Carmelo Anthony is pop culture wrapped in a headband.
He’s the most-loved player whom everyone loves to disparage—other than LeBron James, of course. But now that the shadow of James’s first ring looms ever larger, Anthony becomes an even muddier doormat of criticism in the world’s boot-stomping capital, New York.
That’s our culture: we love the fall guy, and rarely do we want to see that guy overcome and triumph. This is the issue for Anthony in New York: he’s the favorite who couldn’t be a bigger underdog.
Anthony will be asked to shoulder the high expectations of the Knicks’ upcoming season, but it’s going to take a special formula to deliver on the championship-or-bust mentality in New York, and the 28-year-old superstar will have to make practical changes if he has any hope to deliver.
He’s been labeled a selfish, one-dimensional player who lacks the intensity it takes to win at the NBA level. But he’s cool, he scores the basketball and Jay-Z apparently loves him. He's Kramer on a basketball court. Good for a fun time, but unable to carry the show in a league that requires a complete cast.
But heading into this new season, now that a crowd of characters surrounds him, is it finally the time Anthony can carry those high expectations?
The answer: Maybe. But it will take an evolution of mindset.
And it’s not going to be that easy. The wealth of any sports franchise is only relative to the competition surrounding it; and, in New York’s case, the ratings aren’t so good. The list of talent with arguably a better shot than New York out of the gates includes Miami, Los Angeles, Oklahoma City, Chicago, San Antonio, Boston, Dallas, Philadelphia, the other Los Angeles, Indiana and even, uh, Denver. Get in line, New York.
Knicks General Manager Glen Grunwald was busy in the offseason, losing Jeremy Lin but re-signing J.R. Smith and Steve Novak, and bringing in notables Jason Kidd, Marcus Camby, Raymond Felton, Ronnie Brewer and Kurt Thomas. But the centerpiece remains Anthony, paired with fellow superstar Amar’e Stoudemire and with the valuable presence of Tyson Chandler.
So what will it take for Anthony to finally overcome the league’s greater collections of talent?
That answer again: He can no longer be Anthony. He has to evolve. He has to become what Dirk Nowitzki was for the 2011 champion Mavericks.
Jason Kidd recently made the comparison between Anthony and Nowitzki. Anthony should pay attention, and mirror the following concepts that led Nowitzki to his championship success:
Embrace the urgency. There wasn’t exactly a long-term plan for New York this offseason, similar to the veteran roster of the Mavericks two seasons ago. Nowitzki won that elusive championship at 33 years old, so one could argue that Anthony, who will be 29 by season’s end, still has time. But the pressure to close his career with at least one crown, if not multiple, still mounts.
Anthony is the only of the 2003 top five picks to not win a championship, given the others (LeBron, Wade, Bosh) all did it together last. But, like Nowitzki and James, Anthony can use that immense pressure to drive him. A knock on Anthony is his seeming lack of urgency on the court. Step one will be to notch up the intensity.
Play big. Last year, the difference between Anthony at 6'8" and 230 pounds and a small guard such as the 6'3", 185-pound Monta Ellis was an average of two points (on more shot attempts), 2.9 rebounds and just an extra pair of free throws. Anthony must play big, similar to Nowitzki in the ’11 Finals who, in that series against Miami, increased his rebounds to 9.7 per game, and got both to the basket and free-throw line.
Anthony leaves much to be desired on both the defensive side and as a physical rebounder, especially with his potential. He must become smarter with his size and abilities, stop hanging around the wing and embrace the power forward role at which he excelled (averaging 30 points with a plus-50 percent shooting percentage) during his 13 starts at the position last season.
Elite players in league history haven’t been one-dimensional, and so far in Anthony’s career he has been exactly that: simply a scorer.
Be about winning. Just like Nowitzki in 2011, Anthony has perhaps the greatest collection of talent surrounding him this year. But the narrative must change.
The talent wasn’t brought in to simply support Anthony; rather, Anthony needs to be there to facilitate the talent around him. Be the glue. Be the guy to make your teammates better. In a league of super teams, it needs to be the superstar who’s willing to evolve. Don’t wait for the other guy, like Jason Kidd, to fuse things together. Be the creator of that fusion.
Anthony can continue to play the role of pretty bridesmaid, but if it continues for many more years, it will just become sad. His urgency needs to change. He stated publicly last season that he’s willing to make changes if it means improving his Knicks team.
If Anthony and the Knicks have any shot at living up to those lofty New York expectations, they’ll need to change the narrative. Or else, they’ll simply continue to get stomped by New York’s love-to-hate culture.
Email Jimmy Spencer at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @jimmypspencer