It’s the curse of the modern NBA superstar: Until you prove you can carry a team to a championship, you’re the subject of the constant, incessant scrutiny of today’s sports media.
The New York Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony, who was brought over in a blockbuster trade with the Denver Nuggets in February 2011, is no exception, as the offensive-minded small forward has been absolutely massacred since coming to the team and leading them to a 50-44 record in two seasons and a combined 1-8 line in two playoff series with the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics.
Unfortunately for Anthony, the only way for him to silence the criticism is by leading New York to their first title since 1973, when Willis Reed and Walt Frazier were still pacing the floors of Madison Square Garden.
As a native New Yorker who pushed ardently to be traded to his hometown team, the anticipation was through the roof once the trade was announced and 'Melo was expected to power the upstart Knicks back to championship contention.
In a way it is not entirely ‘Melo’s fault; huge expectations were heaped upon him when the team essentially gutted their roster, giving up the vast majority of their young assets to acquire the perennial All-Star. Even a year later, fans still wonder whether the team would have been better off committing to Mike D’Antoni’s run-and-gun identity and building around Amar’e Stoudemire, Raymond Felton and Danilo Gallinari.
Although those Knicks were hardly setting the league on fire, they did play a cohesive, team-oriented style of basketball that fans gravitated toward, as opposed to the isolation-heavy offense the team has employed with Anthony under new coach Mike Woodson.
Carmelo has frequently been considered a selfish, “me-first” player, a label applied to many volume scorers. Last season, Anthony averaged 22.6 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.6 assists but shot just 43 percent from the field and 33.5 percent from beyond the arc.
In the postseason, he averaged an impressive 27.8 points and 8.2 boards, but his assists dipped to 2.2 per game and his percentages sunk to 41.9 percent on field goals and a paltry 22.2 percent on three-pointers. Anthony took a staggering 24.8 shots per game, but missed more than 14 of them on average.
The problem for Anthony is that although he is a talented passer, he will often hold the ball for an entire shot-clock, letting it dwindle down to the final seconds and taking a difficult shot. ‘Melo has a fantastic post game and can get to the rim, but last season attempted 5.6 shots per game from 16-23 feet, hitting a career-low 35 percent of them. Too often Anthony would take a tough jumper instead of dishing the ball, even breaking offensive sets in order to look for his own shot.
Anthony is one of the NBA’s most talented players, but too often put in a lackadaisical defensive effort or, in the immortal words of Clyde Frazier, played “matador D.” Unlike many of the league’s current stars like LeBron James, Kevin Durant or Derrick Rose, Anthony’s game is incredibly easy to criticize and dissect, because there is nothing more frustrating than watching a gifted player not play to their complete abilities.
To many, Anthony’s game is reminiscent of high-octane scorers like George Gervin or Alex English, who both failed to win a championship and have had that cloud hanging over their otherwise extremely impressive accomplishments during their time in the league.
The reputation of not being able to get it done in the playoffs has also become associated with the five-time All-NBA selection, who has appeared in the postseason nine times but made it out of the first round just once, when he took Denver to the 2009 Conference Finals. The stigma of not being able to win on the biggest stage has always plagued Carmelo and will continue to haunt him until he can take this New York team—at the very least—past the first round.
Even this offseason, fans have speculated that Anthony was one of the driving forces behind Jeremy Lin’s departure. The star small forward’s iso-heavy game did not mesh with Lin’s pick-and-roll, ball-sharing offense that was predicated upon running the floor and moving the basketball.
The “Linsanity” Knicks played extremely well as a unit when Anthony was sidelined with a hamstring injury, beating teams like the Utah Jazz, Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers while Anthony sat on the bench in street clothes.
The team struggled when Anthony returned, but ultimately found new life when Woodson became the head coach, as the team went on a stellar 18-6 run to closeout the season and clinch a playoff berth. In the month of April, Anthony played his best basketball in a New York jersey, averaging 29.8 points, 7.3 boards and 3.6 assists to go with blistering shooting from the floor (49.5 percent) and three-point territory (46 percent).
Whether fairly or unfairly, Anthony has also been blamed for some of Amar’e Stoudemire’s decline. The power forward was brought in two years ago to be the team’s franchise player and had an MVP-caliber year but struggled with injures, as well as sharing time and the ball with Anthony and had one of his worst seasons since he was a rookie.
When Woodson was coaching, the team ran a half-court heavy offense through Anthony, who attempted nearly 23 shots per game during the final month of the season.
This summer, the team focused on adding defensive parts around Anthony, committing to Woodson’s system of playing tough defense and letting Carmelo lead the team offensively. They added veteran point guards and defenders in Jason Kidd and Raymond Felton, a shut-down swingman in Ronnie Brewer and another rim protector in Marcus Camby, while retaining sharpshooters J.R. Smith and Steve Novak.
This team is clearly built to cover Anthony’s defensive deficiencies, and cater to his strengths offensively with plenty of shooters who can stretch out a defense and provide him room to work. Although their backcourt has some understandable question marks hovering around it, this team certainly has the talent to be a contender if ‘Melo can carry the offense like he did down the stretch of last season.
Anthony may also have opened himself up to more scrutiny with his brilliant play in the London Olympics, coming off the bench for Team USA’s gold medal squad but averaging 16.3 points and 4.8 rebounds in merely 17.8 minutes per game and shooting a staggering 53 percent from the field and 50 percent from the shorter three-point line.
Fans saw Carmelo at his best when he set the United States’ all-time scoring record, notching 37 points and hitting 10 threes against Nigeria. Obviously the level of talent in the NBA is higher, but many people expect Anthony to come into this season riding high off of his gold medal momentum.
Redemption is far from impossible, just look at LeBron James, who was far more heavily scrutinized than Anthony but proved all his naysayers wrong by obliterating his competition during the playoffs en route to his first championship.
Still, with all of the criticism and high expectations placed upon Anthony, the only way for him to truly silence his critics is to bring the Larry O’Brien trophy back to the mecca of basketball.