The New York Knicks made exactly one splashy move this offseason: re-signing Carmelo Anthony to a five-year contract worth $124 million. All other transactions served as window dressing, with Anthony returning to play a salary-cap waiting game for the 2014-15 season, before the Knicks actually free up money to sign talented free agents next summer.
But can Anthony's potent game fit seamlessly into the Phil Jackson system?
The present incarnation is the only scenario where Carmelo works in New York as a meaningful playoff threat. Serving under the confident leadership of Jackson, an 11-time champ as a coach, Anthony has a strong opportunity to lead the franchise to long-forgotten success in the playoffs if Jackson can build a bona fide contender around his star player.
The Knicks have been doomed before by having one great player and a decent, though not championship-caliber, cast around him. This time around, they just so happen to have a star player and a skilled scorer uniquely suited to the new system, meaning he won't have to reinvent himself, but merely tailor his previous prowess to suit the team's new approach.
The Melo We Know
Carmelo Anthony led the league in scoring for 2012-13, then produced the best rebounding season of his career last year with 8.1 boards per game, all while carrying an otherwise discombobulated Knicks team.
Anthony will not have to reinvent himself as such, but he will certainly have to adapt his style of play to suit. Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who won a national title in the only season he coached Melo, put forth that Anthony stayed in New York solely because of a belief in Jackson. As Boeheim said following Monday's Team USA practice at West Point, per ESPN New York's Ian Begley:
"Just from a basketball point of view it would have been better to go to Chicago because they've got better players. But he wanted to be in New York and he wants to see if they can turn it around there. I think that's a great thing … He stayed because he believes Phil."
The easy route would have been joining Joakim Noah, Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls. Instead, Anthony wants to stay in New York and build a championship contender with Jackson as rookie head coach Derek Fisher takes the helm. As Boeheim said of Fisher: "If you’re going to pick a coach who hasn’t coached, he would be the guy I would pick … He’s really smart. I think he’ll be a really good coach."
Carmelo has bought into the incoming system; now it's just a matter of playing in it and fostering success through ruthless efficiency and execution. The ball cannot stick; no more isolation on possession after possession after possession.
As Anthony told the New York Post's Fred Kerber, there is undeniable cause for optimism in New York. Melo thinks the Knicks will "absolutely" return to the playoffs, but expectations beyond that have been tempered for the time being. As Melo stated: "I can’t wait to get started. No goals. Not setting any goals, but I just can’t wait to get it back on."
The Melo we don't yet know is the triangle Melo, a far cry from the "iso Melo" days of Mike Woodson, among other Knicks skippers, but the new system will not be all that drastic a change for Anthony's game, and his skill set should adapt fittingly to it.
Effects of the Triangle
Phil Jackson coached the triangle offense from 1989 through 1998 with the Chicago Bulls, and from 1999 to 2004 and 2005 to 2011 with the L.A. Lakers. So how did the triangle affect the production of his best scorers?
In Michael Jordan's first season under Phil, 1989-90, he improved on his league-leading scoring average by one point per game and attempted 1.8 more shots on average while playing 1.2 fewer minutes per game. Jordan saw his rebounding and assist totals dip slightly.
In Kobe Bryant's first year under Jackson, 1999-00, he saw his field-goal attempts increase by 2.3 per game and his scoring went up by 2.6 points while his minutes held steady around 38 per night. Kobe's shooting percentage ticked up slightly; he also added one extra rebound and assist per game from his 1998-99 average.
Anthony will still have the offense run through him, but even as he remains the focal point as with previous seasons, a game plan for success has been laid down, and the most important star has bought in on Jackson's plan.
This is not to compare Melo to the "Black Mamba" or "His Airness" but merely to illustrate the effect of introducing the triangle around a team's marquee scorer. Age represents one clear differentiating factor, as Melo turned 30 in May, part of the reason for his decision to shed some weight. Jordan was 26 years old when Jackson came to Chicago, and Kobe was 21 when the coach joined L.A.
Age notwithstanding, the most significant factor in Melo's usage will be the cast around him and how he will need to deploy his range of skills in the new system.
Will Carmelo Anthony's scoring average increase in his first season with the triangle offense?
Melo in 2015
Already, Melo has lost weight to be more of a combo forward in the triangle, per Marc Berman of the New York Post.
According to an "Anthony confidant," Melo "wants to be as athletic as he was when he was a rookie. Plus he wants to be a facilitator in the triangle and speed will help that." Some NBA opponents have confirmed Anthony's improved fitness. Orlando Magic forward Tobias Harris worked out with Anthony in June and confirmed, "He looked real good."
A slimmed-down Melo will rely less on his size and physicality to dominate opposing small forwards, instead capitalizing on his quickness and athleticism that vexed opposition 4s trying to guard him.
There will be an adjustment period, to be sure. A whole host of new players have joined the team, chief among them the new starters in center Samuel Dalembert (who has not averaged more than 22.2 minutes per game in any of the last three seasons) and point guard Jose Calderon, both of whom will be 33 years old when the season begins.
The triangle will benefit greatly from Calderon's three-point shooting (44.9 percent, 191 threes made) in addition to Pablo Prigioni's marksmanship (46.4 percent from downtown last season), which placed both of them in the top five among all three-point shooters for 2013-14.
However, the jewel in the crown will be Melo's play in the pinch post. It will be up to Anthony to become the prototypical scorer from that floor position, where he is uniquely capable of thriving.
The lost weight will help Anthony man the small forward position, meaning highly paid and divisive big men Amar'e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani will see more duty at the 4 and 5 to complement Melo and spell Dalembert at center.
The new system will orbit not so much around Anthony reinventing himself. He will continue adapting, but no reinvention will be needed. His attitude has been subsumed under the direction of Jackson, and that's the most significant adjustment Melo can make. Don't expect another scoring title from Anthony, but he should see an increase in his scoring efficiency as the triangle takes hold.
The coming season will allow the Knicks star to build a familiarity and a comfort level in the new scheme while Jackson continues constructing his ideal roster with subtle moves until the team has cap space to make a significant signing.
Now that Melo has committed to winning in New York and placed his trust in Jackson, the gradual adaptation continues for the Knicks star, from isolated scorer in a moribund offense to the focal point of a proven system. Nothing as grand as a reinvention will be required from Melo, merely an update of his style and approach.