I've been with Carmelo Anthony since the beginning. Literally. On June 23rd, 2003, we were both at the Madison Square Garden Theater, but we were dressed for different occasions. I was sporting a Syracuse cap and a vintage New York Nets jersey (a team name that is, actually, no longer retro). He was wearing what resembled a grey trench coat for a draft after-party I definitely should have been invited to. Our entourages also varied; Carmelo's included his mother and a lot of miscellaneous people clapping for him. Mine featured my two friends and one of their dads. They were clapping for Darko.
It was fate dressed as an unassuming cameraman that brought us together. Me, the young Syracuse fan, clutching a Sports Illustrated with #15 on the cover. 'Melo, the frosh phenom, waiting, probably wondering why an unknown Serbian would go before an NCAA Tournament M.O.P. As David Stern announced the pick, and Carmelo celebrated the selection, I crashed the party. A cameraman cut to me moments after Denver picked Anthony. On live T.V., I appeared before NBA draft nerds everywhere as a scrawny 13-year old rocking zero Nuggets apparel, holding a cover that read "Sweet Victory" and repeatedly mouthing the phrase, "Right here!"
I, Daniel Weisman, along with the anonymous arms of my two friends, rung in the Carmelo NBA era. Check it out. 18 seconds in.
Because of that moment, now digitally eternalized by YouTube, I've always taken a bit of credit for Anthony's career success. Oh, you don't believe that I have the ability to alter the trajectory of an NBA player's career? At the 2002 draft, the Nuggets 1st-round pick from the year before, Nikoloz Tskitishvili, refused to give me an autograph even though he had just handed out his signature to a bunch of other kids right in front of me. Oh, you've never heard of him? That's because I put a hex on his career after he walked away. So, here's a warning to all future Nuggets rookies I come across: don't blow me off. I can make you an All-Star, or I can cement you as a staple on an All-Time "Busts" List. (Side-note: imagine if the Pistons took 'Melo instead of Darko, and Kiki Vandeweghe, the Nuggets GM at the time, picked Darko? 1. In back-to-back years, the Nuggets would have made 3 foreigners top 10 picks (Nene, Tskitishvili, and Darko), and 2. 2 of those players would have been Darko and Tskitishvili. If that happened, I'm not sure Vandeweghe would be allowed to leave the country anymore -- who knows what he would have tried to bring back.)
'Melo probably (edit: definitely) doesn't know me, and probably (edit: definitely) doesn't know that his draft-day celebration was video-bombed by a local Queens product with a bad jumper and a tendency to miss lefty-layups. But, nevertheless, I've always felt attached to his career, and when I hear current Knick fans openly questioning his commitment and drive to succeed, that affects me. Don't bash the player I endorsed as a 13-year old on live television. He's the only one I have.
Last season, 'Melo suffered his lowest field-goal percentage, free-throw percentage, rebounds per game, and points per game since 2008. But it wasn't all that bad. His assists per game were markedly up from the year before, from 2.9 to 3.6. I refuse to believe 'Melo is a bad passer. Does it often seem like he never passes? Sure. But he's good at drawing out of double teams and creating opportunities for his teammates when he's not playing hero-ball. His 3-point percentage was down last year, but still higher than his career average. He was also either hurt or playing hurt for a majority of last season -- a sprained wrist, tweaked ankle, and pulled groin all plagued him at some point.
If 'Melo is to improve this year, and help the Knicks reach the NBA Finals, he has to drive the ball more. His moves to the lane are too strong and his body is too bulky (and slightly overweight) to be taking step-back contested jumper after step-back contested jumper. According to 82games.com, Carmelo shot jumpers 70% of the time last season, as opposed to the 30% of his shots he took in the lane. When shooting the ball from the outside, 'Melo shot a respectable 41%. From the paint, however, he shot close to 60%.
Sure, a portion of his drives to the lane end in missed lay-ups or blocked shots. Anyone who watches the Knicks knows that 'Melo can often push his way into the paint, but sometimes is unable to elevate or separate himself from taller defenders. But Carmelo is so strong that he often gets his own rebound or deflected shot easily, and is able to bulldoze his way to a score after two or three tries. Will he get injured more easily if he drives it to the lane more often? Perhaps. But 'Melo showed last year he can play through injury; the coaching staff just needs to be confident enough to reel him in and prevent him from shooting 25+ shots when has a busted wrist.
And that's another thing: no' mo' D'Antoni. Last year, the Knicks got a bunch of new faces, didn't have a real training camp, and struggled out of the gate. They didn't have an actual point guard until Lin fell into their laps, and it's known by now that D'Antoni and 'Melo had, er, different offensive philosophies. With a new coach that Anthony (momentarily) respects, a system more catered to his style, a full training camp to implement the new system, a better supporting cast than last year (sorry, but I didn't mind seeing Fields go -- he hit his ceiling half-way through his rookie season and never meshed post-'Melo trade; I think Felton and Kidd will do just fine in the backcourt, and produce much more than Bibby and Baron ever did; I loved the Camby move, even if it meant trading "Jorts" and seeing him team up and form the "Big 4" in Miami; retaining Novak was key; and having J.R. from the start of the season is going to help greatly with chemistry), I see no reason why the Knicks can't come out of the gate hot. Sure, you can argue that the isolation-style that 'Melo thrives in can't win championships. But it worked pretty nicely down the stretch last season, enough for the Knicks to push themselves into playoff contention. With a whole training camp to fine-tune the system and no lock-out looming, I believe that the Knicks can execute a style of play that worked so well late last season: one that relies on 'Melo but also thrives on other players performing at key moments.
I have also read a few articles from various media sources and blogs detailing how 'Melo should play power forward more his year in an effort to create more space on offense. I don't think that's necessary. There was a great post on Grantland months ago detailing how the presence of Tyson Chandler prevented Amare Stoudemire from getting enough space to create offensively in the lane. I sort of agreed with the article at the time, and maybe Amare and Tyson should switch off playing the 5 this season in order to create more space in the key on offense. Perhaps the Knicks' Big 3 is best split up into a Big 2 and 1, with either Amare or Chandler coming off the bench and working in different units with 'Melo. However, I'm just not sure 'Melo is the guy that should be manning the 4 as they alternate. 'Melo did have some success at power forward last year, and the popular line-up of Davis/Bibby, Shumpert, Fields, Anthony, and Chandler had success down the stretch of last year's regular season.
But don't let the Knicks' lack of depth last year convince you that 'Melo is a natural 4. He's not. As discussed earlier, his inability to score over bigger, more natural power forwards should tell you that. 'Melo's forte isn't exactly defending, and I'm not sure he should be matched up with some of the league's more athletic and dominating power forwards. With the additions of Camby and Kurt Thomas, and with the possibility of still using Amare at the 4, the Knicks at least have some good options at PF. Maybe they do need to get one more solid power forward in order to thrive this year. Nevertheless, they shouldn't try to experiment with 'Melo at the 4 on a consistent basis. Instead, Anthony should really be focused on playing defense against players he can more readily defend (when he decides to actually defend something, of course).
But the biggest gripe against 'Melo has been that he cannot win the big one at the professional level. His playoff record is the worst for a player with 50 playoff appearances in the last 20 years, at 17-37. The farthest a Carmelo NBA team has advanced in the postseason was the 2009 Western Conference Finals, when Anthony's overachieving Nuggets lost to the Lakers in 6 games. I could sit here and write a bunch of things -- that the teams 'Melo played on with the Nuggets were mostly mediocre at best, surrounded by second-string options with unjustified big-contracts like Kenyon Martin, and that these recent Knick teams haven't exactly been an upgrade from his previous Denver teams -- but I'm not going to. 'Melo's contract eats up a great amount of the Knicks' payroll, and we gutted the roster to get him. He's their go-to-guy. Their star. Their success will fall on him, and rightfully so. Because no one's going to buy an argument that one of the best players in the NBA didn't win a title because the 6th and 7th men on his team were below-average. Even in this new NBA, where mega-teams are popping up and "Big 3's" are becoming more and more common, Carmelo needs to do his duty and play like he did down the stretch last season. He needs to drive to the basket more. He needs to avoid playing power-point in the fourth quarter and, instead, let others get him the ball late in the game.
But he is a winner. I saw it with my own two eyes, when Carmelo thrashed past Texas for 33 points in the Final Four and led Syracuse over the Kansas Jayhawks in 2003. And when I went to the NBA draft and got on TV that night, I thought of Carmelo as a winner. Not as a Nikoloz Tskitishvili. Carmelo can provide, and he will. His record-breaking Olympic performances should be getting us excited for this season, not making us question whether or not he has what it takes. And if not, if 'Melo fails...we can always find another Jeremy Lin...right?