This past Sunday in the NFL, something unusual happened. The AFC Championship Game pitted Peyton Manning’s Denver Broncos against Tom Brady’s New England Patriots, and the league marketed the matchup as “Brady vs. Manning”.
It’s not that it wasn’t a smart marketing ploy. It was. Whenever the two best quarterbacks of a generation get together, it should be all about them.
So then what was so unusual? Well, the NFL doesn’t typically give much attention to individual players, and for good reason. Football, for the most part, is a team sport. You would have to go all the way back to the 1999 season–when Kurt Warner led the Rams to a victory in Super Bowl XXXIV–to find a league MVP who played for a Super Bowl-winning team.
The NFL also understands that its fans can’t easily connect with specific players. These guys wear helmets, facemasks, and pads when they play–they’re not exactly identifiable.
The NBA, meanwhile, is run by the individual. LeBron James has his own shoes. Kobe Bryant has his own shoes. Heck, Michael Jordan even has his own brand of shoe–Air Jordan, through Nike.
Fans want to see LeBron vs. Kevin Durant in the NBA Finals this year, not the Miami Heat vs. the Oklahoma City Thunder. When you attend a basketball game in person, you’re usually not going because of the teams, you’re going because of the individuals. You’re going so you can see Kobe. Or Dwyane Wade. Or James Harden.
With rare exceptions like the 2004 Detroit Pistons, it has essentially become a requirement for a championship-aspiring team in the NBA to have a superstar. And, if you’re lucky enough to have the very best of those superstars, you’re usually going to be hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy in June. It’s why LeBron James’ Heat are back-to-back champions, and it’s why Michael Jordan’s Bulls won six titles–and probably could have won eight–in the 90’s.
So, when Carmelo Anthony tried to force his way to New York via trade nearly three years ago, the Knicks had no choice but to comply– ‘Melo was the superstar they needed to reach the next level and the superstar they needed to appease the fanbase.
I will never blame them for the deal they made to acquire Carmelo, a deal that unloaded three future draft picks, Raymond Felton, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and more. The Knicks couldn’t risk the possibility of missing out on Anthony. At the time, they had reason to believe that–if they didn’t pull the trigger on the trade–he was going to considering signing with the now-Brooklyn Nets in free agency.
Still, the fact remains that the organization took a step backwards by following through with the ‘Melo trade. It completely gutted their roster. They were left with Carmelo, Amar’e Stoudemire, Chauncey Billups, and the seven dwarfs. Seriously, Ronnie Turiaf was New York’s starting center throughout the second half of the season.
But the most unfortunate part? The Knicks didn’t have to deplete the roster. At least temporarily, they could have kept both Gallinari (22 at the time of the trade) and Chandler (23 at the time of the trade), two guys who would have been key contributors for a long, long time. The Knicks could have kept their 2014 first round pick (which looks awfully intriguing right now), and they could have kept the two second round selections that were also included in the trade.
The Knicks could have kept all of their assets if it weren’t for one factor: Carmelo Anthony’s impatience. ‘Melo, for some reason, just couldn’t wait to come to New York.
Anthony should have followed LeBron’s model. When LeBron played through his final season as a Cleveland Cavalier in 2011, he–like ‘Melo would a year later–had his sights set on leaving town. Still, James played hard for the entirety of the 82-game regular season and never once asked for a trade, instead choosing to wait until the summer to join the Miami Heat.
Carmelo, on the other hand? He was so anxious to get out of Denver that he indirectly forced the Nets and Knicks to get into a bidding war over him, and in doing so he stunted the long-term growth of New York as a franchise.
Why couldn’t Anthony just play out the second half of the season as a Nugget and transition to the Big Apple in July? I don’t know. I’ll never know.
What I do know is this: Carmelo didn’t consider how it would significantly benefit the Knicks if he were to be acquired via free agency, he only considered himself and his desires. He wanted to do it his way. He was selfish.
When ‘Melo arrived in New York, that selfishness didn’t stop. From day one, he has been a manipulator of the front office, always attempting to improve his own image and rarely taking into account what might be best for the team.
The first incident came in March 2012. Rather than making an effort to learn head coach Mike D’antoni’s system–a system that, ironically, he would flourish in during the 2012 Olympics–Anthony undermined the coach and ran him out of town.
Then, in the offseason that followed, Carmelo referred to Jeremy Lin’s offer sheet from the Houston Rockets as “ridiculous” and virtually blocked the Knicks from re-signing the 23-year old star. ‘Melo just couldn’t fathom sharing the New York City spotlight with a Harvard graduate, no-name, Asian-American point guard.
With Anthony calling seemingly all of the shots, New York’s window for success shrunk and shrunk and shrunk. In fact, it was open for one season and one season only: last season.
In 2012-13, the Knicks were able to field the perfect team of savvy veterans, three-point shooters, and highly-intelligent role players to complement the six-time All-Star, giving him a one-year opportunity at a championship.
The Knicks won 54 games and their first Atlantic Division crown since 1994, propelling them to the second seed in the Eastern Conference. In the playoffs, they won a hard-fought, six-game series against the Boston Celtics in round one, setting up a second round showdown with the Indiana Pacers.
The Knicks fell into a 3-1 series hole after four games against the Pacers, but an 85-75 win in Game 5 forced a sixth game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
In Game 6, New York trailed by as much as 12 in the third quarter, but Iman Shumpert and Chris Copeland nailed clutch shot after clutch shot–most of them three pointers–in the third and beginning part of the fourth quarter to give the Knicks an 87-84 lead with 9:41 remaining in the contest.
And, at the 9:41 mark, Carmelo Anthony entered the game and quickly decided that it was time for him to take over. From there, he went 1-for-7 from the field, turned the ball over three times, and effectively killed all of the momentum that the Knicks once had–momentum that was about to carry them to a seventh game at Madison Square Garden. The Knicks lost, 106-99, and were thus eliminated.
I truly believe that, had Carmelo stayed out of the way of the red-hot shooters, the Knicks would have beaten the Indiana Pacers in Game 6 and proceeded to win the series in a seventh game. But he didn’t let Shumpert seal the deal. He didn’t let Copeland seal the deal. Win or lose, Carmelo was going to make sure that he was the one with the ball in his hands down the stretch of Game 6.
It was a symbol of Carmelo’s tenure as a Knick, at least so far. See, ‘Melo wants the Knicks to succeed, but only if they succeed his way. The Linsansity period is a perfect example. To him, it wasn’t a positive. He didn’t care that New York was enjoying its most exciting stretch of basketball since the 90′s, not when he wasn’t the one responsible for it.
And, in Game 6, Carmelo didn’t just want the Knicks to win, he wanted them to win his way, with him knocking down the shots to force a series-deciding Game 7. Only that didn’t happen. The Knicks failed, because Carmelo failed.
This season, all of the mistakes that Carmelo made over the past three seasons have begun to backfire. He’s having a great year individually (he just had a 62-point outburst against the Charlotte Bobcats), but he can’t get any help. Amar’e has been in and out of the lineup all season long with a multitude of different injuries. Raymond Felton, too, has been injury-plagued, and when he has been healthy, he’s looked lethargic, out of shape, and uninspired. J.R. Smith has had a nightmare season–he’s been fined by the league, suspended by the league, and benched on two separate occasions by head coach Mike Woodson.
Through 43 games, the Knicks are 11 games below .500 (16-27) and have lost five of their last six. They trail the Toronto Raptors by six-and-a-half games in the Atlantic Division, and the schedule isn’t about to get any easier. Next month, New York battles Miami twice and plays eight games against Western Conference opponents, including showdowns with Oklahoma City, Portland, and Golden State.
At this point, it’s becoming less and less likely that the Knicks will even make the playoffs at all, and that isn’t at all the fault of Carmelo.
Still, whenever I catch myself sympathizing with him, I remind myself that he put the Knicks in this situation. Anthony was the one who stripped the team of so many valuable assets, assets that could have potentially been used as bait in a different trade–maybe a trade to bring in a second superstar to pair with ‘Melo long-term. And Anthony was the one who forced both Jeremy Lin and Mike D’antoni out of town.
Carmelo got what he wanted. He got the simple-minded head coach in Mike Woodson. He got the supporting cast of veterans that he wanted, and on cue, they are breaking down, one man at a time.
To be 100 percent clear, I like Carmelo as both a basketball player and as a person. Not only is he one of the most lethal scorers the NBA has ever seen, but he’s also a genuinely good guy. He has a good heart. I just don’t think he always understands what is truly best for him and, more importantly, what is truly best for his teams.
After this season, Anthony will–in all likelihood–become a free agent, and he’ll have a decision to make. Either he can stay in New York and try to right his wrongs, or he can chase a ring by signing elsewhere. I hope and pray that he stays, mainly because I don’t foresee a scenario where the Knicks could land a player better than him. As of this moment, I’m expecting him to leave, and I can’t say that I blame him.
But until that free agency period arrives, ‘Melo has to tough it out as a member of the Knicks. He has an obligation to the franchise, to his teammates, and to his fans to do everything in his power to get this team to the postseason. If and when New York continues to struggle, he can’t sulk or complain. He created this mess.
I’m sorry, Carmelo, but that’s the cold truth. You made your bed. Now, for at least the next four months, you have to lay in it.