by Kevin Daly:
It made sense for the Knicks to make the move for Carmelo Anthony. At least I thought so. The Knicks were over .500 at the time of the trade and had a well-balanced attack of Raymond Felton, rookie Landry Fields, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, and Amar’e Stoudemire. Additionally, the team was poised to make the playoffs for the first time in 7 years, yet trading for Carmelo was the “right” thing to do for a few reasons.
The first was that Stoudemire needed some help. The guy had been playing out of his mind for much of the season, but at the cost of being near the top of the league in minutes played and receiving extra defensive attention regularly. Knowing Stoudemire’s past misfortunes with injuries, the Knicks were concerned with the toll being taken on his body. He needed someone else to shoulder the load, especially at the end of games, on a consistent, dependable basis. The Knicks were never going to be a dangerous playoff team when opponents only had to pay extra attention to Stoudemire.
Enter Carmelo. The eighth-year All-Star was set to enter free agency at the end of the 2010-2011 season and seemed set to take the LBJ route and move on to greener pastures. He was rumored to have his sights set on the Big Apple, especially due to his own – and his wife’s – New York roots. The guy even married in New York. In the minds of Knicks fans, that spelled destiny, and it was only a matter of time before the Brooklyn (and Baltimore) native donned the blue and orange.
Anthony repeatedly butted heads with coach George Karl and often displayed a questionable amount of effort on the defensive end of the court. Despite those red flags, his scoring ability was unquestionable. With him and Stoudemire, the Knicks would have a genuine two-pronged attack AND the potential makings of a superteam in New York. Thanks to the Miami Heat, the “superteam” idea became one of unprecedented possibility. If the cooler talk was not about the Miami Heat, it was about who could step up and stop Mike Miller, Mario Chalmers, and the South Beach gang.
Getting Carmelo did not make the Knicks automatic contenders, but it made stopping the Heat, a.k.a. contending, possible. The team – pre-Carmelo – was never going to go further than the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Adding a second star gave the Knicks a legitimate response to the James-Wade duo.
Despite Carmelo’s pending free agency (if he signed elsewhere in the summer, Denver would have been left empty-handed), the Nuggets demanded a king’s ransom for their star. The Knicks – knowing they potentially had a very good thing going with their wealth of young players – were hesitant to give away half their roster; however, James Dolan and the MSG corporate Deathstar’s desire for star power eventually held precedence over such worries. Trading for a great player such as Anthony always requires a big sacrifice/risk by the other team: dealing talent was a given, but the amount that the Knicks ultimately surrendered was terrifying. In return, the Knicks got Carmelo and Cool Hand Chauncey Billups. Billups, Anthony, and Stoudemire were instantly hailed as the new Big Three, albeit one equivalent to that in Miami only if Bosh, James, and Wade each recently consumed a Four Loko.
The trade stripped New York of the depth that it had enjoyed for a full half of a season, and forced the team to rely heavily on the irrepressible Jared Jeffries and Bill Walker. The play of Fields and Amar’e regressed following the trade and the team was eventually swept in the first round of the playoffs by the Boston Celtics, but the team had the “needs time to adjust” excuse. The team’s lack of playoff success was predominantly charged to the team’s poor health – Stoudemire was sidelined for a significant part of the series, Billups the series’ entirety.
It was the Nuggets’ post-Carmelo success that carried more intrigue. Denver went 18-7, led the league in points per game, and gave up roughly 10 less points a game. The new-look Nuggets played an exciting, up-tempo style of team basketball that energized the city and caused many to declare the Nuggets as the “winner” of the blockbuster trade. Like the Knicks, the Nuggets eventually lost in the first round of the playoffs – to the Oklahoma City Thunder in 5 games. The Nuggets’ newfound, successfully D’Antonian style suggests that the Nuggets’ slower, half court style had as much to do with Carmelo as anything else.
As I said in my previous post, this is the season, with the offseason additions of rookie Iman Shumpert, Baron Davis, and NBA champion Tyson Chandler, that the Knicks were supposed to assume the role as big boys in the Eastern Conference playground. On paper, the team’s frontcourt was the best in the league, and Anthony’s readiness to take on a point-forward role in the offense would cover for the team’s iffy guard situation.
While it was unfair to blame Carmelo for the team’s stagnation last season, this season has proven that he has been a cancer to the play of Amar’e Stoudemire and Landry Fields. Neither player has much confidence in his game right now. Before the trade last season, both players, especially Fields, excelled in the team’s free-flowing offense. The Raymond Felton-Amar’e Stoudemire pick-n-roll combo was a huge part of the team’s attack. Felton’s passes led to easy baskets for Stoudemire and for open teammates on the perimeter when defenses collapsed on Amar’e. Fields was a steady recipient of these passes and shot 3’s at a very respectable 40% mark. The team’s utter lack of a middle-of-the-road/decent passer has taken away a huge part of Stoudemire’s, Landry’s, and other teammates’ ability to score easy baskets.
With that said, the idea that D’Antoni’s system completely hinges on a good point guard is complete bull. Chris Duhon was the point guard for 2 full seasons. Chris Duhon. The problem with this Knicks team is not so much the team’s lack of a serviceable point guard as it is Carmelo’s unequaled ability to stop ball movement. He is one of the top scorers on the team, but he refuses to defer. When Melo gets the ball, he needs to size up his defender before even considering the preposterousness of making the extra pass to an open teammate. By the time he passes the ball, his teammates are often in an unfavorable position to receive it. They then have to try to create offense by their own devices – which gets ugly quickly when Jared Jeffries and Iman Shumpert are on the court. Easy baskets have been tough to come by for the Melo-era Knicks. The team – 27th in the league in assists per game – is averaging more than 3 fewer assists per game than the last 3 D’Antoni-led Knicks teams.
This is widely regarded to be the most talented Knicks team in years, yet scoring has been so much harder to come by. Many people have been pointing to the team’s abysmal .304% 3-point shooting percentage this season, but the problem is not the shooters as much as it is the shots. Obviously, the loss of players like Gallinari, Billups, and Shawne Williams – guys D’Antoni loved for their shooting prowess – has not helped the team’s shooting, but without the success of the pick’n’roll drive and kick from seasons past, perimeter shots that would be open in the past are now often contested.
Put everything together, and you get the team’s current position of 17th in points per game this season. If Spike Lee was told that this would be the Knicks’ scoring rank before the season started, his reaction, along with that of many other Knicks fans, would most likely be, “You’ve got to be kidding.” In D’Antoni’s first 2 seasons with the Knicks, the team’s PPG ranked 4th and 10th, respectively. Remember, Chris Duhon was the point guard. Last year, the first in D’Antoni’s tenure where the team actually had talent, the team ranked 2nd.
Regardless of where the Knicks go from here in the season, I believe that the Carmelo Anthony trade was one of the worst in recent league history. The Decision changed the name of the free agency game. The Carmelo trade was the first example of superstar compensation – Nuggets GM Masai Ujiri and the Denver front office made sure of that. It was the first time where a team traded its “franchise” player – and got BETTER. The Knicks, on the other hand, got worse. The Carmelo trade put the team in win now mode – yet they are further from contention than they were a season ago.
It’s also clear that the team needs a leader. Tyson Chandler brings leadership on the defensive end, but there is not That Guy on offense. Carmelo calling (and taking) all the shots for the game’s last 2-3 minutes does not come close to cutting it. Amar’e was The Guy before the trade, but is completely lost without a competent playmaker and has no set role in the offense – especially when Carmelo goes into his twisted version of hero mode.
Is it any way that Amar’e has not thought about this? For a few months, he was King of MSG, the guy who was responsible for FINALLY bringing relevance back to New York basketball. He had been in MVP discussions, and the Carmelo trade was supposed to be help, a step forward – not a step back.
The problem is that Carmelo hasn’t changed his game like he was supposed to. The Knicks failed in the LeBron James sweepstakes, but Carmelo was supposed to be one hell of a consolation. He hasn’t been the creator that Knicks fans dreamed him of becoming, only the scorer that everyone already knew he was. And while I obviously don’t know the guy and won’t pretend to, it still always seems to be about numero uno. I understand that his expected role is completely different than it was in Denver, but the adjustment period was supposed to be last season, not now.
When the Knicks lost to the Bucks last week, Amar’e Stoudemire was shown alone sitting on the bench, with a towel draped over his head and a mixed expression of disbelief and weariness. While the losses and ensuing scrutiny have been clearly affecting Stoudemire, Carmelo has not been sitting beside him on that bench. Instead, Anthony has preferred to spend his time continuing to fire up contested shots, complaining to referees with every other missed shot and mouthing off to opponents, as he did with the Bucks’ Brandon Jennings once the game was all but out of reach. Carmelo has to put the team first – and that can only happen if he stops being what he wants and starts at least trying to be what the team needs.
Will it happen? Probably not. Eight-and-a-half year veterans typically don’t change their spots. He’ll continue to ponder what he can do differently, but odds are that it won’t translate into rebirth as a facilitator/catch-and-shooter. For now, the team hopes that Baron Davis will be the answer to the team’s passing problems once he’s healthy. He’ll help, but once the ball hits Carmelo’s hands, the offense will revert to its stagnant ways. In order for the team to realize what it can be, Carmelo has to be more than 26 points a game, 7 rebounds, and a mountain of misses.