As sports epithets go, it doesn’t get much more damning than that. It’s a label that can compromise chemistry and ruin reputations. Once widely applied, it seldom comes unstuck.
Fair or not, Carmelo Anthony has borne the brunt of this malicious moniker more than once during his 11-year NBA career, first with George Karl, then with Mike D’Antoni (per Frank Isola of the New York Daily News) and finally—though the feuds were more circumstantial than personal—with the recently jettisoned Mike Woodson.
Little does Melo know it now, but Derek Fisher, the New York Knicks’ newly minted skipper, is about to put an end to the trend.
Not because he was handpicked by Phil Jackson. Rather, because he’s the best possible coach for Anthony.
That Jackson explicitly went after his former Los Angeles Lakers point guard and 18-year NBA veteran was no accident, of course. If the Zen Master had any chance of convincing Anthony to stay, making what looked to be a “player-friendly” hire was of the utmost importance—a way to assuage his star while keeping with the principles of Jackson’s organizational overhaul.
With the Knicks in the midst of installing the triangle offense (per ESPN New York’s Ian Begley), there’s bound to be a lengthy learning curve, for Anthony and Fisher both.
Figuring how to transition one of the league’s most gifted scorers into a system predicated on ball movement and precise spacing—that’s Fisher’s challenge.
As Jackson said in a recent interview with Begley:
If we’re still going to sit and rely on Carmelo to do everything and put that load on him, that’s not going to happen. Sometimes it means buying into the system and giving yourself into a process…One of the things about the offensive system is you can’t try to score every time you catch the ball. You have to participate and you also have to have guys who are strong enough to know that there’s a whole offense to run.
For Anthony, it’s about learning how to play for his fourth coach in five seasons, a man who, for all his outward calm and cool, didn’t earn five fingers' worth of rings by being sheepish.
In a certain sense, Jackson has to know he’s bound to be the buffer between the two—someone who serves as both close confidant and strategic sounding board if and when Anthony and Fisher butt basketballs.
Free from the calendar-crunching commitments of actually running a team, Jackson can spend more energy doing what he does best: using off-court communication as a path to on-court cooperation.
In that sense, Jackson is hoping Anthony’s path is not unlike that taken by the former’s first great charge. From Bleacher Report’s John Dorn:
Anthony has struggled through battles similar to the ones Jordan weathered during his first NBA years. Now 30, 'Melo has the chance to throw himself into the system that served Jordan and Kobe their first rings.
He'd be allowed several iso-looks per game, but there would be off-ball movement and actual strategizing involved, unlike during Woodson's reign. Anthony would have options every trip down, if getting to the rim isn't feasible. Though constantly picked apart for his unwillingness to pass out of one-on-one looks, statistically speaking, Anthony has been one of the best in the game at it.
In the triangle, Anthony would still be the offense's centerpiece. But for the first time in his career, he would be just the key cog in a system of several viable options every trip down.
To be fair, Anthony’s passing ability—a paramount prerequisite in the triangle—has long been underrated. It’s not that he can’t do it; it’s that, given all available options, the most high percentage shot really is the one heaved by his hand.
In other words, Anthony’s is a problem of trust. Trust in teammates, trust in the system and, sad to say, trust in the coaching.
For his part, Fisher addressed precisely this issue in a recent interview with Al Iannazzone of Newsday.
What I've most thought about is how much easier the game will be for him. We won't just give him the ball and say 'save the day.' We'll utilize our [power forward], we'll utilize our offense, we'll utilize he and the guys around him to be successful on the offensive end and build trust, build chemistry and build a fun way to play for guys so that our defense is better.
It’s easy to view Anthony’s five-year, $124 million re-signing (per Begley) as proof that the All-Star forward is more interested in a lucrative largesse than he is in some ivory-tower esoterica about “contributing to the culture.”
Melo got the big payday. No doubt about that. But if we’re to take him at his word that winning was the top priority (per the New York Post’s Marc Berman), then perhaps he sees something in Jackson—and, by extension, Fisher—worth risking cries of disingenuousness. Maybe he wanted to have his cake and eat it, too.
Jackson’s handling of superstars is well documented. Suggesting Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant singlehandedly carried their teams to titles gives criminal shrift to how masterfully Jackson navigated the considerable egos of the two.
As for Fisher, don’t discount how 13 years with Bryant can prepare someone to deal with shot-happy superstars. Jackson might’ve been the one handing out the books and back pats, but it was Fisher who endeared himself to Bryant in a way the latter couldn’t help but acknowledge.
“My all time favorite teammate has always been Derek Fisher," said Bryant back in September 2013, according to ProBasketballTalk's Kurt Helin, via Yahoo. "He’s been my favorite teammate, I would love to see him back in a Lakers uniform so we could kind of finish out together.”
To be sure, Bryant and Anthony are two totally different personalities—the first a Jordan-esque assassin with five-fold kwan to show for it, the second a flawed facsimile with a quicker smile to prove it.
Still, between the two of them, Jackson and Fisher boast more than enough locker room diplomacy and communicative clout to make engaging and challenging Melo a much more promising prospect than met their predecessors.
Whether or not Anthony’s Hall of Fame legacy includes a coach-killer asterisk, only time will tell. That he finds himself surrounded by two of the most decorated men in NBA history—including a coach custom-built to both challenge and champion him—time's already told.
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