BROOKLYN — Carmelo Anthony returns to Madison Square Garden Saturday night for the first time since being traded by the Knicks. This makes it a good time to point out that Anthony's old team has a better record than the new, purportedly super one he joined.
That's going to be the storyline over the next few days. The Thunder, having added Anthony (along with Paul George) to a roster boasting reigning MVP Russell Westbrook, arrive in New York owners of an entirely mediocre and disappointing 14-14 record. The Knicks, having lost their star in Anthony, were supposed to collapse, and yet have a 15-13 record following Thursday's 111-104 win over the Brooklyn Nets.
That's what we'll be hearing about—how the Thunder's struggles coupled with the Knicks' surprisingly solid start serve as proof that for all those playoff-less years (four straight) when Anthony was the guy anchoring the team down.
So, is that a fair line to draw?
"I don't know if you can ever draw a comparison when a guy goes to another team. There are so many factors that go into it," Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek told Bleacher Report Thursday morning before a team practice. "Sometimes it takes a while. I don't see how you can ever compare those."
There's an important truth in Hornacek's words: Life is rarely black and white.
Carmelo spent six-plus years in New York, yet advanced past the first round of the playoffs just once. His teams missed the postseason more times than they made it. He ran out coaches (Mike D'Antoni) and teammates (Jeremy Lin). He clashed, personally and/or schematically, with other All-Stars like Amar'e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler. He didn't move the ball. He didn't play much D. He complained when asked to play power forward.
And he didn't win many games.
But is it fair to toss all that losing at his feet, to say that the Thunder's early-season struggles show that losing is something that follows Anthony wherever he goes?
"There is no one answer, it's just different situations and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't," Kristaps Porzingis told Bleacher Report. "It's not like there's one thing that can explain it, only one thing that you're doing wrong. It's not like that. It's never like that."
Porzingis is talking about context. And so think of it like this: Perhaps Carmelo was never the perfect player. Perhaps he was never as great as he thought he was.
But for a stretch of time, he was a top-10 player, a lethal scorer who could be elevated if put in the right situation, like he was in 2013. That season, Anthony led the league in scoring, finished third in MVP voting, and carried the Knicks—who, behind his transcendent play morphed into an electric, small-ball, three-point happy attack—to 54 wins.
That September, the Knicks responded by demoting the man responsible for constructing that team, Glenn Grunwald. This, just two years after ousting venerable basketball mind Donnie Walsh.
Anthony instead would have to do his winning while saddled to Phil Jackson.
"You know, if Phil wasn't here and Carmelo's still here, we'd probably still try to (play our current style)," Hornacek said. "We tried to do that a little at the beginning of last year, so there could be probably some similarities. It'd be kind of like what we're doing now and Carmelo might not mind that, I don't know."
None of this is meant to absolve Anthony. There's a reason he's never glimpsed the peaks LeBron James, his friend and fellow 2003 draft class member, has reached. Anthony was never willing to stretch himself the ways LeBron does, be it by involving his teammates, devoting himself to defense or playing various positions. And that he's now on a team with so much talent, shooting just 40 percent from the field and posting a career-low player efficiency rating (14.1) certainly isn't boosting his case.
But to use his recent struggles as a mechanism for re-litigating his time with the Knicks would be foolish. Anthony is now 33 years old and years past his prime, barely a facsimile of the player he once was. Case in point: He's rarely taking the ball to the rim and is one of the worst in the league at finishing in that area, according to Cleaning the Glass.
He was once a great player. Perhaps not perfect, but great nonetheless. Maybe he never rounded out his game the way many hoped he would, but he still struck fear in opponents. His failing was that he wasn't LeBron—he wasn't a player who could elevate everything around him, no matter how bleak.
That's a tough bar, one only a few players in the history of the game have been able to clear.
For the rest, even All-Star-caliber studs like Carmelo, winning is a team effort, one where player and team feed into one another and raise the whole enterprise up.
That is the lesson of Carmelo Anthony's career. Winning is complicated and hard. Anthony may be at fault for never fully grasping just how difficult. But if there's anything we've learned from his time in New York and now OKC, it's that in this failure, he's not alone.