Phil Jackson, Knicks Doomed by Wanting Carmelo to Be Something He Is Not

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterFebruary 7, 2017

NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 01:  Carmelo Anthony #7 of the New York Knicks looks on late in the final Quarter of their 95-90 win against the Brooklyn Nets  at the Barclays Center on February 1, 2017 in New York City.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
Al Bello/Getty Images

It is a common story in sports.

Often, it's a parent. Occasionally, it's a friend.    

An inordinate amount of times, it's a coach or mentor.

Someone wants it more for the athlete than the athlete wants it for himself.

You can't just download someone else's vision for achievement, greatness or even teamwork into a particularly gifted body.

Yet the dream that you can push and prod or show and sell remains so enchanting…until there comes a point where there's no more advice to give, no more frustration to stand and then no more chance for the dream to come true.

This is where Phil Jackson, such a coach and mentor and even trusted friend to Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, has wound up with Carmelo Anthony.

Jackson undoubtedly overestimated his own ability—perhaps you've heard something lately about the no-trade clause he gifted to Melo in 2014—to kindle Anthony's evolution from superstar to winning superstar.

Anthony is a likable person who just happens to be nothing near Jordan or Bryant in will to win. No, Jackson never thought Anthony had that fire, but he thought he could balance Anthony's ball dominance by teaching teamwork and converting talent into a clear net positive.

That was part of the formula with Jordan and Bryant.

This season has further disproved that formula with Anthony.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 31: Carmelo Anthony #7 of the New York Knicks looks on against the Washington Wizards during the first half at Verizon Center on January 31, 2017 in Washington, DC. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by dow
Patrick Smith/Getty Images

A solid start to the 2016-17 campaign has deteriorated. Anthony is avoiding anything outside his comfort zone, bristling at criticism of his style and resisting attempts for Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek to incorporate more team ball.

Since arriving, Jackson has switched out every player on the roster around Anthony—almost two times over. It's fair to question whether he brought in the right players, but the goal in his three offseasons, as different as they were, was to give Anthony established veterans and thus a chance at real teamwork, even as Kristaps Porzingis is learning the nuances of the NBA.

But Anthony is who he is, addicted to his individual success no matter the experience or insight put around him to teach him something more. After posting a career-high 4.2 assists per game last season, Anthony has regressed on that front, averaging his lowest number of assists (2.9 per game) since 2012-13.

The great irony of it is that his 2014 decision to re-sign with the Knicks should have told Jackson all he needed to know about his will to win.

Anthony could have turned down Jackson's offer—no-trade clause, 15 percent trade kicker and all—to go to the potentially title-ready Chicago Bulls. It would have entailed sacrificing money and settling for the "Second City," which Anthony deemed beneath him while also shuddering at the prospect of the glitzy "Melo" brand in Houston or Dallas.

The argument that he is just loyal doesn't hold water given how Anthony forced his way out of Denver. And the argument that he only wants to win in the Big Apple is undercut right off the bat by how he forced the Knicks to surrender young assets to the Nuggets to be paid what he wanted in New York.

DENVER, CO - MARCH 13: Carmelo Anthony #7 of the New York Knicks and Danilo Gallinari #8 of the Denver Nuggets wait to resume play action during their game on March 13, 2013 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledge
Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

That brings us to today and all the speculation over whether Anthony might waive his no-trade provision to go to the potentially title-ready Los Angeles Clippers, Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics or even Toronto Raptors.

Anthony's ability to play a role with Team USA in mismatches against lesser competition—while getting outsized plaudits for being an experienced leader—is the only template for which other clubs see him fitting.   

But skepticism about Anthony's ability to adhere to a winning NBA team's existing style of play while not getting his usual share of shots runs rampant, according to league sources. That's why a team such as the Clippers, stuck between a can't-beat-the-Warriors rock and a basically hard-capped place salary-wise, is unconvinced Anthony is worth it unless merely swapping role players for him.

Brad Turner @BA_Turner

Knicks were team to reach out to Clippers, who listened, but not willing to move CP, BG or DJ in a deal

It'd be inane, however, for Jackson to trade Anthony without getting a surefire up-and-comer in return—and that's certainly not Austin Rivers—so the obstacles to any deal are considerable. Furthermore, look at the rankings of those contending teams in overall defensive rating, according to NBA.com, and consider how Anthony would drain them even further as he stands around on that end: Clippers 14th, Raptors 16th, Cavs 18th, Celtics 19th.

It's not a great fit for any team, and it's not what Anthony wants anyway.

Maybe LeBron James will be the latest to believe he can get more out of Anthony and force a Carmelo trade to Cleveland. It sure seems logical to think Anthony, especially by a longtime friend, can be sold on the idea of getting individual glory as a difference-maker for a team that goes on to take the title.

Except that goes back to others thinking he would or should want something more than he actually does.

We're overrating Anthony's will to win again.

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 07:  (NEW YORK DAILIES OUT)    Carmelo Anthony #7 of the New York Knicks greets LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers before their game at Madison Square Garden on December 7, 2016 in New York City. The Cavaliers defeated the
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

All objective evidence points to Anthony, when it comes down to it, wanting to stay in New York, no matter how unpleasant it becomes with the Knicks. He has talked at length about the importance of building his brand. He has openly referenced his family's feelings when talking about the possibility of a trade. And, most fundamentally, he has not requested a trade.

He has identified himself so strongly with New York that it's jarring to realize he actually has spent more of his career in Denver. Still, the most passionate we've ever seen him about his professional career was when he needed to get to New York to build his non-basketball brand—at the cost of the team he was joining.

No doubt, his positive qualities have come through over the years. People close to him in Denver tried to push back against the assumption that he was a punk, and he has exhibited real grace and growth in so many ways throughout his career as an NBA star. It was Anthony, remember, who helped lead his fellow players to speak out around the Black Lives Matter movement.

It's not even necessarily wrong that he wants to be famous in New York and have his family living comfortably there. He has his priorities.

And Anthony has unequivocally been one of the game's great scorers, so any criticism has to be put in context. But when the context is Jordan and Bryant and the idea that Jackson could guide Anthony in line behind them, we have our conclusive answer.

Jackson has had concerns for years about Carmelo not possessing a winning mentality despite having the rare ability, like Michael and Kobe, to create his own shot. And Jackson knows well how a star's mentality sets a tone for teammates, especially late in games. This skid that has sent the Knicks down to 12th place in the East has been almost entirely dictated by last-minute missteps. In the clutch, for the season, Anthony ranks 158th in the league in plus-minus, behind the likes of Philadelphia's Hollis Thompson and Atlanta's Mike Muscala to name but two.

NBA basketball player Carmelo Anthony and wife Lala arrive for 102nd White House Correspondents' Association Dinnerin Washington, DC, on April 30, 2016. / AFP / Andrew Biraj        (Photo credit should read ANDREW BIRAJ/AFP/Getty Images)

Perhaps Jackson's willingness to make Anthony (and himself) uncomfortable now is setting the table for something palatable for both parties in a trade come summer.

If his health is good, the 21-year-old Porzingis needs to get more of the Knicks' attention than Anthony, who looks unlikely to improve on his three NBA playoff series won before he turns 33 in May.

Porzingis needs more reps to improve his passing and takeover mentality. He needs more post-ups to get a feel for a different way of playing. And the Knicks need to help him fully understand how to use his 7'3" size as a weapon. (Turning and shooting over a guy is something he just started realizing he could and should do entering this season.)

That process is taking its time with Anthony and the attention he absorbs. But expecting Anthony to OK his own exit from New York remains a faulty premise.

Jackson and James clearly wanted their championships and worked for them.

They can't want for Anthony what he doesn't want deeply enough for himself.    


Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.


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