The Legacy of the 2012 UEFA Champions League

The soccer world has been a series of hangovers over the past couple of weeks.  The red of Manchester drank to forget a couple of weekends ago, while the city’s blue popped 44-year old champagne in celebration.  Chelsea and West Ham supporters reveled in victory last weekend, while  Tottenham, Blackpool, and Bayern Munich fans are probably still drinking.

The final part of the season is the Saturday night to the Sunday morning of late May and June.  This pandemonium of emotions from all ends of the spectrum leads into the hangover of the soccer year: that uncomfortable period when the season ends and the transfer market has hardly stirred.  The noise and news reach the highest pitches in the season’s home stretch, then flatline for several weeks after the final Saturday of Champions League football.

Thankfully, Euros wait just around the corner, at the hearts of European soccer: Poland and the Ukraine.  From the excitement of Dutch soccer to the morbid brutality of Irish play to all styles in between, the Euros will rival the London Olympics as the premier sporting event of the summer.

A significant portion of my Champions League viewing experience took place in a quaint pizzeria by my college.  The guy (I will call him Pizza Guy) who runs the place is a loyal Chelsea fan.  Despite our differences in allegiance, he accepts my Gooner loyalties with the jovial nature of a chef who casually spits in the food of his enemies.

When we aren’t identifying Manchester United players as closet members of the Illuminati, we have discussed the two titans of Iberian soccer in La Liga: Barcelona and Real Madrid.  Several weeks ago, before the semifinal contests kicked off, Pizza Guy told me, “I’m biased as a Chelsea fan, but I don’t want another Real-Barcelona match-up.  How do those teams happen to meet up in the finals?”

As Pizza Guy suggested, FIFA is corrupt.  It’s a known fact (Qatar is hosting the 2022 World Cup.  Qatar!).  While the scheduling for the semifinal games (Bayern Munich vs. Real Madrid in one leg, and Barcelona vs. Chelsea in the other) could have been chalked up as a coincidence, it seemed too perfect.

The two Spanish teams were neck-and-neck in the La Liga league race at the time, and the sides seemed as equal as they had been in years.  If you have two of the world’s most marketable teams, along with the two most marketable players in the world – Messi and Ronaldo, and combine that with  the most watched annual soccer game in the world, you get a more views, higher ratings, and more money.

FIFA undoubtedly knew this, but whether it factored into the drawings was ultimately inconsequential.  In the two-leg series, Chelsea survived its own Charge of the Light Brigade at the Camp Nou and Bayern Munich beat Real Madrid in the soccer version of Russian roulette: penalties.  The result was a final game that most people (including me) wanted.

A final between two underdogs – offensively dynamic Bayern Munich and resolute Chelsea.  Throw in the fact that both teams were missing several defensive starters, and the game seemed destined to be one of high-intensity and a high goal total.

“I don’t always choke, but when I do, it’s in front of a global audience.”

Tragically, this was not the case.  As often is the case, the promise offered by memorable semifinal series led to a disappointing game.  More than anything, this game has been heralded as the Moby-Dick to the Bavarian Team Ahab.  Robben choked – this time, on the Mount Everest of club soccer matches, rather than world soccer.  Ribery suffered an injury that must have felt a lot worse than looked, and Mario Gomez mucked the bed in front of goal.  Bayern’s 39 shots on goal, while a bit of an apparition, emphasizes the stranglehold that the German giants had on so much of the match.

While the Bayern players were largely responsible for wasting their best chances – ultimately manifested in the penalty shootout, Chelsea did just enough to frustrate and hold off many of Bayern’s advances.  As inconsistent as Cech has been this season, he stepped up when it mattered in the end.  He carried over his sublime play from the Barcelona series to this game, all the way to the penalty shootout.

The shootout fittingly ended when Cech got the slightest touch on Schweinsteiger’s shot, which deflected off the post, and when Drogba scored the final penalty.  While the Cote D’ Ivorian player tends to dive with the grace of a swan with two broken wings (not to mention wreck Arsenal defenses), I can’t help but admire the guy.  Unlike Lampard, Drogba has shown hardly any signs of aging in his play.  His all-out effort in the the second half of the season, especially in the second leg of the Chelsea-Barcelona game, was unbelievable.  He played better as a left back than Ashley Cole had for stretches of the season.

Hard work has alway been the way with Drogba.  He spent seasons on the Chelsea bench contending with the likes of Eidar Gudjonsson and Andriy Shevchenko for playing time before earning his way on to the field through drastic improvement. He responded to the £50 million acquisition of Fernando Torres, which many people saw as a surefire sign of owner Roman Abramovich/Lord Sidious pushing Drogba out the Stamford Bridge doors, by substantially outplaying him.

Most impressively, he also played a vital role in promoting peace in the Ivory Coast and played for his country in the 2010 World Cup with a broken arm.  In that respect, it was a perfect moment when Drogba scored that final penalty – an actual storybook moment, in a world full of media-injected Cinderella stories.

With all this said, Bayern lost because they became another example of a team that doesn’t take its chances and put the game to bed.  They did not, in part because their big guns shot blanks in the pivotal moments, but also because Chelsea was Bayern’s foil, in a sense.  Chelsea was a “the team of destiny,” as many American sportswriters like to say.  The Blues held off the heavily favored (and battered) Kings of Catalan is stunning fashion and had been a phoenix risen from the ashes since Di Matteo became The Sith Lord’s latest puppet.

Since Di Matteo’s hiring, Chelsea ditched pretty boy Andre Villa-Boas’ free-flowing style of play.  Frank Lampard played in a more defensive role, passing became more centralized, and Di Matteo used more consistent lineups.  Simple adjustments, really, but the change in results was undeniable.  The squad felt more stability and played with its trademark physical, albeit unflattening, style of play.  Even without John Terry, Ramires, Raul Meireles, and Branislav Ivanovic in the lineup against Bayern, the team stuck with what had been working and ended up with the UCL cup.

What struck me about this game was not only the lack of quality – the game’s only goals, by Muller and Drogba, should have been saved – but that, ultimately, this was a game of vindication for Chelsea.  Chelsea had deserved to beat Barcelona three years ago, but did not due to horrible officiating.  After the few peaks and many valleys that decorated the Chelsea season, the revenge at Camp Nou and the victory at the Allianz were long-awaited measures of poetic justice for the Blues.

Even though Torres obviously declared his displeasure with his role on the team, especially on that day, we all saw him with the Chelsea banner draped bandana-style over his head.  In many ways, the victory was vindication for Torres too.  He achieved elusive glory with Chelsea after an extremely difficult 18 months with the Blues.  In that moment, at least, there was no regret nor frustration for the one formerly known as “El Nino,” only jubilation.

At the end of that Saturday night in Munich, the legacy, no matter which way you look at it, rested with the 34-year old Ivorian.  Drogba capped his legacy with Chelsea with another goal to doom a North London side.  This time, however, it was not Arsenal.  Tottenham fans, by all means, continue to drown your sorrows, both now and in the Europa League next year.

LeBron James: Not Clutch?

After the Indiana Pacers beat the Miami Heat in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals series, the main story was, naturally, another instance of LeBron James’ inability to finish in crunch time.  LeBron has struggled in late-game situations, we all know this (LeBrick?  Genius!).  These struggles have fueled the masses of LeBron haters as he continues to build up on his history of choking in the clutch.

Too often, the word “clutch” becomes synonymously associated with pure luck.  There is often some degree of luck to hitting late-game shots – much more so than, say, completing an NFL pass, scoring a goal, or even getting a late-inning hit.  Luck in basketball typically applies to plays like Derek Fisher’s 3-pointer in Game 5 of the Western Conference Semifinals with 0.4 seconds left, Devin Harris’ half-court buzzer beater against the 76ers in February 2009, or even LeBron James’ buzzer-beating 3-pointer against the Magic in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals.  

What bothers me, more than anything, is the arbitrary use of the term.  Some people are absolutely stigmatized, like LeBron, while others aren’t.  I’m bored, so let’s take this further.

LeBron James is such an interesting case study because he has been the NBA’s best all-around player since Magic Johnson, and the best player over the past 8 seasons or so (not for the entire past 8 seasons, clearly, but generally speaking).  Yet, as Stephen A. Smith has said, after he dominates the game for 45 minutes, he has historically faded in the last 3 (save for the aforementioned buzzer-beater, Game 5 of the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals – where he scored 29 of the Cavaliers’ last 30 points in Jordanian fashion – and a small handful of other instances).

So what’s the reason for this?  While late-game situations compromise LeBron’s ability to create for his teammates – as the team’s superstars, he or Wade are essentially required to take the team’s final shots – and to reach the free-throw line  (referees tend to swallow their whistles at the end of games), clutch essentially relates to a player’s ability to score at the end of close and typically important games.  So let’s compare his shooting ability to, say, Kobe Bryant’s over the past few seasons.

While Kobe has been consistently superior to LeBron in free-throw shooting since James entered the league, he has been very statistically similar in jump shooting and even 3-point shooting over the past few seasons (also courtesy of Hoopdata.com).  Kobe’s ability to hit over 80% of his free throws throughout his career, contrary to popular belief, has not been the reason for his acclaim as a clutch performer.

The reason I bring up Kobe – besides his “clutch” reputation – is that he has, in a few ways, been the Larry Bird to LeBron’s Dominique Wilkins.  Clearly, it’s a far-from-perfect analogy: both current players are greater than the past legends, Bird was a big man while Kobe is a guard, Dominique did not have the all-around ability of LeBron.  Bird’s a Celtic, Kobe’s a Laker, the list goes on.  I get it.  Not perfect.  I’ve already committed a mortal sin in the eyes of many basketball fans with this connection, so let me try to explain.

Bird, for most of his career, had a much more consistent perimeter game than the athletically gifted Wilkins ever possessed.  Bird also had a much more vicious edge to his competitiveness than Wilkins (which says a lot more about Bird than Wilkins, who was also a fierce competitor).  But perhaps most importantly, while both players were two of the greatest scorers throughout the 1980s, Wilkins never came close to rivaling Bird’s championship pedigree.

While both Bird and Wilkins played at extremely high levels during their playoff careers – including in their head-to-head match ups – Bird’s ability in the game’s most important moments have much more weight because he had the championships to back him up.  He always did.  He also had Robert Parish, Kevin McHale, and Nate Archibald on his team.  Unlike Bird, Kobe Bryant struggled in the playoffs early in his career.  His early exposure to Finals play gave him invaluable mental and psychological preparation for the big moments that followed in his career

Similar to Bird, Kobe’s supporting cast also placed him in an early position to fight for championships and, as a result, helped him later in his career.  He always had the luxury of Shaquille O’Neal in the early part of his career, a guy who absorbed the pressure, embraced it, and took it along for the ride to help create the NBA’s most recent dynasty.  By the time Shaq left Los Angeles, Kobe had made the transition into a true star, even if it took a few seasons before he received adequate help to compete for championships again.

Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter were two very good big game performers for the Rockets and Nets, respectively; however, their lack of playoff success prevented them from winning the recognition as late-game performers that Kobe received for maintaining his standard level of play on the way to winning his 4th and 5th NBA titles against the Magic and Celtics.  Conclusion: big-time shots don’t establish “clutch” reputation as much as titles do.  Is this new information?  Probably not.  Let’s keep going.

In a way, Kevin Garnett was like LeBron James before he won his first championship: an unworldly talent trapped in a small market, always surrounded by mediocre talent.  A young Stephon Marbury, Sam Cassell, and Latrell Sprewell were the closest that Garnett ever got to legitimate help throughout his tenure in Minnesota.  When he joined Paul Pierce and Ray Allen in Boston before the 2007-08 season, there were mixed emotions of sympathy and joy for the guy.  He had spent 12 seasons on teams that, for the most part, made the current Wolves players look like All-Stars.

Side note: Many people forget how good Garnett was.  He led the Wolves in points per game, rebounds per game, and blocks per game year after year. He won MVP of the 2003-04 NBA season.  He even led the team in assists for a couple of seasons!  Easily one of the top seven players of the decade.

In his first season with Boston, he won the Defensive Player of the Year Award and served as the emotional catalyst for a team that was severely doubted for having a patchwork assortment of young, semi-promising talent and washed-up veterans surrounding the 3 stars of Allen, Pierce, and Garnett.  Despite the questions that surrounded the team, the Celtics prevailed and won their 17th NBA Championship that year.  He averaged 20.4 points a game, 10.5 rebounds a game, and just over a block per game (basketball-reference.com) throughout the playoff run; however, the team’s offensive performance down the stretch in close games against the Lakers in the Finals was more about the successes of Pierce, surprisingly good bench play, and some of the best team play in the past decade than Garnett.

Proof?  Garnett shot 59% from the field in the 4th quarter of  game decided by 10 points or fewer throughout the Celtics’ Eastern Conference playoff run; however, in the Finals, his shooting percentage dropped dramatically to 41%.  This stat, in the grand scheme of things, means very little, but that’s because the season ended in a championship (He improved in the 2010 NBA Finals, shooting 50% in the 4th quarter, even though the Celtics eventually fell to the Lakers in seven games.  Does this have any suggestion on LeBron’s potential improvement in his next Finals?  Probably not, but adjustment takes time.  I’ll talk more about this later).

Playoff experience and star teammates lead to more opportunities for individual players to perform at a high level on a big stage.  Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant are two prime examples of this development.

After a solid playoff run – and a superb series (on both ends) against Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls – LeBron’s shooting percentage, as in the case with Garnett, dropped  – by 9% – in the Finals, as pressure reached an all-time high.  Clearly, however, the circumstances are different with LeBron.  No matter what team he is on, he will always be the marquee name – the single ant burning underneath the magnifying glass.  James’ 4th quarter disappearing act supplanted every other storyline in the Finals.  The 2011 Finals became just as associated with LeBron’s failure as Dirk Nowitzki’s Mavericks success.

Side note: Dirk Nowitzki temporarily became hailed as the anti-LeBron or “the star who stayed” after the Mavericks defeated the Heat in last year’s NBA Finals.  The Mavericks’ ascendence as champions was the culmination of two factors (three if you count the Heat’s struggles with consistency). While Dirk has never had a fellow star player, he had a group of excellent role players that played exceptionally well and carried the scoring load for substantial periods of time of games.  Secondly, Dirk also struggled with past playoff struggles and labeling as a “choke” (2007 first-round upset to the Warriors, anyone?), which helped to mentally prepare him for later success.

Also unlike Garnett, the way in which LeBron joined other star players – free agency, as opposed to trades (technically, LeBron and Bosh were traded, but those trades were based on the players’ decisions to leave their old franchises) has also led him to attract an incomparably greater amount of scrutiny on his late-game shortcomings than Garnett ever received.

My main point is that team, and moderate player, success in high-intensity playoff atmospheres, combined with great teammate talent, are the key components for a player to become regarded as “clutch.”  Bryant had Shaq and Garnett had Pierce and Allen.  Heck, even Tim Duncan, who was excellent as a rookie in the playoffs, had David Robinson to help shoulder the load en route to his first of four championships.

A supporting crew of anonymous role players can never provide that support – as evidenced with LeBron James and the Cavaliers.

While he has dealt with high-intensity playoff atmospheres throughout his entire career, LeBron has never had that Shaq, or Pierce, or Robinson.  He had a Sprewell (not even New York Sprewell, but Minnesota pigtails Sprewell)  in Cleveland – Mo Williams, and maybe in a young Carlos Boozer – but that’s about it.  Wade and Bosh have raised the stakes to unprecedented levels, and LeBron has been taunted by his critics to win with the help that he supposedly welcomed.

If he had a teammate at that talent level early in his career, I believe that his playoff experience would have been less scrutinized for its failures.   A second star player would have helped to share the enormous weight that LeBron always carried in Cleveland.  He has Wade and Bosh now, but he didn’t mature with these guys – especially Wade.  They only have really learned to play together this year – primarily after Wade conceded to LeBron as the on-court leader.

Before Pippen, Jordan was an unbelievable scorer, but could not singlehandedly put a dent in the Celtics machine at that time.  After Pippen and Horace Grant joined the team in the 1987-88 season, and as the Celtics grew older, the Bulls molded into one of the Eastern Conference’s premier teams – along with the Celtics, Cavaliers, Hawks, and Pistons.  Jordan still needed Pippen to develop into an All-Star caliber player, along with the steady play of teammates like Bill Cartwright, Horace Grant, and John Paxton.

He won his first championship at age 28, which was only the beginning to the most decorated, illustrated, and finest example of dominance in NBA history.  LeBron is only 27 now.  Even though he has played more seasons than Jordan, he never had a teammate with Pippen’s talent before joining the Heat.  The fact that Jordan had the stability  of Pippen’s play and these solid supporting casts clearly does not belittle his accomplishments.  Rather, these factors made the championships possible.  

LeBron, Jordan, or any other player would never have been able to win with the Cavaliers teams on which team owner Dan Gilbert had stranded James for years.  The fact that he elevated the team to such a level, time after time (to the point where their shortcomings were largely ignored) speaks volumes of his accomplishments – more than most other players in the league’s history, or a handful of game-winning shots, would have been able to provide.

I understand that this post has been, to say the least, abstract and, most likely, unconvincing.  But what I’m really trying to communicate is that, in many ways, LeBron James’ career, up to this point, has been somewhat tragic.  Why?  He already has 3 MVPs, makes more money than he can spend, and has already been to to NBA Finals (how he did at that stage is another story).  But, despite all this, and despite already being one of the best players of all time, he has also already become one of the most polarizing.

The truth is that everyone expected him to be the heir to Jordan, and maybe he should have been.  The Decision shattered at least part of the public perception of what LeBron should be – a one-team living legend who stuck with his “hometown” team until championship glory.  But that was never going to happen (Dan Ferry wouldn’t part with J.J. Hickson to acquire Amare Stoudemire.  The biggest improvement in the team during LeBron’s seven seasons with the Cavaliers was through his own improvement – from great to MVP-level).

The fact that he had to go find his Pippen (or whatever you want to call it) rather than keep on waiting for the Cavaliers to get him one (and risk being like Garnett, who leaves his small-market team at the end of his prime, without a championship) means nothing.  His inability to consistently score in crunch time has been the defining severance with Jordan, even if much of this failure has been due to poor teammate play, instability, and crushing amounts of pressure.

For LeBron, unlike most other players in the public perception, anything but a championship is considered failure.  He has come to this conclusion too, not just because of his competitive nature, but because he knows it’s the only thing that matters to the masses of LeBron haters, and that it will be the only thing to quell the deafening levels of criticism, at least temporarily.  For me, beyond the differences of each player (Jordan and LeBron), this is how I see Jordan’s career and LeBron’s to this point.

Jordan was given bricks, cement, and a blueprint by the team, which told him “build what you can with this.”  The result: an impenetrable system that was not defeated until Jordan said so, aka decided to play baseball/retire.  LeBron, on the other hand, was given a few sticks, a drawing, and Wally Szczerbiak, and was able to build a kingdom, albeit one that kept getting knocked down in playoff time.

Whether on the Cavs or the Heat, steady help has been a problem.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

Each player, like it or not, was a soldier of fortune.  Whatever happens with the Heat will decide LeBron’s career path.  If Wade can’t stay healthy and the team continues to crumble around James, then the tragedy of unreasonable expectations for LeBron will continue.  If Wade can stay healthy, however, Bosh bounces back, and a supporting cast can stay intact, LeBron will get his ring soon.  There is a more established order on the team now, which will lead to a better chance of success in late-game situations.  If they make the Finals again this year, there will be a different outcome.  And the beginning of a new story for LeBron.

Mission Impossible: The New York Knicks

I published my last post on Carmelo Anthony when the Knicks were in glue-factory mode.  They were depressing, on and off the court.  Carmelo clearly had problems with the offensive system, Tyson Chandler was on an island down low – as Amare alternated from a disappearing act on offense to a matador on defense, even Mike D’Antoni’s mustache lacked its natural elegance.  Since then, the team has experienced a couple of remarkable resurgences – spearheaded by Jeremy Lin and Carmelo Anthony, a head coach firing, several serious injuries, and the emergence of J.R. Smith and Steve Novak as 3 point assassins/defensive nihilists.  The culmination of these events eventually resulted in a No. 6 seed for the Knicks, and a matchup with the Miami Heat.

With that insufficient and, most likely, unnecessary summary out of the way, I would like to break down this Knicks team and, more importantly, reflect why this team is damned to NBA purgatory for the next half-decade, or however long Camare will continue to empty James Dolan’s pockets.

A few days ago, Israel Gutierrez wrote a good article on why the Amare-Melo partnership is not working.  Clearly, after his slapboxing match with glass, Amare would be the clear amnesty choice if the clause had not been exercised on Chauncey Billups last year, but all that can be done now is to chalk this no-so-stunning revelation up on the big board of Monday Morning Quarterback.

The main problem with the Knicks team has nothing and everything to with Carmelo Anthony.  He has, relatively speaking, been the one source of offensive stability and undoubted carried the team on his back throughout the end of the season – not so coincidentally after Jeremy Lin tore the meniscus cartilage in his left knee.  Under Mike Woodson, and especially when Amare was injured in April,  Carmelo has flourished playing closer to the basket and, more importantly, as the team’s main target/ball-handler whenever on the court.  He has worked much harder on defense since Woodson took over (and called him out), and deservedly won Eastern Conference Player of the Month for April.

“…And after you fix your hand, get rid of those cornrows. Actually, get rid of the cornrows first. You look like you’re 12.”                       Photo courtesy of Vibe Magazine

Amare is the odd man out.  Tyson Chandler has been everything that the Knicks hoped for at the center position, but he has pushed Amare out slightly further than he typically played last season. Chandler has also, at least partially, taken over Amare’s old spot in pick and rolls – a main hub for Stoudemire’s offense under D’Antoni.  He has been squeezed by Anthony’s strong preference to play at the 4 – on both ends – and Chandler’s limited offensive ability when more than 6 feet from the basket.  To keep Amare from looking like the helpless victim, however, he has failed to respond to almost all of these challenges.  We all know his recent injury problems (on and off the court), but the main problem is that his offense and athleticism can no longer make up for his defensive shortcomings.

Landry Fields has also suffered from Carmelo’s surge, largely in the rebounding department.  He became a fan favorite last season particularly for his hustle, strong ability to finish on the break, and rebounding ability, on both ends.  In a half-court, Melo-centered offense, however, Landry’s offensive opportunities have waned. Furthermore, Anthony and Chandler have grabbed many of the rebounds that Landry would have gotten.  His transition – from up-tempo, system player to half-court role player – has been as smooth as gravel, and there are very few indicators to suggest that anything will change.

So what does this tell us, if anything?  In order for Carmelo Anthony to play at his best, he tends to compromise the playing level of some of his teammates.  In a sense, he is the forward version of Allen Iverson, albeit less talented: they are/were amazing scorers, neither player improve(s/d) his teammates, and, in order for each player to perform to his full ability, he needs a certain type of cast around him.  Allen Iverson would never have been the legend he was in Philadelphia if he had been playing with Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, or even (young) Chris Webber.  Why?  Because he, and the team, was at its best when he always had the ball in his hands.  His teammates, as a result, were classic role players/defensive stoppers, such as Aaron McKie, Tyrone Hill, and Dikembe Mutumbo.  Despite its general offensive limitations, the team was a regular playoff attendee for years simply because every player knew his role to a tee and A.I. was that good.

The fact that Carmelo Anthony is not a guard, or a point forward, obviously makes his case different because he clearly does not have the ball in his hands as much as Iverson did.  With that said, any instance in which he has had to play with scorers, such as Lin and/or Stoudemire, has clearly been a detriment to team success.  Some may ask, “What about in Denver, you idiot?”, to which I respond that Carmelo only won 2 playoff series during his entire time in Denver, where he played with a slightly washed up Allen Iverson, but otherwise played with very solid supporting players, such as Nene, Kenyon Martin, and Chauncey Billups (whose arrival in Denver led to Melo’s only 2 playoff series wins).

Side note: Chauncey Billups was the perfect point guard for Melo because he didn’t force shots, operated in a half-court offense, and helped keep defenses honest with his great 3-point shooting.  Unlike Lin (and as evidenced by his success, albeit brief, as the shooting guard for the Clippers this season), Billups doesn’t need the ball to control the pace/create offense

I understand that this seems to be turning into a bashing of Carmelo all over again, but that’s not what I’m trying to do.  Carmelo is one of the best scorers in the league, as well as a very good rebounder for his position. He can even defend well when he wants to.  My point is that this Knicks team will not win as currently constructed.  It can’t!  Amare needs to play in a system where he can freely alternate as a power forward or center, Landry was at his best in D’Antoni’s system (particularly before the Carmelo trade and during Anthony’s February absence), and Carmelo needs to play in a system where he can operate on the wing and in the post (as he did last month).

A short while ago, Ian Thomsen wrote a very interesting article that stated his belief that Carmelo Anthony will, over time, follow Paul Pierce’s role as point forward, team player, and leader.  But now, I’m not so sure.  While I believe that Garnett and Allen – then and now – would fit ideally beside Carmelo and that there is still time for Carmelo to change his approach, I also think that the difference in circumstances and teammates will prevent him from making this transition.  There is no player now, at either shooting guard or power forward, that would complement Carmelo as well as they would have.

So what would Carmelo need around him in order for him/the team to be at his/its best?  You need big men that don’t need to score much, but can play solid defense.  Tyson Chandler, Jared Jeffries.  Check.  Preferably, you need a power forward who can play inside, but can also stretch the floor when Carmelo is in the post.  Pau Gasol is the most obvious example, but let’s be more realistic and say David West/Luis Scola.  Steve Novak is a serviceable stretch 4.  Your point guard needs to be able to hit open shots, operate well in a half-court offense, and play without the ball.  Baron Davis defers to Carmelo because he’s washed-up, so he fits the criteria by default, even though he can’t shoot.  Mo Williams would be a good fit.  Of course, you also need wing players that hit 3s and/or defend like motherlovers.  J.R. Smith (well, he hits 3s).  If Iman Shumpert improves his outside shot, he should be an ideal 2-guard beside Anthony.

With all this considered, how would a starting 5 of Chauncey Billups, Iman Shumpert, Carmelo Anthony, David West, Tyson Chandler team – with Steve Novak, Jared Jeffries, J.R. Smith, Kenyon Martin, and Mo Williams on the bench – fare?  To suit Carmelo, Lin and Stoudemire are out of the picture and are replaced by ( a healthy ) Billups, Williams, and West.  Martin is a free-agent addition.

Side note: For all those who are wondering, I didn’t – for the most part – take the 2012 free agent market into account, but since the team cap is essentially locked for the next few seasons, substantial improvement through free agency (or trade, for that matter) is not a realistic possibility.  If this type of team were to ever somehow be assembled in the next couple of seasons, count your blessings Knicks fans.

By just about any standards, barring injury, this is a solid team.  Carmelo can play in his element without negatively affecting the play of others around him, while the guys around him rebound, defend, and hit open jump shots.  Could it contend for a championship?  Save for the most perfect situation – Kobe, D-Rose, LeBron, Kevin Durant all suffer debilitating knee/back injuries – it would not.  You are looking at a 4-5 seed that would struggle to make it into the Conference Finals.  As great a scorer as Carmelo is – and he could go for almost 30 a night on this type of team, this formula hardly ever ends up winning the Larry O’Brien trophy.  Last year’s Mavericks team was an exception, filled with perfect, hard-working role players surrounding a bona fide star – Dirk Nowitzki – who enjoyed the playoff run of his life.  In order for my hypothetical team to win a Championship, it would demand Melo to play up to the Iverson/Nowitzki level for at least 12-14 games.  While this is unlikely, throw in the fact that this projected team is superior to the current Knicks team, and the task becomes downright impossible.

If this sounds like a familiar situation, it should.  Carmelo has already experienced it for most of his professional career.  If it doesn’t, just wait.  It will in a few years.  And that’s if everything goes right.