Can Carmelo Anthony Be Top Star on True NBA Title Contender?December 11, 2013
Citizens of New York, let me ask you a question.
Before I pose you said question, check your loyalties at the door. Look at the New York Knicks through an objective lens and view Carmelo Anthony as any other superstar, one you aren't particularly attached to or prepared to lambaste.
Would you build a title hopeful around 'Melo as your top star? Not necessarily the only star or one of many celebrated players. The top star.
No need to answer just yet. It's actually preferred you don't. Sit on it for a while. Give Anthony the benefit of the doubt. Then, when you've digested all the facts, ask yourself again.
Would you do it? Would you build your contender around 'Melo, just as the slumping Knicks are trying to? Or is he better suited as the sidekick to someone else?
Lack of Playoff Success
That's the number of playoff berths Anthony's teams secured through his first decade in the NBA.
That's the number of times those same teams have gone past the first round.
That's the number of championships Anthony has won.
Three different numbers, for three different layers of the player 'Melo is. Never before has he suffered through a stretch like the Knicks are putting him through now. Say what you want about his playing style and leadership, Anthony's teams win—to an extent.
LeBron James doesn't have 10 consecutive playoff berths under his belt. Nor does Dwyane Wade. Kobe Bryant doesn't either. Anthony's teams, in their own way, have won. Every year, like clockwork, they're in the postseason, one of the final 16 teams fighting for a title.
But that's as far as they go. The conference finals are as far as they've ever gone (2009). And forget about the NBA Finals; Anthony has never been there. Not even once, and that's not only on 'Melo.
Losing is a team effort. Just like it takes an entire group to win, it takes a whole team to lose. No failed campaigns or spans of ringless basketball are on one player alone. Anthony isn't the sole reason his Nuggets and Knicks teams haven't won a title.
Yet it's not about the championships. Absence of a title matters, but it's not everything.
Different tunes would be sang if Anthony-led squads had incurred moderate levels of success. Consistently reaching the second round, multiple conference finals appearances, NBA Finals sightings—whatever. Anything that would show Anthony's teams were viable threats and not habitual postseason stepping stones.
But all they have—all he has—is that one Western Conference Finals series, to go along with one other second-round cameo and an octave of first-round exits.
Always Been a No. 1
Irresolute roles could change everything.
For 'Melo to have failed as a top dog, he must've frequently been a top dog. Waffling back and forth between a No. 1 option and something else, be it a No. 2 or 1B to another's 1A, would absolve him from much of the blame.
Anthony has only ever been the top star on his teams, though. From Denver to New York, contingents have been assembled around him. For him.
There has never been a "better" star he's taken a backseat to. With the Nuggets, he was surrounded by Kenyon Martin, Nene, Allen Iverson, Chauncey Billups and briefly, Ty Lawson, among others, none of whom superseded Anthony on or off the court. The Nuggets were his team for the first seven-plus seasons of his career.
More of the same awaited him in New York, where the Knicks have attempted to enrich his days with better players than he had in Denver, not players who are actually better than him.
Not even Amar'e Stoudemire, who was with the Knicks first, overrode 'Melo in authority. Upon his arrival in 2011, the Knicks became 'Melo's team. And if not STAT, arguably the biggest name Anthony has ever been paired with, then who? Tyson Chandler? Funny. Andrea Bargnani? Cute. J.R. Smith? Mean.
Anthony hasn't been bedeviled by inconstant standing. For over a decade, he's been the most talented player in the locker room.
Locker rooms that remain barren of any championship hardware or patterned memories of postseason success.
Evolving Hasn't Worked
One of Anthony's greatest flaws: He's not LeBron. Or Durant. Or even Paul George. He's often ridiculed for his scoring, because he's never done much else. Moreover, he's never seemed motivated to do much else.
"My game is not gonna really change much," he told reporters before the season, per Hoopsworld's Tommy Beer. "My game is pretty much set in stone."
When your game has only yielded limited playoff success, and your team lost one of its key leaders to retirement (Jason Kidd), that's not what everyone wants to hear. Plans to change and whispers of evolution—that's what they want to hear. They want to see you're prepared to do what's necessary.
That's what 'Melo has done, or tried to at least.
The 2013-14 campaign hasn't been particularly kind to him or anything. He's still scoring 25-plus points while shooting under 45 percent from the floor. Standard stuff, really. But he's made a concerted effort in other areas of the game.
With Tyson Chandler out, he's bringing down 9.6 rebounds a night, which would easily be a career high. According to NBA.com's player tracking data, he's also generating 6.4 assist opportunities per game, a respectable number when you consider Durant is at 8.8 and George at 7.4.
Isolations are no longer as prominent in his offensive sets, either. They still account for more than a fifth of his total touches, per Synergy Sports (subscription required), down nearly six percentage points from last season.
But making more of the right passes and grabbing more rebounds hasn't been enough. The fact that he's already posted more double-doubles than all of 2011-12 (eight) and the same number as last year (10) hasn't kept the Knicks from plummeting in the standings. And whatever change he's undergone hasn't translated to the defensive end.
Anthony has never been considered a stout two-way player. Erratic defensive displays have earned him countless "one-dimensional" cries. Sometimes the effort's there; other times it's not.
Leading a contender takes that two-way dominance. Proof is in the pudding, or in this case, 'Melo's peers.
Anthony's 108 defensive rating ranks fourth highest among all forwards who play at least 30 minutes per game, and is right in line with his career average of 107, paling in comparison to Durant (105), LeBron (102) and George (99).
Even the "evolution" 'Melo has undergone is flawed. Off the glass, he remains a one-way superstar. And the Knicks remain a laughingstock.
When must we stop believing in coincidences?
Built to Lead or Follow?
Alone. That's what Anthony is right now. No other star is on New York's roster, nor is any help on the way.
Complementary pieces like Smith, Chandler, Bargs and even STAT haven't given 'Melo the 1B he was promised. Never having a (healthy) Wade or Russell Westbrook by his side leaves much to be determined, but we know enough.
We know that Anthony's game isn't that of a Durant or LeBron. That he's headlined teams for over a decade and has little playoff success to show for it. We know he doesn't have the answers.
"We wanted to come out and start the game off a little bit differently tonight," Anthony said following the Knicks' 15-point loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, per the New York Daily News' Peter Botte. "But we didn’t. We dug ourselves a hole and we had to fight back...I don’t have any answers right now."
Stars in Anthony's position must have answers. Some kind of answers. The Knicks are wasting golden opportunities in a weak Atlantic Division, and nothing Anthony's said or done has changed that. Not scoring more, not scoring less.
It's left him to dream of last season, when the Knicks won 54 games and were guided by savvy veterans other than himself, per the New York Post's Marc Berman:
That makeup of the team was different [last year]. With J-Kidd, he was a leader in his own right. He wasn’t a vocal leader like a Rasheed [Wallace] or Kurt Thomas. He was leader by example on the court. His hard work, his play, everyone fed off that. And everyone led in their own way. Now we do miss that — J-Kidd, Kurt and Rasheed. Last year as a team we were more synchronized than right now due to chemistry, due to having fun, due to just having one another’s back.
The Knicks need Anthony to be their Kidd. Their Rasheed Wallace. They need him to lead by example, which he hasn't.
Not to say he hasn't tried. There's a certain edge to him on the court, triggered by an apparent sense of urgency. Watch as he tries to be more vocal. Make note of how engaged he is. Some of his efforts have been inspiring.
They just haven't been—here comes that word again—enough. They haven't always kept the ball moving on offense or the Knicks together on defense. They haven't led to victories. Anthony hasn't been enough.
"Do it hurt? Hell yeah, it hurts," 'Melo said of losing and staying positive, via Botte. "Losing hurts. The way we’re losing hurts. But I will remain positive. I don’t know how to fake it. I don’t know how to put on a face for that."
He cannot fake commanding leadership, either. Or two-way prowess true contenders need. Anthony, as a the primary superstar, cannot pilot a championship convoy. He needs to be the D-Wade to his own LeBron. The Westbrook to his own Durant. He needs to be the sidekick to another outspoken, more talented star.
More than a decade later, that's what hurts the most.
*All stats were compiled from Basketball-Reference, NBA.com and Synergy Sports (subscription required), and are accurate as of Dec. 11, 2013 unless otherwise noted.