Carmelo Anthony gets a bum rap.
Not that there isn't plenty about him that might invite the ire of the NBA-watching public. He jumps into fights during games. He instigates fights for others during games. He pretends to instigate fights after games.
He's led a team past the first round just once in his illustrious career. He's known as a scorer, but he's never won a scoring title. He's a skilled post player, but has never shot better than 50 percent in a season and routinely settles for long two-point jumpers.
If not for Dwight Howard's "Dwightmare," Anthony's "Melodrama" might still be the biggest hate-driving storyline in the NBA, and will certainly be rekindled during his first return trip to the Pepsi Center to take on the Denver Nuggets. He's also married to a reality TV star who he claims played no part in his push for a trade to the New York Knicks...even though she's from New York...and landed her own TV show shortly after moving back.
What's more, he plays for the Knicks, at Madison Square Garden, in the nation's biggest media market, one that's all too saturated with sports-related tabloid headlines and angry pundits who butter their bread by building up and breaking down their city's heroes with equal efficacy. He may or may not have had a hand in the ousters of Mike D'Antoni and Jeremy Lin, though given his central spot in the Knicks' basketball universe, it's tough to imagine that he didn't have at least some say in those decisions.
Okay, so maybe 'Melo's reputation as a selfish, faux tough guy isn't entirely undeserved or unfounded. It is, however, somewhat overblown, especially amidst a season that, in many ways, has been his best as as pro.
And that has the Knicks poised to compete for the second seed in the Eastern Conference.
Anthony may not be a natural vocal leader on par with Chris Paul or LeBron James, but that hasn't stopped 'Melo from leading by example. He sacrificed his own on-court comfort for the good of his team from the get-go this season, moving from small forward to power forward.
A move that's forced him to absorb much more of a physical pounding from night to night while bodying up against bigger, stronger opponents.
'Melo's still far from an ace defender, though he's shown a greater willingness this season to hustle after loose balls, take on contact in one-on-one situations and dive down to help a teammate in need.
Now, some of Anthony's detractors may point to his recent bout with discomfort in his right knee as reason enough to suggest that he's a sorry excuse for a leader. After all, 'Melo essentially removed himself from the Knicks' game against the Cleveland Cavaliers on March 4th and was wincing in pain, despite an absence of visible contact with another player.
It doesn't help 'Melo's case, either, that the Knicks went on to dig themselves out of a 22-point hole without him. Or that New York went 2-1 and came within a point of upending the Oklahoma City while he was out. Or that the Knicks were summarily spanked by the Golden State Warriors, 92-63, in his first game back. Or that Anthony managed a mere 14 points on 4-of-15 shooting with five fouls in his return.
But to berate Carmelo for the betrayal of his own body is to overlook the extent to which he's laid his own health on the line for the good of the Knicks this season. As Anthony recently told Frank Isola of The New York Daily News about the nature of his knee injury:
"We've been trying to figure it out, myself, the team the doctors. It could have been something that stemmed from back in Christmas when I hurt my knee in L.A. And over the time it came back and I probably agitated something like that. From that time I didn't feel anything. It was when we played Toronto right before All-Star break when I started feeling it."
Which is to say, 'Melo had been playing through pain for nearly three weeks (at the very least) prior to his "self-ouster" and had hardly complained about it. In the six games between New York's loss to Toronto and the team's win in Cleveland, Anthony averaged 28.8 points, 4.7 rebounds and 3.5 assists in 39.4 minutes.
Can the Knicks win a title if Carmelo Anthony is their best player?
Not that 'Melo was at all perfect. He shot just 40.2 percent from the floor (21.6 percent from three) in those games, and the Knicks lost three of them.
But, on the other hand, he helped New York to overcome Stephen Curry's 54-point outburst, build a 16-point lead on the Miami Heat (which was later snatched away) and nearly knock off the Raptors in Toronto.
And if, indeed, Anthony's current calamity is at all connected to that which he suffered on Christmas Day against the Los Angeles Lakers, which he suggests it might be, then the results are similarly admirable—28.8 points, 6.4 rebounds, 3.7 assists in 40.2 minutes (25 games).
Not bad for a guy hobbling around on a bad knee, even if the Knicks' record in those games was a middling 14-11.
To be sure, Anthony won't likely ever be a seemingly unbreakable grit-and-grinder for whom pain is secondary, like, say, Kobe Bryant. Nor is he about to wrest control of the Knicks locker room from a galvanizing force like Tyson Chandler.
What he can do, though, is score—a ton, and often, and more effectively than anyone else currently at Mike Woodson's disposal. He's a bona fide superstar whose preternatural gifts force opposing teams to devise game plans to stop him, which, in turn, makes life on the court easier for those around him.
Carmelo may not be the type of player who can put a team on his back and carry it to the Promised Land all by his lonesome. But he's a superb talent, and one on whom the Knicks and their fans will have no choice but to rely as the squad prepares for a deep playoff push, especially in light of Amar'e Stoudemire's latest setback.
A push, by the way, that would do plenty to improve Anthony's image.