Incriminating uncertainty and frailty continues to run amok in Madison Square Garden as the New York Knicks chase the ghost of last year's team, all while squandering a version of Carmelo Anthony they've both longed for and never seen.
Last year's title contender has retreated into this season's farce. Eleven games under .500 and hardly guaranteed a playoff spot, the Knicks are an expensive laughingstock, collapsing in the face of lofty expectations and a franchise-altering offseason.
In a few months time, Anthony will hit unrestricted free agency, where the market for his services is both limited and threatening. One year ago, the prospect of him leaving New York for anywhere else was absurd. Now, it's a distinct possibility.
Anthony, to his credit, has done his part. Speculation was founded upon his candid interview with the New York Observer's Rafi Kohan in October, during which he declared his intent to explore free agency, but clouds of future concern and confusion haven't aversely impacted his performance.
Against all logic and contrary to his own words, Anthony has improved, giving the Knicks a more distinguished and evolved rendition of the player they traded for.
Melo: "My game is not gonna really change much. My game is pretty much set in stone..."— Tommy Beer (@TommyBeer) September 30, 2013
New York, in turn, has responded by wasting everything he's doing, playing itself into a failing state that could drive away the one player it cannot afford to lose.
Producing points is nothing new for Anthony, who boasts a career average of 25.2 points per game and won his first scoring title last season after pouring in 28.7. But the manner in which he's scoring has changed—for the better.
On the surface, his numbers have changed; regressed, even. He's putting in 27.1 points on 44.8 percent shooting compared to 28.7 and 44.9, respectively, last season. Yet while his numbers are slightly down, he's still converting a career-best 41.4 percent of his long balls, giving him the sixth-highest percentage of any player attempting at least 4.5 treys per game. He's also posting an offensive rating (112) identical to 2012-13.
Anthony's deep-ball prowess comes during a season when he's splitting time between the 3 and 4. A cool 60 percent of his minutes are coming at power forward—where he was most effective last season.
More impressive still, he's become a more willing passer. His assists per game (3.0) are up from last season (2.6), and as the The Wall Street Journal's Chris Herring previously revealed, the Knicks are drilling a high percentage of their shots when he passes out of double-teams:
Per Synergy, Melo's passes to spot-up shooters out of double-teams have led to an 77.3% effective field-goal rate -- best in the NBA.— Chris Herring (@HerringWSJ) January 26, 2014
The more he passes, the better the Knicks are, so his uptick in deferring out of traffic is huge. Seeing him pass is huge in general. Anthony has already dished out five or more assists on 10 occasions this season, tying the number of five-assist games he had all of last year. The Knicks are 7-3 in these situations.
Being more generous with the ball has made Anthony a more dynamic offensive player and tougher cover. And he's an even tougher cover when his teammates are hitting shots.
According to NBA.com's player-tracking data, he's credited with 6.3 assist opportunities per game. Since he's securing three actual assists every night, that means the Knicks are hitting more than 47 percent of shots attempted off Anthony's passes, a staggering number when you consider the team is hitting just 44.8 percent of its shots overall.
Rivaling The Best
Despite the Knicks ranking 22nd in winning percentage (39.2), Anthony checks in at 13th in win shares amassed (6.7).
Those 6.7 win shares mean Anthony's accounting for more than a third of New York's victories, forcing him to shoulder a burden some of his fellow superstars with even more win shares don't have to.
Below you'll see what percent of team victories the top 15 win-share collectors account for:
Only Kevin Love makes up more of his team's wins. Not so coincidentally, the Minnesota Timberwolves find themselves in a similar situation—outside the playoff bubble.
Relying on one player is never good practice. The Knicks know this. Anthony set a career high in win shares last year (9.5), accounting for 17.6 percent of New York's victories. It's better to delegate responsibility among the collective, not the few.
But there's value to be found in the fact that Anthony's on pace to set a new career high in win shares (11) when the Knicks are tracking toward roughly 22 fewer victories (32). It's both impressive and sad. Incredible and soul-wrenching.
Inspiring and inexcusable.
Tragic Turn Of Events
Anthony isn't perfect, and while he's not in an ideal situation, other stars find themselves facing similar pressures.
Kevin Durant has the Oklahoma City Thunder contending for a league-best record without Russell Westbrook. Blake Griffin managed to keep the Los Angeles Clippers afloat without Chris Paul. LeBron James is still doing his thing, even though recurrent injuries have made Dwyane Wade a statistical wild card.
Inferior supporting casts come into play, though. After ranking third in second-unit points per game last season, the Knicks are now ninth. New York also ranks 24th in defensive efficiency and is down 10 spots in offensive efficiency from last year.
Is this the best version of Anthony the Knicks have had?
If Anthony were Durant, the Knicks would be better off. But he's not Durant. He can still be an inefficient scorer and terrible defender, and the Knicks know this. They knew it before they traded for him in 2011. They understood he was flawed and a class below the LeBrons and Durants.
They knew what they were getting.
This season, they have gotten something more. Anthony has rounded out his game to include more passing and better three-point shooting, and he's even emerged as a consistent double-double threat. In more ways than one, he's having a better season than last year.
What have the Knicks done with all this? Wasted it.
"You know what, you can’t change the past," center Tyson Chandler said of the Knicks' season-long struggles following their win over the Denver Nuggets, per the Associated Press (via The Star-Ledger).
"We’ve just got to put more nights like this together," he added.
More victories are a necessity for New York, lest a resilient campaign from Anthony amounts to nothing other than his increased desire to leave the Knicks behind.
*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference unless otherwise noted.