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The many sins of Carmelo Anthony

One Knicks fan does not look back fondly on Melo’s time in New York

Portland Trail Blazers v New York Knicks Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Out of a cocktail of anxiety, depression, and boredom, I joined Twitter last year, at the beginning of the pandemic. I’m not one of these people who hate the app and complain about how bad it is for you as they continue to scroll and post four hours a day. I like the banter, the online community you eventually find, the solace in mourning together when a great artist passes away, the quick hits of instant gratification as you watch events unfold in real time with thousands of other connected avatars.

But I probably like it the most as an anthropology experiment. On Twitter, you encounter entire civilizations, with strange customs and beliefs, who have come together, hiding in plain sight as mild mannered strangers and co-workers IRL, but here they’re firebrands, priests, lovers and tyrants, occasionally all at the time.

This is perhaps most true when it comes to the irate, set aflame, petty, persnickety, strange and beautiful corner of the social media apparatus known as Knicks Twitter. As a lifelong Knicks fan who has spent most of my life in New York, I was under the impression I understood my brethren. I’ve spent hundreds of hours over the course of decades debating, finding common ground and occasionally getting in fist fights with other Knicks fans in bars, on the train, in the streets, and of course, in the Garden, here in New York.

But upon first discovering Knicks Twitter, I uncovered an entire secret history, a new set of beliefs and what passes for conventional wisdom on the internet, things that are commonly accepted here, on our phones and laptops, but would produce shock and disbelief if you tried to present it as a fact while the Knicks are on TV at, oh, let’s say, Brazen Head on Atlantic Avenue. That is to say, there are certain ideas that are treated as gospel on here, that would never fly in “the real world” amongst a majority of unplugged fans.

The most violent and abrasive cognitive dissonance for me, is the way either a majority, or a fervent, very vocal minority, that at least feels like a high percentage of Knicks Twitter users, regard the seven years Carmelo Kyan Anthony played for the Knicks. Not since the Trump administration has two sides staring at the exact same thing had such wildly divergent takes on what actually happened.

Carmelo Anthony’s career record as a Knick was 196-216. “He” “brought” the Knicks to the playoffs three times, during which he won a single series. His tenure on the team, when considering the expectations he brought in with him, what it cost to bring him to New York, and what the franchise paid to keep him here, can’t be, and isn’t considered as anything but, an unqualified failure by most* offline Knick fans who were there, and weren’t wide eyed teenage hero worshippers, when he came to New York in 2010.

And there’s good reason for this. It’s not just the lack of success. Basketball is a team sport, a team run by a coach, a roster built and managed by the front office. There have been many valiant, noble, dignified heroes who have labored in NBA backwaters throughout the history of the league, punching the clock, playing their hearts out, and let down again and again by their organizations. But Carmelo Anthony is not Bob Lanier. His is a tale of unapologetic, sour selfishness in which he consistently put his own interests, and desires, above the team and its fanbase. What many Knicks fans with their phones in their pockets will tell you is the entire Melo experience sucked from start to finish, and constitutes one of the bleakest and most aggravating stretches in the history of the team.

So, your honor, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the esteemed and not so esteemed denizens and creeps of Knicks Twitter, allow me to paint a portrait for you, to weave a narrative running seven years about an asshole and the teams he ruined, the teammates he got traded, the coaches he got fired, the fans he disappointed and never gave a fuck about. What you’re going to hear may be shocking and radical to you, but just know if you go out on a Friday, as Robert Randolph wails on his slide guitar for the Brazen Head faithful, and actually attempt to spark a conversation on this subject with a random Knicks fan above the age of, I’d say 30, it would be viewed through this lens of modern history, and not the lies you’ve been fed by the internet your entire lives.

Our story begins in 2003, where young Carmelo Anthony, fresh off winning a championship as an unstoppable wing and post scoring machine as a Freshman for Syracuse (winning me my dorm bracket, making me a shitload of money, and immediately earning himself what I thought would be a diehard fan for life), is miraculously passed over by the Detroit Pistons and taken third by the Denver Nuggets. Sometimes I like to imagine what it would have been like for Melo to go to Detroit, to be hammered into a piece of selfless, defensive-minded wrought steel by Larry Brown, Ben Wallace, Sheed, Chauncey and the gang. For him to immediately have to eat humble pie on the bench, to see what a team concept could accomplish as he would’ve been a champion rookie year, watching what a real unit, five men working together as one, could accomplish. They can stand up to empires and topple dynasties.

But instead the Darko Milicic era began in Detroit, and he went to Denver. Melo was still young and relatively humble, and to put it simply, he wrecked shit. Melo played alongside the Professor, Andre Miller. As we’ll see throughout his career, the point guard Melo plays with is a Rosetta stone, a lodestar that will be predictive of how Melo’s teams fare throughout his career. With Melo as their lead scorer and offensive focal point, the Nuggets went from basement dwellers to an instant perennial playoff team, to a championship contender. In the 2009 season, under George Karl, they swung a trade for the point guard Melo always deserved, Chauncey Billups, and had K-Mart and Nene anchoring their front court with Birdman bringing energy off the bench. They finished second in the West, and were arguably within a Trevor Ariza steal of winning a chip.

The Nuggets reverted to a first round out in a 4-5 matchup with the Jazz the next season, and the relationship with the Knicks begins here. For most Melo detractors, the original sin is the biggest, and it happens while he’s still a Nugget. We’ve all been over it, I’ll quickly rehash the highlights. Melo forces a trade by not signing his extension with the Nuggets. He wants to go to New York and makes this public, hamstringing his value in a possible trade. He also makes it clear he wants to sign the extension in a sign and trade, refusing to sacrifice a dollar, and forcing the Knicks hand to make the worst possible deal, sacrificing their young core of Wilson Chandler, Danillo Gallinari, Ray Felton, Timofey Mozgov, and two first-round picks.

This Tweet just about sums up the Melo truther/apologist position, but it also misses the point. The Zodiac basement corkboard and red string types begin extrapolating this stuff out and we start discussing Dario Saric and Jamal Murray and amnesties and Tyson Chandler. We’ll never know how this inarguably stronger Knicks core would’ve rallied around Melo if he had simply come in free agency, and maybe he ends up in Brooklyn or stays in Denver or wherever because we don’t sacrifice a king’s ransom to Denver, and maybe we’re better or worse without Melo last decade, and what if your mother never met your father.

For me personally, the worst loss in the trade was Donnie Walsh, who had performed miracles cleaning up the Knicks cap post-Isiah, and reinstating an asset future for the franchise, then quit in the wake of the Melo trade because he was so pissed Dolan overruled him and wouldn’t let him actually negotiate a favorable deal, pissing away everything he’d just spent years building back up, but again, besides the point.

The point here is that baby-faced, happy-to-be-here Melo has left the building. In his place is the kind of make-believe diva college basketball assholes have claimed the NBA is full of for years, finally come to life. That wants his ass wiped just so, in the right place, at the right time, for every last dollar he can possibly get. I’m on the record about how I feel about labor negotiations in the NBA — that each player deserves every dollar, and the salary cap should be illegal — but we live in a world where it isn’t. And what Melo showed us then, and in every subsequent decision he made as a Knick, is that he couldn’t care less about the team or its fans. I’m sure on an abstract level he wants to win, because winning is fun and it would’ve been good for his legacy, but it always took a backseat to what’s best for him.

We see it in Melo as a teammate. He didn’t detract talent as much as he heaved it away with great force. After winning DPOY in 2011-12 and being the quarterback of the Knicks defense in the banner year of 2012-13, and being a famously great teammate, beloved in every locker room throughout his seasoned, historic career, the Knicks shipped Tyson Chandler and Ray Felton back to Dallas before the 2014-15 season. There was dissension between Melo and Chandler because he committed the cardinal sins of attempting to focus his team in the midst of a huge playoff series with the Pacers, demanding they look for open shots on offense, and commit on defense. Heresy and sacrilege, obviously. Melo was infamously a huge dickhead to Jeremy Lin, a fringe league guy who had a brief and miraculous run that was feel-good, Hallmark movie material for everyone else on Earth. Lin was shunned for helping the Knicks win a few meaningless games and taking the spotlight away from Melo for a few weeks.

The one guy Melo got along with was Kristaps Porzingis, who worshipped and was deferential to him, but Melo didn’t like enough to nurture or help develop in anyway as the Knicks played an unbearable form of dueling banjo iso-ball with Melo, KP, and Derrick Rose — the single worst era of Melo’s reign for me. I’ve always thought KP’s specific brand of spoiled brat churlishness had a familiar flavor to it, but I can’t credibly put that on Carmelo, I’ll just say it’s a hell of a coincidence how similar the mentor and mentee have behaved off court.

There was the second contract in 2014. If Melo really cared about a championship, he could’ve defected to Chicago, still a contender with a healthy Bulls core during the first Thibs run. But instead he came back to the Knicks, maximizing every last dollar (the Bulls could’ve offered him 24 mil a year for four to the Knicks 25.8 for five), but allegedly because he needed to finish what he started here in New York, had to bring home a ring, and for some incomprehensible reason we gave him a no trade clause, and because Thibs would’ve made him play defense, Melo re-signed with New York, condemning us to three more years of abject misery.

The final sin comes at the end of his tenure. The show is over. The emperor is naked. Even the very last of the Melo diehards know it’s time to move on, but we’re hamstrung by the no-trade clause. Melo has a shortlist of places he’ll be willing to go. But the bloom is off the rose, and as it becomes clear no one wants him, the list grows, but even after Kyrie Irving demands a trade, he won’t include the Cavs on his list because everyone knows LeBron is leaving after the next season. Instead, Kyrie goes to Boston. As we get closer and closer to the season with no progress, after Kyrie leaves, he adds Cleveland to this list, and eventually ends up in OKC. He couldn’t even die with dignity, then he ended up in arguably the worst destination because anywhere would be better than here. Yes we eventually got Mitchell Robinson out of the deal a — nearly miraculous outcome for a lone second-round pick. Yes Kyrie Irving is a locker room minus and a maniac, and yes, again, besides the point.

The point of this exercise is interrogating the makeup of Carmelo Anthony the person, the player, his legacy. We can look at the aftermath of these deals, how the eventualities shaped what any of this was ultimately worth, but these are bad faith arguments letting the individual off the hook for what was infuriating dickhead-ishness at the time, in those rooms. We’re asking what this team meant to him, what we meant to him. The answer every time was “not enough”.

And these points of inflection throughout his career are easy to point to and argue about, but the real reason I eventually got to a place where I hated Melo on the Knicks was I had to watch it every night. It’s what always kills me with Melo, what I simply can never get over. In his prime, he was a singularly gifted scorer. The most potent offensive weapon, the best pure scorer I’d ever seen before Kevin Durant. And it wasn’t just scoring. He was a capable passer, and an actual good defender when he cared to play defense, which was almost never. There was no ceiling on who he could’ve become and what he could’ve accomplished if he’d bought into a team concept, really any team concept, got over himself and allowed his tremendous talent to be deployed in the interest of winning.

There is simply nothing worse than an offense that grinds play to a standstill. Watching this guy at the elbow, night after night, patting the ball, pounding the ball, dropping his shoulders and throwing head fakes no one is buying, before fading into another in an endless stream of heavily-contested shots deep into the shot clock. Some nights they fall and we’re treated to an incredible performance; most nights they didn’t. He’d still grind his way to the respectable stat lines he put up his entire career, but it just sucked to watch.

I think of Mike D’Antoni, a dream come true coach for me personally as the architect of the modern offense I used to love watching when he was with the Suns. And I’m not a religious person, but if I’m wrong, and hell is real, and I live a shitty life, I’ll spend the rest of eternity on the Knicks sideline in 2010 and 2011, watching the 7 Seconds or Less guy, begging for some ball movement and helpless as my incalcitrant All Star scowls, pissing away possession after possession. You can’t control the team around you, but you still have to answer for how you play. This is all he was willing to give us, and this was all we got.

There was, however, a lone exception. For two seasons as a Knick, Melo played the 4: 2012-13, and 2013-14. I don’t think it’s a coincidence this happened for the first time in his career with Jason Kidd at the point — a locker room veteran, commanding floor general even in his geriatric state, and a legend Melo actually respected. Melo was strong enough to bang with other 4’s around the league, and faster and more athletic than all of them. Power Forward was his natural position, but he’d never do it, because he preferred to play “down,’ as most tweeners do. People point to 2013 as what Melo gave us, the ultimate defense of his legacy as a Knick. I point to it as damning evidence of what he could’ve and should’ve always been.

Today, Melo is a feel good story. He’s back with his childhood buddy LeBron, and there’s going to be many times this season he goes off, playing his proper role and position at his age, as an open option microwave scorer when his more dangerous teammates attract defensive attention, leaving him open to unleash that shot, still beautiful and deadly after all these years. And I want the best for him. If the Knicks can’t win a ring, I’d love to see Melo finally win one. His narrative arc is impossible not to root for, a guy who had to get over himself to climb back into the league after he was left for dead in his mid to late thirties, and finally settled comfortably into the final chapter of his career. It’s a happy ending difficult for guys half as good as he was at his peak to embrace, and he should be commended for finally swallowing his pride and making a sacrifice.

But I’d also say it shouldn’t have taken this long, and it doesn’t change his resume in New York. Although I think working on this piece has finally given me an idea of why a certain stripe of Knicks fan clings so stubbornly to his time in New York, and is constantly revising his record.

What Melo represents was a brief respite from the decades long misery of this century. He was a real superstar, and a true talent, but a major shitheel. And that’s OK. Both things can be true. Young Knicks fans who didn’t get to see the ‘90s run, and don’t understand what rooting for an actual good team feels like, think this is the best they deserve. But what I would say to those fans is you’re all worshipping at the altar of a golden calf. The Melo years sucked. And it’s incredibly damning because they sucked, nearly by design, by Melo’s choice, because there was no room on or off the court for anything but his incredible hubris, his unbearable ego.

With this entire prosecution, I probably come off as a hard hearted dickhead, a mean spirited old bastard ... and that’s true, but not entirely true. I’m not immune to nostalgia. When I think back on how I want to remember Melo as a player, I’m drawn to Easter Sunday in 2012. The opening keys of Dirty Money’s “Coming Home”, and the excitement of getting Melo, the prodigal son returned, come rushing back. We were playing the Bulls in the Garden. It was Derrick Rose’s first game back from injury, he was rusty, but he was there, near the height of the Bulls as a legitimate Eastern Conference contender moment (they were 43-14 at the time).

And Melo was brilliant. He forced overtime with a wild three, then won the game with another. I was ironically, at Brazen Head, on Atlantic, surrounded by friends and strangers, losing my fucking mind, screaming myself horse, finally able to experience the incomprehensible joy of having my very own superstar to cheer for, the sensation of having a team that could win a game against anyone, any given night, thanks to the incredible talent of one of the best basketball players to ever play the game, one of the 75 best basketball players of all time.

And I’d guess, if you asked Melo about that game, he’d give you that smirk, and recount every moment, hitting those shots, screaming “This is my house!” over the din of an arena he dreamed of playing in front of since he was a kid, beating the odds and winning a game anyone who watched it will remember for the rest of their lives. It’s how in Carmelo Anthony’s mind palace, in a perfect world, basketball is supposed to be played. A gladiator in his coliseum, with the game in his hands, playing hero ball, hitting impossible shot after impossible shot, as everyone on both teams stand around and watch him perform miracles, and an adoring crowd chants his name.

And that is, and always was, the problem.