Mission Impossible: The Knicks with Carmelo Anthony
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Carmelo clearly had problems with the offensive system, Tyson Chandler was on an island down low as Amare alternated from a disappearing act on offense to a matador on defense, even Mike D'Antoni's mustache lacked its natural elegance.
Since then, the team has experienced a couple of remarkable resurgences, spearheaded by Jeremy Lin and Carmelo Anthony, a head coach firing, several serious injuries, and the emergence of J.R. Smith and Steve Novak as three-point assassins/defensive nihilists.
The culmination of these events eventually resulted in a No. 7 seed for the Knicks, and a matchup with the Miami Heat.
With that insufficient and, most likely, unnecessary summary out of the way, I would like to break down this Knicks team and, more importantly, reflect why this team is damned to NBA purgatory for the next half-decade, or however long Camare will continue to empty James Dolan's pockets.
A few days ago, Israel Gutierrez wrote a good article on why the Amare-Melo partnership is not working. Clearly, after his slap-boxing match with glass, Amare would be the clear amnesty choice if the clause had not been exercised on Chauncey Billups last year, but all that can be done now is to chalk this not-so-stunning revelation up on the big board of Monday Morning Quarterback.
The main problem with the Knicks team has nothing and everything to with Carmelo Anthony. He has, relatively speaking, been the one source of offensive stability and undoubtedly carried the team on his back throughout the end of the season, not so coincidentally after Jeremy Lin tore the meniscus cartilage in his left knee.
Under Mike Woodson, and especially when Amare was injured in April, Carmelo has flourished playing closer to the basket and, more importantly, as the team's main target/ball-handler whenever on the court.
He has worked much harder on defense since Woodson took over (and called him out), and deservedly won Eastern Conference Player of the Month for April.
Amare is the odd man out. Tyson Chandler has been everything that the Knicks hoped for at the center position, but he has pushed Amare out slightly further than he typically played last season. Chandler has also, at least partially, taken over Amare's old spot in pick and rolls, a main hub for Stoudemire's offense under D'Antoni.
He has been squeezed by Anthony's strong preference to play at the 4 (on both ends) and Chandler's limited offensive ability when more than 6 feet from the basket.
To keep Amare from looking like the helpless victim, however, he has failed to respond to almost all of these challenges. We all know his recent injury problems (on and off the court), but the main problem is that his offense and athleticism can no longer make up for his defensive shortcomings.
Landry Fields has also suffered from Carmelo's surge, largely in the rebounding department. He became a fan favorite last season particularly for his hustle, strong ability to finish on the break, and rebounding ability on both ends. In a half-court, Melocentric offense, however, Landry's offensive opportunities have waned.
Furthermore, Anthony and Chandler have grabbed many of the rebounds that Landry would have gotten. His transition from up-tempo, system player to half-court role player has been as smooth as gravel, and there are very few indicators to suggest that anything will change.
So what does this tell us, if anything? In order for Carmelo Anthony to play at his best, he tends to compromise the playing level of some of his teammates.
In a sense, he is the forward version of Allen Iverson, albeit less talented: they are/were amazing scorers, neither player improve(s/d) his teammates, and, in order for each player to perform to his full ability, he needs a certain type of cast around him.
Allen Iverson would never have been the legend he was in Philadelphia if he had been playing with Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady or even (young) Chris Webber. Why? Because he, and the team, was at his/its best when he always had the ball in his hands.
His teammates, as a result, were classic role players/defensive stoppers, such as Aaron McKie, Tyrone Hill and Dikembe Mutombo. Despite its general offensive limitations, the team was a regular playoff attendee for years simply because every player knew his role to a tee and A.I. was that good.
The fact that Carmelo Anthony is not a guard, or a point forward, obviously makes his case different because he clearly does not have the ball in his hands as much as Iverson did. With that said, any instance in which he has had to play with scorers, such as Lin and/or Stoudemire, has clearly been a detriment to team success.
Some may ask, "What about in Denver, you idiot?", to which I respond that Carmelo only won two playoff series during his entire time in Denver, where he played with a slightly washed up Allen Iverson, but otherwise played with very solid supporting players, such as Nene, Kenyon Martin, and Chauncey Billups (whose arrival in Denver led to Carmelo's only two playoff series wins).
Side note: Chauncey Billups was the perfect point guard for Carmelo because he didn't force shots, operated in a half-court offense, and helped keep defenses honest with his great three-point shooting. Unlike Lin (and as evidenced by his success, albeit brief, as the shooting guard for the Clippers this season), Billups doesn't need the ball to control the pace/create offense.
I understand that this seems to be turning into a bashing of Carmelo all over again, but that's not what I'm trying to do. Carmelo is one of the best scorers in the league, as well as a very good rebounder for his position. He can even defend well when he wants to.
My point is that this Knicks team will not win as currently constructed. It can't! Amare needs to play in a system where he can freely alternate as a power forward or center, Landry was at his best in D'Antoni's system (particularly before the Carmelo trade and during Anthony's February absence), and Carmelo needs to play in a system where he can operate on the wing and in the post (as he did last month).
A short while ago, Ian Thomsen wrote a very interesting article that suggested that Carmelo Anthony will, over time, follow Paul Pierce's role as point forward, team player, and leader. But now, I'm not so sure.
While I believe that Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen (then and now) would fit ideally beside Carmelo and that there is still time for Carmelo to change his approach, I also think that the difference in circumstances and teammates will prevent him from making this transition. There is no player now, at either shooting guard or power forward, who would complement Carmelo as well as they would have.
So what would Carmelo need around him in order for him/the team to be at his/its best? You need big men that don't need to score much, but can play solid defense. Tyson Chandler, Jared Jeffries. Check.
Preferably, you need a power forward who can play inside, but can also stretch the floor when Carmelo is in the post. Pau Gasol is the most obvious example, but let's be more realistic and say David West/Luis Scola. Steve Novak is a serviceable stretch 4.
Your point guard needs to be able to hit open shots, operate well in a half-court offense, and play without the ball. Baron Davis defers to Carmelo because he's washed-up, so he fits the criteria by default, even though he can't shoot. Mo Williams would be a good fit.
Of course, you also need wing players that hit threes and/or defend like motherlovers. J.R. Smith (well, he hits threes). If Iman Shumpert improves his outside shot, he should be an ideal 2-guard beside Anthony.
With all this considered, how would a starting five of Chauncey Billups, Iman Shumpert, Carmelo Anthony, David West, Tyson Chandler team (with Steve Novak, Jared Jeffries, J.R. Smith, Kenyon Martin, and Mo Williams on the bench) fare? To suit Carmelo, Lin and Stoudemire are out of the picture and are replaced by (a healthy) Billups, Williams and West. Martin is a free-agent addition.
Side note: For all those who are wondering, I didn't (for the most part) take the 2012 free agent market into account, but since the team cap is essentially locked for the next few seasons, substantial improvement through free agency (or trade, for that matter) is not a realistic possibility. If this type of team were to ever somehow be assembled in the next couple of seasons, count your blessings, Knicks fans.
By just about any standards, barring injury, this is a solid team. Carmelo can play in his element without negatively affecting the play of others around him, while the guys around him rebound, defend, and hit open jump shots.
Could it contend for a championship? Save for the most perfect situation (Kobe, D-Rose, LeBron, Kevin Durant all suffer debilitating knee/back injuries), it would not. You are looking at a 4-5 seed that would struggle to make it into the Conference Finals.
As great a scorer as Carmelo is, and he could go for almost 30 a night on this type of team, this formula hardly ever ends up winning the Larry O'Brien trophy. Last year's Mavericks team was an exception, filled with perfect, hard-working role players surrounding a bona fide star, Dirk Nowitzki, who enjoyed the playoff run of his life.
In order for my hypothetical team to win a championship, it would demand Carmelo to play up to the Iverson/Nowitzki level for at least 12-14 games in the playoffs. While this is unlikely, throw in the fact that this projected team is superior to the current Knicks team, and the task becomes downright impossible.
If this sounds like a familiar situation, it should. Carmelo has already experienced it for most of his professional career. If it doesn't, just wait. It will in a few years. And that's if everything goes right.
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