There is a fine line that separates the best overall players in the league from the best scorers. While Kobe Bryant and Lebron James are great scorers and they can put up 30 anytime they want, it ultimately comes down to what they are doing on the defensive end and the other “small things” that contrasts the contenders from the pretenders. There is no doubt that Carmelo Anthony is a top five scorer, and maybe even a top 3 scorer behind Lebron and Kevin Durant, but does he make the Knicks better? Even after his days in Denver with Allen Iverson, a highly touted head coach in George Karl and more than adequate role players around him, the same question could be posed for that team. After bad losses against teams like Sacramento, Toronto (twice), and Washington, the Knicks’ performance last night as a group where they lost by one against the western powerhouse OKC Thunder without Melo begs the question. Would the Knicks be better without him?
What we witnessed last night at Madison Square Garden was a clear testimony to what New York was able to accomplish as a “team” against a streaking and well-rested Thunder team. Ten guys on their roster got legitimate shot attempts and they were a buzzer-beating fade-away short of winning the game. Do I think that the Knicks were better before trading an arm and a leg to get him? Of course not, but I’m pretty confident that they could have gotten a lot more in return for what they gave up. When guys get involved and are given opportunities to contribute in the ways they can on the offensive end, it leads to motivation and energy on the defensive end. On the flip side, when guys aren’t contributing at all on the offensive end and instead are standing and watching another guy hold the ball and throw up 25-footers every other possession, it can significantly affect your play at the other end. Its happened to all of us, if you’ve ever been involved in some form of organized basketball. We’ve all played in at least one game where this one guy on your team runs the offense like his own personal 3-point competition. You work your ass off on defense only to see him hoist the first jumper that comes his way no matter how contested it is. Does that motivate you? Does that make you want it more? It didn’t for me.
I’m not saying that Carmelo will never change the way he operates on the floor, but it speaks volumes when Hall of Fame coaches like Phil Jackson and Greg Popovich pass up what was once perceived as the opportunity of a lifetime to coach the New York Knicks. Who would want to coach a style like that? Guys like Jackson and Pop are far too intelligent to take on such projects knowing that the chances of turning the corner are far too slim. Jackson did it in L.A. in a different way as he primarily dealt with conflicting egos and selfishness. Carmelo’s issue, while it could be attributed to selfishness, seems more to like a style issue. It is simply the way he plays.
In no way am I implying that Carmelo is not a great scorer as I’ve already established. There is no doubt that he can shoot jumpers like the rest of them (or more than them), but that doesn’t make your team better. Being a great scorer doesn’t translate into winning unless you contribute in other areas. ESPN’s Colin Cowherd (love him or hate him) pointed out his radio show on Friday that the last 14 scoring champions didn’t win the real championship in the same year. The last to do it was Michael Jordan. Tracy McGrady won two of them, but the guy never won a playoff series in his entire career.
The Indiana Pacers aren’t the second best team in the east right now because they have a great scorer. It’s because they do the little things well. They rebound, play hard-nose defense, and they are mechanically sound. Rarely does a team require one of its players to hoist up 25 to 30 shot attempts thinking that that is the key to victory. It was required of MJ and Kobe, but those guys did and are doing (Kobe) a lot more for their teams than just score. There is less of an issue having a score-first state of mind than having that be your only state of mind. I mean, ask yourself, do characteristics like rebounding and defense come to mind when you think of Carmelo? It has and will always be a hard sell to get that guy to buckle up and play outstanding defense possession after possession. I could care less if scoring is all he does. I just ask that Knick fans and basketball fans alike don’t place unrealistic “team” expectations on a franchise whose star player is one-dimensional.
We have seen the Knicks slowly turn into the same team the Nuggets were when Melo was forced to share shot attempts with A.I.. They are and were both decent teams, playoff bound, but nothing more. I only see the Knicks sitting where they are in the east because it is the east. Past a streaking 17 Miami Heat team, the eastern conference is as wildly unpredictable as it is inconsistent. But if the playoffs started today, the Knicks would have to play Boston in a series that has upset written all over it. In the end, I think it would be a stretch to start the over or under anything over one for the Knicks to win a playoff series.
My bold statement of the year will be that Carmelo’s NCAA championship season in his one and only season in college at Syracuse will be the only championship he will win in his career. He lacks the psyche and the know-how to play within a team concept. That type of mentality might win you scoring titles, but it won’t win you championships.