A Swiss Army Knife can do all sorts of things. If you only use it as a hammer, though, you miss out on its full potential and limit what it can do for you.
Early in the fourth quarter of Sunday's close-throughout Knicks win over the Pelicans, many a fan flashed back to New York's recent late-game struggles on offense, in particular players just standing around watching Carmelo Anthony work in isolation. But in general this season and specifically Sunday, Carmelo showcased a repertoire of the many ways a great offensive player can act as the gravitational hub of an offense that clicks in crunch time. Let's look at some of the ways Carmelo affects the action.
1. SPACE INVADER
Pause the clip when Lance Thomas feeds Kevin Seraphin. Four of the five Pelican defenders are focused on that two-man game. The only one who isn't, Dante Cunningham, has a good excuse: he's guarding Carmelo. Anthony Davis correctly anticipates Thomas making the entry pass, but doesn't expect Fundamental Lance to bounce it. Davis jumps and Thomas cuts to the hoop, fed with another nice bounce pass from Seraphin.
This leaves Cunningham in a lousy position. If he doubles too quickly, Anthony is wide-open for three (38% from downtown in his Knick career); if he doesn't double, Thomas has a free drive to the basket. Cunningham hesitates to rotate until Thomas is in the paint. He who hesitates is lost.
That's two points for Thomas and an assist for Seraphin. Anthony's impact on sets like this doesn't register statistically. But this is how the mere threat he presents opens things up for teammates, and how a late-game offense can exploit the immense gravity of a star to create space for others where it might not normally exist. The threat of Anthony gets into Cunningham's headspace, which in turn provides Thomas all the time and space he needs.
2. CARMELO GRETZKY
On this possession, Anthony goes into a post move. Langston Galloway is the strong side guard; Jerian Grant is behind the three-point line on the weak side, guarded by Eric Gordon. Carmelo puts the ball on the floor, leading Davis to show a double-team off the baseline. At the same time, Gordon begins to cheat away from Grant, toward the lane. If you freeze the frame right as Carmelo picks up his dribble, you'll see all five New Orleans defenders are in the paint or ready to cross the border.
Once the defense shifts, Carmelo passes the ball back to Galloway, who swings it over to Grant. Gordon has hustled back to his man, but by having to move around so much his balance isn't set; Grant is able to dribble past him and hit a pull-up jumper. Two points for Grant. An assist for Galloway. A hockey assist for Anthony.
3. SCREENING AND PINNING
Here, Thomas is the post option, Galloway is one vertex of the Triangle above the three-point line, and Carmelo is the other end by the corner. Once Thomas has the ball, Galloway, guarded by Jrue Holliday, races toward the corner. Anthony screens Holiday, so Cunningham switches onto Langston. Anthony has four inches and 40 pounds on Holiday and uses them all to pin him in place while holding his own position to pick Ryan Anderson, who's guarding Thomas. This frees Lance to dribble over the pick and get a clean look at a jumper over the much-smaller Holiday. Thomas missed, but it was a clean look in the rhythm of the offense, the type of look much harder for defenses to prepare for than ye olde Melo long-pull-up-two nonsense we saw late in the loss last week at Charlotte.
4. SOMETIMES CARMELO'S MISSES AREN'T CARMELO'S FAULT
In the official record, this possession goes down as Carmelo missing an open jumper. But this possession was tricky from the start. Before the clip begins, Galloway was looking to set up Thomas posting on Anderson. Lance tried to fake-post and spin for a backdoor lay-in, but Anderson was ready for it and stayed with him. Galloway swung it back to Grant, who was on the other side of the floor with Melo and Kristaps Porzingis, who was guarded by Anthony Davis. You can see right when the clip starts that Anthony wanted Porzingis to clear away, taking Davis with him, but Porzingis didn't.
Grant gets past Holiday all the way to the rim. No Pelicans rotate, but instead of laying it in or throwing up a floater, Grant turns in mid-air and tosses the ball back to Anthony. The instant Anthony gets it, with the shot clock winding down, Davis is moving in his direction. Carmelo misses the jumper. One rookie bypassed an open shot at the rim; the other was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Neither error shows up in the numbers. Just the missed shot.
Four possessions in crunch time ,and the only statistic Anthony has to show from them all is a missed field goal attempt. But there's more to his game, and to team basketball, than what the stats show. Carmelo can impact a late-game set by impacting spacing simply by existing. That gravity extends far enough that he often makes the pass that leads to the pass that leads to a basket. His combination of size, strength and skill in a league that's increasingly going smaller allows him to screen and pin defenders to gain clean looks other Knicks might normally struggle to find. And sometimes, even when a possession ends with him missing a shot, it's possible other players -- even beloved, spotless-as-baby-lambs rookies -- had more to do with the miss than he did.
As the Knicks head into a week of tough games, keep watch on whether Derek Fisher continues to exploit the many threats Anthony presents as a means of finding better shots for others. The more the team wins playing this way, the more the last-minute X's and O's figure to diversify. If the losses start piling up, it's possible the offense reverts to iso-Melo. Coaches need wins to survive, and as patient as Phil Jackson may be, Fisher's got a career record of 22-71 heading into a brutal stretch. It'll be fascinating seeing the next step in the evolution of the Knicks' ever-evolving identity. Hopefully they develop a versatility to rival that of their best player.