if you miss a shot, cool. If you ain't getting the ball, I know how to get you the ball, so don't sweat it.' And that's real helpful."
On the iPad, the clip ends. Before we part ways, I have two more questions for Carmelo. The first is about Koppelman's concern—that the team will hit a bad spell and he'll revert. Anthony assures me he will not, because losing "doesn't linger in our locker room" and "we've already had bad moments and don't get down." Everything he mentions, I notice, relates to his teammates, not himself.
Finally, I tell him about Gregory's harsh assessment of his performance. Anthony looks taken aback at first, then laughs. "I mean, what would you want me to do? I've never been a crybaby. I love physical games. The one thing I've learned about New York and the fans in New York is you're [only] as good as your last game, so regardless of what you do, you're not gonna be able to please everybody." Anthony pauses. "I don't know what to say, he's a cop!"
Head up Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles, wind your way along the canyon roads, and you'll eventually come to the home of Haralabos Voulgaris. Nestled in the Hollywood Hills, his neighborhood is the kind where every mansion has a Range Rover in front and a grandiose water feature in the back. It's the L.A. people who have never been to L.A. imagine.
Voulgaris is many things (the son of a Canadian businessman and gambler, a tournament poker player with more than $1 million in lifetime winnings, a former consultant to an NBA team), but he is foremost an NBA gambler—and a very successful one. His first big bet came in 1999 when, as a philosophy major at Manitoba University, he saved up $80,000 working as a skycap. He bet on the Lakers to win the title before the season, and when L.A. started the season slowly after acquiring Shaquille O'Neal, the bookmakers downgraded the team's odds. Voulgaris deemed it a rash overreaction. He laid down the rest of his $80K. When the Lakers won the following spring, he had his bankroll.
These days Voulgaris, who is 37, wiry and handsome in a coolest-guy-at-the-Apple-Genius-Bar way, relies less on intuition and more on data. Over the past five years, with the help of a staff of five, he has created and honed a vast statistical database that uses information from the last 12 NBA seasons to determine the value of every player in the league. The system is not reactive, like most player rankings, but predictive. Voulgaris's goal, after all, is purely financial: to beat the betting line. (He says NBA teams have tried to buy the system from him.) To inform his bets, he spends seven nights a week watching every NBA game, looking for tendencies and anomalies. On the subject of Carmelo Anthony, he may be as close to an objective arbiter as one can find.
I visited Voulgaris on a recent January evening at his gated home, where he lives with his Jack Russell terrier, Coltrane. We sat in the living room facing two media towers, each of which held three flat-screen TVs. A seventh, larger flat screen was in the middle. The Knicks were playing the Spurs, and Voulgaris, though wary of too much publicity—he was recently featured in Nate Silver's book The Signal and the Noise—had agreed to discuss Anthony, whom he finds fascinating.
As it turns out, Voulgaris is a big fan of Carmelo's, though not for the reason you might think. "We've made more money on the Knicks this season than on any other team," he explains. (Voulgaris asked me not to print any figures, but based on the results he showed me, I can confirm that it is indeed a large sum of money.) You see, when Anthony doesn't play, Voulgaris bets big.
On the Knicks.
"We make money because people think he's worth more than he is," explains Voulgaris, who won especially big when New York beat Miami on Dec. 6, a game in which he bet on New York to win straight up, at 7--1 odds. "It's not that we think he's bad; it's that the market thinks he's better than he actually is."
To prove his point, Voulgaris pulls up a spreadsheet on one of his MacBooks. In his system a rating of --3 points per 48 minutes equals a replacement NBA player. A rating of zero is average. The best players, such as LeBron James and Dirk Nowitzki, rate +6 to +9.
"We don't really have [Anthony] as valuable at all," Voulgaris says, scrolling down. "We've had him in the past as high as +4 per 48 minutes and as low as --1." This season, Voulgaris says, "we've had him as zero most of the time. Both Chandler and Kidd have been more valuable. [Anthony's] offensive numbers have improved as the year has progressed. He's gone from average to above average pretty quickly, which is a function of how they're using him. What hasn't changed is he's been a very consistently poor defensive player. Basketball is two sides of the game." Voulgaris pauses. "Everyone's going to think I'm a crackpot, but...."
What fascinates Voulgaris is that Anthony, unlike a player such as Thunder guard Kevin Martin—consistently the worst defender in his system—has the ability to defend. "In 2009, when Denver went to the conference finals, he was a lot better by our numbers. He's been a horrific defender in his career, as bad as --4 over 48 minutes. But in 2009 he was a neutral defender. He wasn't hurting you or helping you."
Of course numbers are only what you read into them, and there are plenty when it comes to Carmelo. Synergy Sports, which tracks every play in the league, rates him as good to excellent in almost every facet of offense. Go to basketball-reference.com, and you'll find a different perspective. Scan down to his similarity score, a comparison with historical players based on a stat called Win Shares, and these are some of the names that come up as similar: Sam Perkins, John Drew, Shareef Abdur-Rahim. There is not an MVP among them.
SO WHICH is it? Is Anthony an elite player or merely the highest-paid, most productive role player in the league? Have the Knicks been successful this season because Anthony has made sacrifices or because the team has accommodated him, the way Larry Brown and the 76ers once built an entire roster to complement Allen Iverson's strengths and rode it to the Finals?
Personally, I want to believe in Anthony. We all like to think that we can change, that we can become someone different, someone better—that growth is still possible, no matter where we are in our lives. Anthony insists that he has changed. Voulgaris says he hasn't, and has the money to prove it. Jim Boeheim will always believe in Anthony; Chris Gregory won't.
In the end the truth is this: It is mid-January, and the Knicks still aren't as talented as the Heat, Jason Kidd isn't getting any younger and Ronnie Brewer still can't hit a jump shot.
In the end, we may know the truth by the outcome, for this much is clear: The Knicks can't afford a scorpion. They need a lion.
Check out an advanced statistical analysis of Melo's offensive game on SI's tablet edition, free to subscribers at SI.com/activate