Carmelo Anthony’s letter confirming his return to the Knicks was beautiful. Published last Monday, it was short but very sweet, genuine and thoughtful, with Melo writing to New Yorkers that his “heart never wavered” throughout the free agency process.
The letter was also largely ignored. That’s because another letter — one published two days prior on SI.com and written by LeBron James, announcing his return to Cleveland — was busy grabbing all the headlines and garnering all of the attention.
It was a perfect symbol of Carmelo’s career: everything he does, no matter how remarkable, is overshadowed by something LeBron does better.
- Carmelo was drafted third overall in the 2003 NBA Draft; LeBron was selected as the top pick.
- Carmelo gets voted to All-Star Games, LeBron wins All-Star Game MVPs.
- Carmelo makes All-NBA second and third teams, LeBron makes All-NBA first teams and wins league MVPs.
- Carmelo makes the playoffs, LeBron makes the Finals and wins Finals.
Carmelo will put on a fake smile and claim that he isn’t bothered by LeBron’s constant one-upping of him, but I’m not buying it. It has to get to him — the two have been each other’s measuring sticks dating back to high school.
LeBron has blossomed into the world’s best player and the greatest we’ve seen since Michael Jordan. Carmelo has had a nice career — he’s a seven-time All-Star and won a scoring championship in 2013 — but he hasn’t lived up to the hype like LeBron has. In 11 seasons, his teams have missed the playoffs or been eliminated after the first round nine times.
To some, the final verdict on Melo is already out: he’s a prolific scorer incapable of leading a team into May and June, proven by his playoff track record.
Me, I think there’s more to it than that. A lot more to it.
Carmelo has been almost exclusively dealt bad hands — there have been only two exceptions — for the past 11 years.
Exception 1: The 2008-09 Denver Nuggets, the most complete and championship-ready team that Carmelo has played for. Melo had a former Finals MVP at point guard (Chauncey Billups), a three-headed monster in the frontcourt (Nene/Kenyon Martin/Chris Andersen), and two real scoring threats off the bench (J.R. Smith and Linas Kleiza). Behind Carmelo, the Nuggets reached the Western Conference Finals and were two wins shy of advancing past Kobe’s Lakers, who soon steamrolled the Magic in the Finals.
Exception 2: The 2012-13 New York Knicks, a team full of savvy veterans and defense-first players. The Knicks won 54 games and, at times, looked like the East’s best team — they even won three of four games against the Heat in the regular season — but ultimately fell in six games to the Pacers in the Eastern Conference Semis.
Two exceptions — that’s it.
Melo’s ten other teams have been littered with hard-to-win-under circumstances, including: some of the league’s worst teammates (J.R. Smith twice, Allen Iverson, Amar’e Stoudemire and Amar’e Stoudemire’s knees, 2014 Tyson Chandler, Andrea freaking Bargnani and gems like this one, and … wait for it … RAYMOND FELTON); coaching changes (Denver had three head coaches in Carmelo’s first two seasons; New York is already on its third head coach since trading for Anthony three and a half years ago); inept front office executives (I’m looking at you, James Dolan); and constant turmoil (J.R. Smith’s 2007 car accident that killed his friend, Smith’s on and off-court antics the past two seasons, Amar’e Stoudemire punching the fire extinguisher at American Airlines Arena in 2012, and Felton’s February arrest on gun charges, among plenty of other things).
11 years after he was drafted, I’m only sure that 1) Carmelo is one of the purest offensive talents in NBA history and 2) he might be the unluckiest superstar ever.
Still, I believe there is reason for Melo to feel optimistic. I believe he is fast approaching the light at the end of his long, dark NBA tunnel.
One reason: Phil Jackson.
Here’s one thing about Melo we can all agree on: He can play. Anthony has averaged at least 20 points per game in each of his first 11 seasons, he’s consistently a good rebounder (8.1 rpg last season), he’s quickly improving as a passer, and his defense is much better than his critics give him credit for.
As was proved in 2009 and 2013, Carmelo can win with the right pieces around him. He just needs someone to assemble those pieces.
Aha: The Zen Master.
Phil Jackson knows he can build the perfect team around Melo — he wouldn’t have signed him to a 5-year deal if he didn’t — and is already proving it. This offseason alone, Jackson has already 1) flipped Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton for Samuel Dalembert, Jose Calderon, Shane Larkin, and two draft picks, which he used to steal Cleanthony Early in the second round and take Thanasis Antetokounmpo (brother of Giannis Antetokounmpo) with the 51st pick and 2) signed free agent center and ex-New Orlean Hornet Jason Smith.
To recap: Jackson got rid of two players who had overstayed their welcome in New York and he replaced them with a good rim protector, a veteran point guard who will fit nicely in the triangle offense, the leading scorer from Wichita State’s 34-0 team this past season, two high-ceiling guards each younger than 23 years old, and a 7-footer who can rebound, play defense, and shoot a nice midrange jumper.
A-plus for Jackson, who has suddenly built something respectable in New York.
For the heck of it, let’s look at the Knicks’ projected 2014-15 lineups:
- Starters: Calderon, Tim Hardaway Jr., Iman Shumpert, Carmelo, Jason Smith
- Reserves: Pablo Prigioni, J.R. Smith, Toure’ Murry, Cleanthony Early, Amar’e Stoudemire, Andrea Bargnani, Samuel Dalembert, Cole Aldrich
It’s not perfect, but it’s a team Carmelo can win with — he’ll have plenty of help defensively and enough offensive options (Hardaway, J.R., Cleanthony, Amar’e) to relieve some of the scoring pressure.
In a weak Eastern Conference, I wouldn’t at all be surprised if the Knicks won 50 games next season and stole back the Atlantic Division crown from the Toronto Raptors.
But this — this whole Phil Jackson experiment — isn’t about next season. It’s about next summer, when the Knicks have a first round draft pick and will unload the contracts of both Andrea Bargnani (due $12 million next season) and Amar’e Stoudemire (due more than $23 million next season).
That, of course, means the Knicks will be players in a free agency class that could include LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Love, Rajon Rondo, Marc Gasol, and Al Jefferson.
ESPN’s Marc Stein also reports that, in an effort to give the Knicks extra wiggle room next summer, Melo signed for less than the maximum salary he could have received for the 2015-16 season. To me, that screams that Carmelo is a believer in Jackson’s ability to build that perfect team around him — a team that can seriously contend for a championship.
Sure, you can contend that Melo should have signed with Chicago if he really wanted to win. I won’t argue that the Bulls were Anthony’s best basketball fit; their weakness are his strengths, and vice versa. Melo and the Bulls would have completed each other. They were a match made in basketball heaven.
But let’s remember this: We praised LeBron for returning to Cleveland not because of basketball reasons but purely because of personal and legacy-related reasons. LeBron signed with Cleveland because it’s home, and we have eaten that up.
By returning to New York, isn’t Carmelo doing the same thing? He doesn’t have quite the same connection to New York that LeBron does to Northeast Ohio, but Melo was born in Brooklyn and grew up dreaming of playing professionally under the bright lights of New York City.
Chicago already has its basketball hero — heck, they have THE basketball hero — in Michael Jordan. Even if Melo were to win a title or two for the Bulls, he could never even sniff Jordan’s level in the eyes of Chicagoans.
But returning to New York? That’s a golden opportunity at a golden legacy.
In a city without an NBA championship since 1973, just one Larry O’Brien Trophy would put Carmelo on the Derek Jeter/Eli Manning level of modern-day New York sports legends. Make no mistake: New York is a basketball city. New Yorkers love their Knicks even more than they love their Giants and even more than they love their Yankees.
So Carmelo accepted the challenge of New York and re-signed with the Knicks, choosing to put his faith in Phil Jackson.
And, for the first time in his career, it feels like things are finally starting to go Melo’s way.