By Jason Keidel
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It’s fitting that he announced it on a Saturday, during a slow, summer week, before the only week of the year when there are no pro team sports played in America.
And no matter when he signed his deal, Carmelo Anthony would have been buried under the mushrooming media event that was LeBron James coming home to Cleveland. The King James story was so ethereal that anything less than a white Bronco tooling around Los Angeles with a dozen cop cars in tow was not going to steal light from the brightest sports story of this young century.
At the risk of redundancy, this slice of cyberspace hasn’t been too fond of Mr. Anthony. His game is greedy. He has a wide palate of hardwood gifts and sacrifices them all for the sake of scoring. George Gervin is the only player in history who averages more points and hasn’t been to an NBA Finals. He is a classic underachiever.
But, hopefully, you are sitting, because I am about to do something unprecedented.
Praise Carmelo Anthony.
First of all, it’s hard to pass up $50 million, which is how much more quid the Knicks were able to shove into Melo’s war chest than the Chicago Bulls could. Second, the idea of Melo moving to Los Angeles to play with Kobe, deep into the back-nine of his bejeweled career, was just silly. They don’t have a coach, roster, or direction. Third, maybe Melo was waiting to see if he could squeeze into the King’s lair for a few years, even at a reduced rate. But when LeBron made his Twitter-bending announcement, Anthony knew that dream was over.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this signing says something. It speaks to a maturity, a newfound sense of self-awareness. Without saying it directly, Carmelo Anthony is admitting he’s not LeBron James, Michael Jordan, or any of the Mount Rushmore monoliths who had that rare gift for June basketball.
Anthony is not an iconic player, and he’s not someone who can lead a team to a title. And it seems he now knows it. During his world tour he had some kind of epiphany, aware for the first time he wasn’t going to drag the Rockets, Bulls, or Lakers to the NBA Finals.
So he stayed where he knows, where he’s the lead name on the glittering MSG marquee, is the biggest basketball star in New York City, makes a ton of money, and plays for Phil Jackson. Is that such a bad deal?
Jackson has already made the Knicks better. He unloaded Raymond Felton and an ancient Tyson Chandler for more high-end perimeter scoring. And, it kills me to say it, but I LOVE their recent draft pick, Cleanthony Early. He has the game and grit that fits this town.
New Yorkers will love Early’s blue-collar approach to basketball. And he comes from Wichita State, a team and town that spent every day breaking their backs to prove they belonged. He’s got the requisite chip on his shoulder to make it in pro sports. It’s just a matter of talent, which is almost impossible to project onto the next level until he proves it. But the draft pick itself had Jackson written all over it. He’s a steal in the second round.
Cleanthony may not have Carmelo’s talent, but he’s got everything else Melo lacks. If you combined the two you’d have Kobe.
Frankly, the key question — why do this? — should be directed at the Knicks. Would they have been spurned had they offered $109 million instead of $120-plus million? Would Melo have left for anything less than maximum dollars? Chicago couldn’t come at him with more than $75 million, and the Lakers couldn’t go higher than $96 million. At 30, Melo is not likely to get any better than he’s been, and that hasn’t been nearly good enough to make the Knicks title contenders.
Indeed, Melo has been in 13 playoff series in 11 years, and his team has won just three of them. You can argue it’s not up to one player to win a title, but Melo should have been good enough to win more than three series in a decade. That’s on him.
One of the reasons this column has so often lamented Melo is his maddening contradictions. Someone with so many athletic gifts owes it to the world to use them, to see the game through the three dimensions, not his myopic lens of incessant scoring. Melo is like a powerful computer program gone awry, like something out of “The Matrix.” He’s the NBA equivalent of Mr. Smith, obsessed with killing Neo at the expense of his other abilities.
So it is with Melo, who has a hypnotic hold over New Yorkers because he’s so talented. But he’s never matured as a player. He’s still the scoring machine that owned the Final Four at 18 years old. He’s basically Syracuse 2.0. His features have changed, his body has grown, but his game is still quite stilted.
But by staying and signing with New York, Carmelo has accepted what he is — a very talented player, but not a transcendent player. Maybe he doesn’t realize he’s the reason his game isn’t more varied or victorious, but he does know his place in the pecking order.
And that’s not a bad thing. How many of us would turn down a nine-digit deal to live in Manhattan, play basketball at Madison Square Garden, and leave our hardwood futures in the hands of a man with 13 rings?
The Knicks and New York are in that pseudo-honeymoon stage. They just hired Jackson, who convinced Melo to stay, and brings with him the cachet and the bedrock memories of the last time the Knicks were essential. It’s hard to believe that it’s been 41 years since the Knicks won an NBA chhampionship, or that Jackson won 11 of them since then.
The reality of the Knicks’ rancid roster and sprawling history of losing will come later. And the lingering, wretched karma of Jim Dolan, Isiah Thomas, Starbury, and sexual harassment lawsuits will still have to be surmounted. This is a project requiring every notch in Jackson’s long tool belt. But, for the first time in a long time, the Knicks aren’t, well, disgusting.
You wonder if someone so decorated really wanted Carmelo Anthony to be the cornerstone player of his franchise. But in the absence of another star, this star will have to do. Jackson surely knows what Carmelo Anthony is.
And, finally so does Carmelo Anthony. Good for him. Really.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel
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