By Jason Keidel
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Because of the Yankees and Giants, New York is known for winners. In the tall shadows those teams cast, however, we forget the Knicks have gone nearly four decades since their last NBA title.
Sadly, Knicks fans have so low expectations that anytime any obscure player hits a game-winning basket they want to put him on the next postage stamp. And only in New York do we talk about a 16-17 team as a title contender.
For a week friends have begged me to write about Jeremy Lin, the New York – if not national – story du jour. He’s been compared to Tim Tebow, Kurt Warner, and Roy Hobbs. I just wanted to wait to be sure he wasn’t Shane Spencer.
But he’s not. Spencer, an unknown baseball player who’s home run orgy in 1998 made headlines because there was no hype behind his arrival in a Yankees uniform. And I realized that Spencer, though a lovely bookmark in a historic season, did little more than float on the wings of a dynasty. The ’98 Yankees were beating anyone, anytime, sans Spencer.
Lin was different. He made a bad team good. More importantly, he made the Knicks relevant. In an otherwise cold month in the sporting calendar, Lin made everyone warmer (except Floyd Mayweather). And Lin made everyone better, not just scoring but (to borrow from Clyde Frazier) driving and dishing, imbuing an otherwise fallow team and town with hope. The impact was real and the team’s record reflected it.
Then, as Carmelo Anthony came back, lugging his cash, cachet, and illusion of better times, the Knicks lost. Again. To the Nets. Carmelo’s apologists will excuse the game as ring rust, a hot Nets point guard, and this ambiguous “adjustment period” we all must endure as Anthony tries to squeeze into a smoothly running machine. You heard the mechanism groan and crash in its trial run.
If I’m going to take the rap for declaring it was Tom Coughlin’s time to leave the stage, then I’m sure as heck taking credit for saying, the moment it happened, that the Carmelo Anthony trade was a dreadful move for the Knicks.
Syracuse aside, where the disparity in ability allows for one player to snatch a six-game tournament, name one team Carmelo has remolded into a title contender. The Knicks did nothing last year – unless you consider sub-.500 and a first-round sweep in the playoffs an accomplishment – and were staggering through miserable season this year before the Lin Explosion.
The Knicks went 9-15 before Carmelo got hurt; the Denver Nuggets went 15-9 before Danilo Gallinari got hurt. You can’t make that up.
You will find no love for LeBron James in these columns, but he did lead a lean (if not wretched) Cavaliers team to the NBA Finals, winning over 60 games multiple times. Cleveland has since skidded into the 20-win ditch they knew before LeBron arrived. Last year, James was a few fourth-quarter gags from finally winning a ring with Miami. Talent is talent, and LeBron has more of it on the hardwood than anyone on Earth.
That’s what franchise players do: make their teams exponentially better. Carmelo Anthony was not, is not, will never be a franchise player.
If you are old enough to remember the dual saviors of pro basketball – Larry Bird and Magic Johnson – you saw the singular star quality, the innate gift to make an entire team levitate.
Magic and Larry didn’t gripe about time to gel, truncated training camps, or injuries. They just played with a savant’s focus, rabid leadership and a lust to win. You get no sense from Carmelo Anthony that winning means more than breathing, that every loss is a pockmark on his persona and legacy.
You can start with Carmelo’s microscopic assists and end with wins and losses – the only place where greatness is inarguably measured. The Nuggets have a better record than the Knicks since the trade, and simultaneously saved nine-digits in their bankroll.
So yay to Lin and nay to Carmelo. The Knicks spent $200 million on two players, Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony, and they will get the ball by dint of the titanic investment Jim Dolan made in them. It won’t work. But since when did we care about winning when it comes to the Knicks? Surely it’s better to lose lavishly than to win with Lin on the cheap.
If the two ball hogs can’t share one ball, you surely worry that Lin will be frozen out. If that happens, we can thank Jeremy Lin for making us smile for seven, eight, or ten days. Or was it longer? It’s hard to be sure. But it was nice to know that, for at least a week, winning mattered in Madison Square Garden.
Feel free to email me: Keidel.firstname.lastname@example.org