Well, I figured I'd do this one eventually. Honestly, I've been dreading it. WARNING: This FanPost is going to be a long one, even by my standards. Feel free to skip around if you're familiar with Melo's story. If you haven't seen, I've been writing a series of short posts on the Knicks that we will be getting to know over the course of next season. I've a lot to say about Carmelo Anthony, but I was never quite sure how to approach it. His history is a bit better known than Felton's or Camby's, so there isn't much to reveal there. My trepidation mostly emerges from this fact: Many Knick fans absolutely despise Melo. Not in the way that some of my #basketballtwitter friends despise Karl Malone, mind you, but more like the way casual NBA fans were offended by LeBron James after The Decision or Kris Humphries after The Divorce. By that I mean to imply that the reasoning isn't entirely legitimate. We'll come back to this. I'd like to begin by looking back on a fresh-faced kid out of Red Hook.
Carmelo Anthony grew up in a single-parent household in Brooklyn alongside three other siblings. His father passed away when he was three, and his mother resolved to raise her four children as best she could. Even as a child, Carmelo Anthony was in love with the game of basketball. At the age of 8, Carmelo and his mother moved out to Baltimore, where he began to develop his basketball skills. He was raised in a tough neighborhood. Surrounded by violent crime and drugs, Carmelo was constantly at risk of falling toward the wrong side of the law. Melo's mother used basketball to keep him sheltered from that life, and he worked tirelessly to become a more skilled player.
Anthony wasn't a particularly explosive force as a middle-schooler, and the young point guard found himself cut from his varsity team. His ball-handling and court vision were both recognized, but he wasn't a particularly powerful scorer and couldn't make enough of an impact. Fortunately, Carmelo hit a growth spurt and shot up to 6'5", and found himself shifting down to the off-guard and forward position. Due to his work as a point guard, Carmelo was suddenly a weapon on offense. His combination of size and skill made him difficult to guard as a sophomore at Towson Catholic. He patterned his game after Tracy McGrady, the young do-it-all star in the NBA. Averaging 14, 5, and 4 at the age of 15, it seemed his work was paying off. He nearly doubled his scoring and rebounding as a junior to 23 and 10, and exploded onto the pages of scouting reports. Whispers that he may declare early for the NBA began to surface as his talent became well-known, and Carmelo's grades slipped. Amidst intimations that the swingman was too skinny to compete in the NBA Anthony declared after his junior year his intentions to attend Syracuse, forgoing the prep-to-pro path that his inspiration T-Mac took.
However, Melo's declining grades put him in poor position to successfully secure entry into Syracuse, and he decided to transfer to Oak Hill Academy at the urging of his mother. At the helm of the intense academic program and dominant basketball program, Anthony began to make a name for himself as one of the best high school players in the country. He attended as many tournaments as he could, and shined at all of them. It became clear that nobody could successfully guard the now-6'7" forward. At these tournaments, Melo began a friendship with the only other high school player who could keep up: A junior forward named LeBron James. Melo and James would have their first duel as opposing stars this season, with LeBron leading the way for St. Vincent, St. Mary and hammering Carmelo with a 36 point game. Melo countered with 34 and 14 rebounds, and his Oak Hill Warriors emerged victorious. This set the stage for a rivalry between the two forwards.
As a maturing senior at Oak Hill, Carmelo averaged 22, 7, and 3, shooting 58% from the field and nearly 50% from the three point line. He was the quintessential inside-out player, capable and willing of battling down low and then baiting his defenders to the perimeter, where he punished them with his difficult-to-guard fadeaway. His basketball IQ was phenomenal, and he finished the season with excitement bubbling for his arrival onto the 'Cuse campus.
At Syracuse, Carmelo continued to dominate. Though he was a freshman, he quickly established himself as a leader among the Orangemen, and his versatility on both ends of the floor helped a previously disappointing Syracuse team vault into one of the elite squads in the NCAA. They entered March as the #3 seed, and Carmelo took home awards as the widely recognized best freshman in the country. It was there that Carmelo laid one of the most masterful scoring performances in recent NCAA tournament memory. Game after game, Carmelo took over and made opposing defenses look nonexistent. Against NCAA Naismith winner TJ Ford and the favored University of Texas, Melo scored 33 points and ripped down 14 rebounds in a victory that left Longhorn fans stunned. In the title game, Anthony's 20, 10, and 7 helped him to the tourney Most Outstanding Player award in a victory and Melo was certain to be a top 3 pick in the upcoming NBA draft.
I'll pause here for a moment. This is where the roots of Carmelo's reputation as a dominant scorer and clutch performer took hold. It also should be noted that there was no talk at this time of Carmelo being a selfish player. In fact, he was often lauded for his passing ability. It rarely seemed like Melo was forcing the issue on offense, mostly because his style of play seemed so effortless. Though it was by this time fairly recognized that he wasn't the best player entering the draft, he was often regarded as the most complete. His style of play was attractive to fans, he scored a lot of points, he had a ready smile, he had the braids, and he had become extremely popular. Carmelo was ready for the 2003 NBA draft.
LeBron was the consensus #1 pick. Never before had a high schooler had his level of hype and popularity, and several scouts confirmed that they had never seen anyone as talented as the young forward. The next spot was a debate between international prospect Darko Milicic and Melo. Darko was young and brimming with potential, with comparisons often held to Bill Walton or Vlade Divac. Detroit held the #2 pick, and ultimately settled on Darko. They felt his interior presence would provide greater benefit than Melo's scoring, and already were content with their incumbent forward Tayshaun Prince. Melo fell to Denver, and his impact was felt immediately. Oh, and Darko was a bust. In case you hadn't heard.
Carmelo helped turn the bottom-dwelling Nuggets into an immediate playoff team. He was cultivated as a scorer underneath Coach Bzdelik, and later Coach Karl. Offered immediate playing time and freedom to become an important part of the offense, Melo rebounded and scored often (though not as efficiently as you'd like) and showed flashes of dominance within the arc. His 32% from deep misrepresented his talents a bit: Carmelo was not much of a 3 point shooter. Somehow, he was allowed to take nearly three a game, contributing to his lackluster FG%. The main issue was his form. Carmelo has always had fantastic body control, allowing him to compensate for it a bit, but he tended to fade on every jump shot he took, leaving some short or too flat. His release was lightning quick and his upper body was solid, but his natural fadeaway made him less accurate. The jumper made him a terror to guard closer inside where it was a bit easier to make up the distance with his strength, but it would be years before he corrected his form.
Carmelo's scoring earned him a spot on the ill-fated 2004 Olympic team, where the USA would take bronze partly due to Coach Larry Brown's mistrust of rookies LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Melo. Coach Brown insisted on playing Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury and the trio of rookies saw limited playing time. Even with the leadership of Tim Duncan, that team disappointed and Anthony felt he deserved more of an opportunity to contribute.
Melo improved his sophomore season, drawing fouls at a much higher rate and improving his field goal percentage. Amidst head coaching turmoil, Carmelo underperformed until Coach Karl was brought aboard and placed Melo firmly into a leadership role (This sounds familiar.). After Karl was brought aboard, Anthony's FG% skyrocketed from a dreadful 40% to a fantastic 47.5%. Coach Karl allowed the team to run like the previous Nuggets coaches wouldn't, and as the pace increased so did Carmelo's efficiency. He became more of a voice within team huddles with his coaches' encouragement, and parlayed that into his most successful season to date. Even though his outside jumper hadn't yet formed and his defense was suspect, Melo played the most inspired basketball of his career playing off of the driving talents of Andre Miller in Karl's offense. He set then-career highs in FG% and TS% and dominated in the playoffs, though unfortunately losing in the first round where his efforts were swiftly forgotten. Denver responded, of course, by trading Andre Miller for Allen Iverson.
The rest of Melo's career in Denver resembles much of the same. A reworked jumper and better passing and rebounding, but in terms of winning the team could never seem to advance far. When Carmelo made it clear that he intended on entering free agency in the summer of 2011, Denver explored trade routes. There were several teams willing to make large offers on Carmelo that summer, and rather than lose the forward for nothing, Denver flipped him and Chauncey Billups into Felton, Gallo, Wilson Chandler, Timofey Mozgov, and picks. Part of the reason they were comfortable making this trade was the faith they held in PG Ty Lawson, whom the Knicks had passed on in 2009 in favor of Jordan Hill. Carmelo got his wish to come to New York and dodged the approaching lockout, which would have had negative implications on his salary. The Knicks got one of the most versatile scorers in the NBA, someone who typically shines in an uptempo offense, and a great shooter in Billups. Contrary to popular belief, this team played fairly well on offense after the Melo trade. It is commonly said that Amar'e's offense was hurt by Melo's refusal to pass or some such thing, but he scored about as well after the Melo trade as before it. It's almost as if having a competent point guard had a beneficial effect on the two forwards, or something. Carmelo played well for the rest of the season in New York, and Knick fans had high hopes for the 2011-2012 season.
DERP. As we know, last season was an utter disappointment because the Knicks didn't advance past the first round. As last year, we were missing our starting PG and Amar'e was injured, but don't let facts get in the way of the ceiling you're building. Carmelo was pretty awful for most of the year. He had some highlights, and finished the regular season on a tear, but he was largely disappointing. He faced disagreements with the coaching staff, murmerings that he wasn't in the best shape, injury issues that many fans refuse to acknowledge, and a role that he had never before encountered as a point forward. He finished in the top 5 in assist percentage among all forwards, but criticism abounded that his passing was the problem with the team. Not his atrocious FG%, not Amar'e literally making the team underperform by about 8.8 points by merely being on the court, not the fact that there was no continuity at the PG slot. To many, the problems with the team began and ended with Carmelo's passing and overratedness. As you can likely tell from my tone, I'm not one of those people. I find other flaws in his game, but passing isn't one of them at this point.
What exactly is Carmelo? He's a skilled scorer who just had an uncharacteristically poor season as an isolation scorer, but somehow was able to attempt isos on nearly 40% of his scoring attempts. It's almost like the Knicks just hired a coach known for favoring isolation or something. (Woodson, the astoundingly-touted "defensive coach" gets undue respect for the Knicks' defensive prowess, as if nobody was paying attention to D'Antoni's Knicks being 7th in the NBA before he resigned. I still appreciate your work, Tyson.) Melo is a middling-efficiency high-volume scorer. He isn't Iverson or, to a lesser extent, Felton, taking a high volume of shots but converting at a lower-than-average percent. He's a good spot-up shooter, and his skill in the post is impressive for a small forward. His footwork allows him to slip past both SFs and PFs alike, and if they sag off of him too hard he can pull up for a midrange jumpshot with ease. He doesn't attack the basket as aggressively as when he was younger, and it was even worse last season. Melo simply couldn't finish or draw fouls around the basket. He drew fouls at about half the rate as usual last season, though whether that was because he took more jumpshots or caused it is a chicken vs. egg argument. He's a mediocre man defender, a worse help defender, and still somehow a positive contributor on the defensive end for this team. If you doubt the accuracy of that statement, consider this: Carmelo appeared in four of the Knicks' top 5 defensive lineups last season. His flaws on the defensive end are the mirror opposite of Stoudemire's. Melo moves too little on defense. He often gets distracted watching plays unfold and loses track of his man to cuts and spot-ups. Melo also struggles to follow his own man through screens, slowly navigating the picks set by opposing bigs. On the plus side, Carmelo is big and strong and comfortable checking forwards of nearly any size. He is a focused on-ball defender, limiting his opponents' movements in both isolation and in the post. Still mediocre, but he can contribute. Melo is a fantastic passer with limited court vision. He cannot run your offense, because his mind simply does not understand the court like a Kobe, Wade, or LeBron. He is still capable of making crisp, clever passes in motion though, and he displayed that to some degree in the recent Olympics. Melo is a strong rebounder for his position, and he boxes out surprisingly well if you look for it. Somehow this isn't a bigger deal, but Carmelo Anthony is injury-prone. It isn't discussed perhaps as much as it should be that Carmelo hasn't played every game in a season since his rookie year. He's avoided serious, career-threatening injury to this point, but he often suffers from bruises, sore joints, and other minor maladies. All in all, Carmelo is a good player. He is overrated in the sense that he is often considered around the same level as LeBron James or Dwight Howard, but at this point he's often described almost as a net negative and he isn't that. Carmelo vascillates between league-average and league-leading throughout NBA seasons. Perhaps that isn't worth a max contract, but it's not quite as awful as some purport.
I often hear the question, regarding a team's construction, "Could you win a title with X as your best player?" I think this question is misleading, as it's difficult to define "best", but that is the common knock on Carmelo. He is not this team's most productive player (Tyson Chandler), and that's okay. He doesn't need to be. Carmelo is an underrated leader; he is respected throughout the league for his scoring ability and mentors younger players to little fanfare. He's competitive and capable of generating his shot against a variety of defenses. I can't lie and say it isn't fun to root for Carmelo. I have no fetish for imagined "hard-nosed defenders" or "hard workers". I love watching players play, and there is something joyful in watching Carmelo break down defenders one-on-one or put a shot up against the backboard to tip it back in like T-Mac back in the day. I understand his limitations and I'm okay with that. I still see the face of that smiling teenager out of Syracuse when I look at Carmelo, and I think of how he beat the odds as an at-risk youth to become a successful athlete and I can't help but enjoy it. Last season was maddening, especially considering the sheer volume of Knick fans who don't remember Melo at his most dominant and don't realize how weak this season was compared to previous ones. He isn't the player I want, and he isn't the player we need, but he is the player we have and there is something comforting in that. When you strip away the negativity and propaganda and accept his weaknesses for what they are, Carmelo becomes a great player to root for. I remember watching him play the Nets towards the end of the '12 season and laughing as he threw in shots like droplets into the ocean. He seemed invincible. I watched basketball for those moments when I was younger, and even the cynic in me won't deny that pleasure today. I don't believe in pretending players will perform better because they have chips on their should, but it's inconceivable to me that he could replicate the atrocity of his start last season. He won't shut the doubters up without a ring, but as long as he's putting my team in a better position to win I'll enjoy the ride.
PS - Thanks for reading this one. Sorry it was so long.