Through the tumult of the New York Knicks’ disappointing 2013-14 season, it was easy to see past the sequoia-thick silver lining of Carmelo Anthony authoring arguably the best season of his 12-year NBA career.
That was hardly consolation for Anthony himself, who very nearly wound up bolting for the more championship-ready Chicago Bulls, before finally agreeing to terms on a fresh, five-year, $124 million deal to stay in New York.
Despite a slew of mostly lateral moves, the Knicks are by no means seen as a conference powerhouse heading into the 2014-15 slate. Still, Phil Jackson has managed to improve his team on the fringes, while the addition of Jose Calderon alone gives Anthony the pure point-guard playmaker he’s never had.
So should Knicks fans expect an encore performance from their franchise cornerstone?
One thing we can count on is a drastic change in offensive philosophy, from the isolation-heavy sets that defined the Mike Woodson era to Jackson and head coach Derek Fisher’s triangle-inspired system.
Indeed, Jackson spoke to precisely this point during a July press conference, relayed here by ESPN New York’s Fred Katz:
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.
Yet, while Anthony’s reputation as a shameless gunner has become something of a basketball gospel, his career assist mark—3.1 per game, to go along with a wholly respectable 15.8 percent assist rate—imparts some hope that a change of schematic scenery could do wonders for the All-Star forward’s all-around game.
Assuming, of course, that Anthony sees vessels worthy of his trust around him. That, in the end, might be Jackson and Fisher’s biggest test.
The good news: Even Anthony admitted, during an interview with Raul Alzaga of PrimeraHora.com, that this season could be another somewhat painful prelude to bigger and better things. He said it would take time to be a championship team, and that's not a realistic expectation for this season, although he's very much invested in the process (translation h/t to Brett Pollakoff of Pro Basketball Talk).
For Jackson, that process involves outfitting the Knicks with more triangle-conducive pieces. Calderon, whom New York acquired in a predraft trade that sent Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton to the Dallas Mavericks, being the opening salvo to that strategic symphony.
In Calderon, Anthony will have the ideal triangle complement: a player who, for all his defensive shortcomings, possesses both the poise and playmaking ability to keep the offense humming harmoniously along. And the 41 percent career three-point rate doesn’t hurt, either. Pablo Prigioni, meanwhile, gives the Knicks an equally triangle-friendly backup.
As for the rest of the roster, question marks abound. For all their offensive skills, Andrea Bargnani and Amar’e Stoudemire don’t exactly fit the mold of the playmaking triangle center. Ditto Samuel Dalembert and Cole Aldrich, two centers likely to round out the team’s post depth.
And while New York’s wings could prove a strength—J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Tim Hardaway Jr. all being capable shooters, albeit with varying degrees of pass-aversion—how Fisher manages those minutes looms large in terms of the team’s on-court chemistry.
Still, taken as a whole and considering the offensive makeover afoot, Anthony has to feel far better about his team’s prospects now than he did even a few short months ago.
Conceptually, the triangle—by virtue of its built-in dynamism—will allow Melo to both operate as a playmaker from the elbow, while affording him ample open looks from the wings (although he was considerably more efficient from the left than the right last season, per Vorped).
All the while, baseline cutters (Shumpert and Hardaway could be dangerous in this regard) and spot-up shooters (the aforementioned wings, as well as Calderon, Prigioni and perhaps even rookie Cleanthony Early) should spare Anthony the burden of relying too heavily on his role as basketball bully.
Writing at Bleacher Report, Sean Hojnacki emphasized that, for Anthony, thriving in the triangle is less about reinventing himself than it is about readjusting his approach:
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.
Even if Anthony’s scoring goes down, his efficiency and assist rate could be poised for career clips. On the flip side, reducing Melo’s raw shot attempts mean fans should expect his rebounding (he registered a career high 8.1 per game a season ago, 1.9 of them on the offensive glass) to take a bit of a hit.
Defensively, it’s likely Anthony will remain what he’s always been: mostly passable, with dashes of lock-down aggressiveness and flagrant nonchalance sprinkled in.
Being the all-world talent Melo is, the statistics will take care of themselves. More important from Jackson and Fisher’s perspective is whether their hardwood warhorse can become the leader New York needs, not only for this team this season, but through the rebuild to come as well.
Judging by his well-publicized recent weight loss—part of the goal of which, a source told the New York Post's Marc Berman, was to “be a facilitator in the triangle”—Anthony seems committed to assuring that’s not a faith placed in vain.
With the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers looking like the lone sure things in a still-inferior Eastern Conference, the Knicks are one of many teams whose fortunes could veer in wildly different directions.
For New York, much hinges on Fisher’s ability to make his team’s triangle transition as seamlessly as possible, along with the players’ willingness to both buy into the system and pay out something resembling their potential worth.
With so many X-factors in play, next season guarantees to be a complicated calculus for the Knicks. Good thing, then, that they can still count on one of the game’s steadiest and most spectacular constants.