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Can Carmelo Anthony Insert Himself into 2014-15 NBA MVP Race?

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Can Carmelo Anthony Insert Himself into 2014-15 NBA MVP Race?
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The 2013-14 season marked the first time Carmelo Anthony has ever missed the NBA playoffs.

To hear him explain it, that's not happening again.

When asked recently about the New York Knicks' odds of making the postseason this time, the 30-year-old brimmed with confidence, saying, "Yeah, I think so for sure. Absolutely," according to the New York Post's Fred Kerber.

"I can’t wait to get started," Anthony added. "No goals. Not setting any goals, but I just can’t wait to get it back on."

After beginning his summer with a tour of prospective suitors (including the Chicago Bulls, Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers), Anthony eventually elected to return to New York. Maybe it was loyalty. Maybe it was the larger-than-life presence of new team president Phil Jackson.

Maybe it was the five years and $124 million, an amount no other organization could offer.

Indeed, it emerged this month that the deal is even sweeter than once thought.

"New York Knicks star Carmelo Anthony is set to receive large portions of his $124 million contract in advance payments, according to people familiar with the matter," reports The Wall Street Journal's Chris Herring. "The seven-time All-Star will receive half of his $22.5 million salary this season early. His contract is set up the same way for future years too, meaning that he'll eventually garner a little over $62 million, half the value of his entire deal, through advance payments."

In other words, the Knicks took good care of their franchise player—both in terms of the contract's net worth and in terms of the expeditious delivery of that money.

In turn, Anthony appears to be taking the next chapter of his career quite seriously.

The latest photographic evidence indicates he's in the best shape of his pro career:

It may seem like a strange juncture to undergo such a drastic change, but it also just might aid in Anthony's pursuit of those playoffs.

As ESPNNewYork.com's Ian Begley observed, "Carrying less weight is certainly a positive when you consider the length of Anthony's contract. It's fair to assume his body will be less susceptible to nagging injuries if he has less weight on his frame."

This is also about the long haul.

Begley separately reports that one of the reasons behind the weight loss was, "To make sure he’s healthy enough to play at a high level through the life of his new five-year Knicks deal."

"In anything, you get older, and getting leaner and lighter helps with the longevity of your career," Idan Ravin (Anthony’s trainer) told Begley. "He’s played a lot of years. He puts a lot of mileage on his legs, so the leaner and lighter you are, obviously the better."

Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

The New York Post's Marc Berman cited a confidant claiming, "He wants to be a facilitator in the triangle and speed will help that," but Begley refutes that notion, writing that, "Ravin also said that Anthony’s training wasn't related to any plan to increase his minutes at small forward in the coming season or to adapt to the Knicks' new triangle offense."

Anthony's pursuit of longevity is admirable, but one wonders if his new and improved physique could yield more immediate dividends. 

And that physique aside, could a renewed Carmelo have a career-season—perhaps an MVP season?

Improbable as that may sound, recall that most of the criticism surrounding Anthony involves his mixed effort on the defensive end. It's not a question of skill—it's a question of focus and determination. In other words, it's probably the kind of thing that could be solved by some additional commitment. The kind of commitment Anthony's already demonstrated with respect to his body.

Anthony finished the 2012-13 season third in MVP voting after averaging 28.7 points and 6.9 rebounds. But without the kind of defensive pedigree for which LeBron James has become renowned, the 11-year veteran has consistently failed to secure the league's top individual honor.

Early into that season—after having played a starring role in Team USA's gold-winning Olympic effort—there was a sense that Anthony had begun turning the corner defensively.

Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

"I know I can [play defense]," Anthony said in November of 2012, per Yahoo Sports' Marc J. Spears. "It's not a matter of me not being able to do it. It was me just saying, 'OK, I'm going to do it now.' We have a coach that stays on me about it. There wasn't a defensive system since I came to New York, but with Coach Woodson it was just a matter of putting our system in, having a full training camp." 

But criticisms persisted once the season was over. 

One scout told Begley in the summer of 2013:

At times he just gives up on plays a little bit, as opposed to being locked in all the time, ... It's not that he can't do it. He can be a really good defensive player. He can defensive rebound, he can keep guys in front, he can pressure the ball. So when you see him [give up], you become a little disappointed because you know he can do that. He can do anything on the basketball floor. He sort of cheats the game a little bit in that regard.

The bad news is these issues have followed Anthony for years now, ever since his days with the Denver Nuggets. The good news is—in theory—these problems can be fixed.

That would be a start, though perhaps not a sufficient one.

Anthony's MVP chances took a serious blow last season, thanks in large part to his Knicks missing the playoffs and finishing with a disappointing 37-45 record.

He finished just 15th in MVP voting, fading almost entirely from the conversation despite tallying a career-high 8.1 rebounds per contest, along with a predictably gaudy 27.4 points per game.

More than any individual adjustment, Anthony's chances of resurfacing in that conversation depend heavily upon New York's ability to win some games. Leaders of disappointing teams are rarely rewarded.

So while Anthony will first need to demonstrate unprecedented defensive prowess, he'll also depend on the rest of the club to do its part. With head coach Derek Fisher now running the show, there's certainly the chance that a cultural shift sparks broader resurgence among the Knicks.

There's also a possibility that Jackson's infectious winning ways will trickle down to those who need them one way or the other.

Notwithstanding everything else that has to go right, Anthony also needs a standout campaign, of course—the kind Kevin Durant had with the Oklahoma City Thunder last season. While the Knicks have little hope of collectively dominating like OKC, Anthony has the tools to carry his team.

And if he does it on both ends of the floor, it becomes increasingly difficult to deny his MVP credentials.

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