I mean, what’s left to say? Certainly nothing useful, or particularly insightful, or even marginally comforting. The Knicks are not only a bad basketball team but the worst kind of bad basketball team: the kind that is good enough to invoke sporadic hope but sufficiently inept to ensure that it’s promptly and consistently crushed. The kind without a draft pick or a young centerpiece or a long-term plan beyond “make money, spend it on ‘marquee’ players, don’t let the haters get you down.”
This paragraph will be the only place that I mention Mike Woodson, who regardless of the amount of blame to which he’s entitled is at best entirely incapable of doing anything about any of a great number of the issues plaguing this team. It will be the only place that I mention Ray Felton, who appears physically outclassed by his counterpart with such regularity that it’s almost pointless to continue cataloging his frequent shortcomings. It will be the only place I mention Tyson Chandler, from whom I expect more, or Amar’e Stoudemire, from whom I sadly do not. JR, you were good tonight, now for the straightforward but daunting task of simply doing it again and again. Shump, there must be another gear — find it. Timmy, shake this one off. Pablo, if only you were a few years younger; Jeremy, perhaps if you were a few years older. This paragraph is for all of you and here you’ll all stay because I need to talk about Carmelo Anthony.
It’s hard to remember it now but there was a time way back at the beginning when, for those trying to build a narrative around the young 2003 NBA Draft Class, LeBron James was the “individual stats” guy and Carmelo Anthony was the “team success” guy. James was Rookie of the Year and the latest, truest heir apparent to the Jordan Throne, but his 2003-04 Cavs won just 35 games. Melo, on the other hand, was an NCAA champion and his Nuggets were playoff-bound from the start and he polled a now-surprising 40 of 118 first place ROY votes, no doubt from the same types of people who now want you to believe that that Peyton Manning’s legacy was forever tarnished on Sunday night at Giants Stadium, because #rangz.
You know the rest of the story: LeBron’s ascent – both individually and in terms of team success – has been meteoric, his stardom unimpeachable, and while the narratives circled him like sharks after his move to Miami angered the Hot Take gods, two titles and an unprecedented run of all-around greatness have reduced their shrieking to a low hum and generally left his viewing public — while still divided on whether to root for him — in near-unanimous awe.
Carmelo’s path has been more checkered, his improvements more subtle, his value more hotly (and intelligently) debated, his labeling more elusive. Certainly, though, and despite an unblemished streak of playoff appearances, the idea of Carmelo-as-paragon-of-team-
But I guess my point is this: the perceptions of many are colored by narratives which are shaped by the impressions or impulses of few. And the color and the shape of Carmelo Anthony’s career arc in the minds of the multitudes have never been able to shake the fact that his journey has been intertwined, since the moment of its origin story, with that of the most supremely gifted human being ever to play Carmelo’s position. Which is not to paint Anthony as a stutter-stepping Salieri to LeBron’s Wolfgang Amadeus, but rather to ask you the following question and beg your introspection and candor: When you say it’s silly to compare James and Anthony, as you surely do, aren’t you still sort of doing exactly that somewhere in the recesses of your subconscious?
Another question: had Melo’s time and place been reversed with that of his childhood hero, would Anthony be the beloved folk hero and Bernard King the prodigal son whose gifts had been squandered, his flaws laid bare under the dazzling light of a contemporary who seemed to have none?
Anthony is a long way from perfect but to obsess over his failings — as player, teammate, person — is to ask too complex a question and settle for to simple an answer. To call him one-dimensional is to reduce all the elements of offensive basketball — boundless in their breadth, depth, and nuance — into a single elementary rating. To say that he is selfish or lazy or disloyal or uncaring is simply to announce that you have not been watching the Knicks this season.
I’m focusing on all of this, and choosing to do so today, because of what is happening a few months from now and its connection to what happened last night. Pushed to the brink by a team that loses four or five times as often as it wins, the Knicks stopped — as they so often do — and looked to Melo. And time and again, he carried them away from the edge. And time and again, his teammates and his coach undid his work before his eyes through an almost impressive combination of blithering incompetence, sleepy apathy, and general disarray. In the end, his efficient and timely 36 and the yeoman’s work of his own personal Sancho Panza were not quite enough and despite my general disdain for cliches about one team “wanting it more” it was hard not to look at the young Bucks last night and commend them for simply being more deeply invested than their spectacularly uninspiring counterparts in blue and orange. I would need to pick both hands up from the keyboard to have enough fingers to point at the culprits so instead I’ll just point one and I’ll point it at the team writ large and, while I’m pointing it, I’ll say this to Carmelo Anthony:
Carmelo: this is what you have to work with. Take a good, long look at the team and the people who built it. Where can you take it? What more can you do than what you did tonight against the very worst team in the NBA? Look past the men in jerseys to the people in suits. What is their next move? How are they going to fix this? What’s their track record and why do you think it’s going to change? If you leave, there will be a price: people won’t like that you pushed your way through the door and then walked back out when the outlook seemed stark. They won’t like that you left without an NBA or Eastern Conference title, and they will absolutely hate that you bailed at the end of such a disappointing season. Make no mistake: there will be a price. But what is the price of staying? What is your ceiling with this franchise, what is it’s ceiling with you? Will you keep your wagon hitched to this star just because you’re determined to clean up any mess as long as it’s a mess that you embraced with your starry, 26-year-old eyes wide open?
This spring, Carmelo Anthony will decide what team he wants to spend the rest of his prime with. No matter his decision, some will criticize him, some will support him. Surely he will have moments of regret and moments of triumph in the months and years to follow. And at the very end, when we write the story of his legacy in permanent ink over the oft-erased pencil marks that have told it until now, judgment will be passed on what kind of player he was and what kind of decisions he made. But, at this moment, I sit here trying to look with Carmelo Anthony’s eyes at the task that lays before him in New York and at the green grass of the unknown in parts distant. And as much as I want to see it differently, the only conclusion I’m able to reach is this: leaving this group is not an act of disloyalty, it’s an act of self-preservation. Sticking it out, despite the daunting promise of seemingly endless futility? Such is the province of only a deeply devoted personality. So when you judge Melo this spring, as surely you will, don’t ask yourself whether he quit on this team despite all it’s offered him. Ask instead whether he has embraced it and claimed it as his own despite the moments, like last night, when he gave it everything that was in his power to give and it failed him all the same.