The basketball artistry of Carmelo Anthony comes in two dominant forms.
The first is his jab-step — a horizontal arrangement of splayed limbs, spine approaching parallel with the floor, body moving one way, brain moving another. The second is his jump shot — a vertical, linear form, with shoulders in and toes pointed together, taking up as little space and time as possible in the flow from gather to release. In the solid, block coloring of the Knicks’ uniforms, Anthony is like some sort of basketball sea anemone, expanding and contracting, responding to opportunity and danger. Flare out to move the defense, constrict and rise to stick that jumper.
At rest, Anthony lives somewhere between these two forms. He has slimmed down from his younger days. He is still strong but no longer the physical force he was in his youth. The cherubic smile has been there for years but his entire basketball being seems a little lighter these days, a little more ethereal — which is remarkable considering the load he carries.
For those sports fans who find offense in the athletic decisions of strangers, Carmelo Anthony is a special kind of monster. There is his propensity to highjack possessions with often ill-fated isolations. There is all that his defense has left to be desired, and the implication that if he just cared enough, he could be a difference-maker at both ends. And, of course, there is the fact that he had the gall to be selected in the same draft as well-rounded champions like LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade.
But, in all honesty, nothing about Anthony seems to antagonize the masses as much as his choosing the New York Knicks as his hill to die on.
To be fair, the Knicks chose Anthony as much as he chose them. They emptied the cupboard to acquire him, breaking up an exciting young core as they sent Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton, Danilo Gallinari and a smattering of draft picks off to Denver as fast as they could. Anthony couldn’t do much with the leftover pieces in New York and nearly seven years later his record with the Knicks is 209-259, and a measly 7-14 in the playoffs. Everyone can share a bit of blame for the past and present.
The problem is that Anthony appears to control the future. The four-year, $124 million contract extension he signed in the summer of 2014 (which, again, to be fair, the Knicks offered) includes a no-trade clause. The collective emotional consciousness of the Knicks, both fans and organization, may be ready to move on from Carmelo Anthony. But he’s not ready to move on from them.
This is the impasse. By continuing to choose the Knicks every time a possible exit presents itself, Anthony is sealing his fate with theirs. In the eyes of some, this is just another Carmelo Anthony hijacking, the waving off of a promising future as the clock winds down, in favor of another jab-step and fade-away.
Almost all NBA careers end the same way — the human body gives out. Sometimes this is a catastrophic bolt of lightning, robbing an in-their-prime talent of riches and glory. More often than not, it’s a slow leaching process. The first step gets slower. The jumper gets lower. At some point the contract expires and another never appears. Or the mind finally catches on to the decay of the body and decides to move the whole process along and spend some more time with family.
The truth is there is no dignified way to end a basketball career. Kobe Bryant’s big party was fun, but his willingness to soak in the moment and sop up every shot for the Lakers was also a reminder of the worst of his time in a Laker’s uniform. Tim Duncan, a bastion of dignity if there ever was one, held onto utility as long as he could. The story is that he walked away on his own terms, but I’m not sure getting steamrolled in the Western Conference Semifinals by the Oklahoma City Thunder was really the way he wanted his last game to go. Even that one-in-a-thousand player who finishes his career as a champion is either walking away from future accolades or less than he used to be.
When it comes to the end of the road, there is simply no way to have it all.
Carmelo Anthony’s career is indisputably in its twilight. At age 32, in his14th season, Anthony is playing fewer minutes per game than at any other point in his career. He’s not quite walking into the white light but he knows it’s coming.
It’s easy to watch his basketball talents begin to ebb away and pin them to the flaming pinterest board that is the Knicks. Would the Knicks be better off if Anthony stopped breaking plays to go his own way quite so often? Sure. Would the Knicks be more competitive if Anthony worked as hard on defense as he did on offense? Of course. Would the Knicks be in a better position if Anthony had been LeBron James or Dwyane Wade these past seven years? Probably. Would the Knicks have a brighter future if Anthony took one for the team (of which he would no longer be a part) and waived his no trade clause? Who the heck knows.
Trading Carmelo Anthony is not the answer to the Knicks problems — they’re too varied and too deeply entrenched to be solved by a simple personnel switcheroo. The Knicks need more than mere assets, and addition by subtraction isn’t enough unless Anthony is taking half the roster with him. The fate of this franchise isn’t just in Anthony’s hands, no matter how hard it is to imagine them trending upwards over the next few seasons while he drifts in the opposite direction.
The end of Carmelo Anthony’s career will be undignified because that is the natural way of things. Whether he retires as a Knick or a Cavalier or a Clipper, his jumper will lose accuracy, his jab-step will lose urgency and Anthony will almost certainly lose the last NBA game he ever plays. After that, there can be press conferences and honors and enshrinement in the Hall-of-Fame. But those are all part of the basketball afterlife.
In the present, while he still has some juice left in those legs, Anthony has decided he wants to play basketball for the Knicks, and that he wants to live with his family in New York, both decisions which he has the contractual authority to make. Many seem to prefer that he just get on with the business of running out his hourglass so that the Knicks can get back to whatever business it is they’re in (trying to win basketball games, I guess?).
To be an aging basketball player is to slowly relinquish your talent and control. Anthony can still control where he plays, so does. He can still control his jab-step and his jumper, so he does. Making decisions for himself and his family and, occasionally, where the ball is going to stop on a given possession is really the extent of his power. He doesn’t unilaterally decide the future of the Knicks, just like he’s not entirely responsible for their present or their past. Anthony is the highest paid player on the team and the guy how gets to call his own number whenever he wants, but in the grand scheme he is still just a high-usage, high-scoring cog in the machine.
Winning, losing, jab-steps and jumpers, blue and orange, or red and gold. It’s all the same. Just basketball, as well as you can, for as long as you can.