Imperfect Melo Returns, Give Him Some Love

Carmelo Anthony returns as a visitor to Madison Square Garden and he should be cheered. He loved New York. He didn’t force his way out of town, never disrespected the fanbase, and he gave it everything. He even looked the other way when Phil Jackson waged his private war. Multiple times Carmelo could have thrown in the towel but he stayed. He repeatedly said he wanted to win in New York and had he done so that would have been special.

Carmelo Anthony has never been the perfect player or the kind of player the Garden faithful unanimously fetishize, not Kobe ruthless, not LeBron unselfishness, not Wade scorer, not capable of carrying a team to a title. He was scintillating at the good things but the little things- to be truthful and to keep it 100- he ignored. His defense and passing were average.

But Melo could score blindfolded. And he loved the lights and New York presssure.

The Knicks before Melo were dreadful. They hadn’t been to the playoffs in six years with Stephon Marbury, Eddy Curry, Al Harrington, David Lee as leading scorers. They won 33 games. 23 games. 33 games. 23 games. 32 games. 29 games.  In those years, their first round picks were Channing Frye, Renaldo Balkman, Danilo Galinari, Jordan Hill. No All-Stars. Balkman and Hill are no longer in the league.

The Knicks not only needed a star, they needed Melo. The year before Melo, 2009-10, the Knicks had MSG capacity 98.7%. That was 8th in the league. Two years later with Melo entrenched, MSG capacity was 100%. Standing Room Only.

With Melo, the Knicks were captivating, interesting and relevant. Until April rolled around and the playoffs were here.  In 2011, coached by Mike D’Antoni, they were swept by the KG Celtics. The first two games at Boston were close. The next two at MSG were blowouts. Carmelo stunk shooting the ball in game three, the first MSG playoff game since 2004, missing 12 out of 16 shots. He had 11 boards and 6 assists but was a -27. In game 4, the closeout, he had 32 points on 24 shots. He went to the line 11 times. He had 9 rebounds. Amare Stoudamire added 19 points to usher in summer vacation.

The next year (2012) they won one game against the Heat so that was progress but the games weren’t close. They lost one game by 33 points, another game by 17 points. The one game the Knicks won was by two points and it was the last game at MSG that year, May 6th 2012.

Then the whispers started. Melo is for the regular season. Melo is unable to carry a team. Melo is selfish. Here he was the supposed difference in New York but he couldn’t win a playoff series. It didn’t help matters that his best friends, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, were champions.

The next year, 2013, Melo broke through against the Celtics. The Knicks had home court but the pivotal game was Game 3 at the Garden. The Knicks won by 14 to take a 3-0 lead. Melo had 1 rebound and 0 asssits and 0 free throws but scored 26 points on 48% shooting. Raymond Felton and J.R. Smith came up big. Up 3-0, the series was technically over. Finally, Melo had won a playoff series for New York. In the second round, the Knicks lost 2-4 to the Pacers.

And that was that. No more playoffs for the Knicks since 2013.

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Melo arrived in New York late February 2011. His first game was against Milwuakee. He dropped 27 in the Garden in his debut along with 10 rebounds. His performance backed up his All-Star rep: he was the best pure scorer in the NBA. He didn’t have to work hard at shooting the rock. Starting in game number one, he did what New Yorkers ask of their superstars. He showed up. He gave the fans joy.

17 rebounds in Boston Garden, 2011 playoffs. 43 points against the Bulls in 2012. (31 shots, 80% from three). 50 points against the Heat in 2013. (69% shooting, 40 minutes).  62 points in 38 minutes against Charlotte, a thing of beauty. (13 rebounds. 65% shooting). 165 points in four games over a five day period, February 19-24, 2014.

And then, Melo began to score less, rebound less, miss games beause of injury. This is his 15th year, as crazy as that seems. He is an older player on the backside of his caeeer. By nature of the calendar- Melo is 33- he is slipping out of his prime which for most NBA players comes after the age of 32. Then Father Time hits with all the finesse of a sledgehammer and former dominant players trickle into their dog years. Maybe that is why ESPN ranked Melo the 64th best NBA player before the season.  Maybe it is the Melo collective, his New York agony. Maybe it is that Carmelo’s last season with the Knicks was one in which he declined in almost every statistical category that matters except three point shooting. And this too hanging over his head: he never made the Knicks exceptional.

Melo was with the Knicks in his prime and he was one of the scariest scorers, able to make shots effortlessly and from anywhere on the floor. And then he was out of his prime. Often, he didn’t realize it.

His last season with the Knicks, Anthony’s field goal percentage continued to go south. 2016-17 was the third year in a row Anthony’s field goal percentage had been lower than the year before. His 3-point shooting increased last season to 35.9% but it was nowhere near his high of 40.2% in 2013-14. Last season, was the first time in his career, he didn’t average one offensive rebound per game and the rest of his rebounding was a ten year low. Russell Westbrook and James Harden had more rebounds than Carmelo Anthony did his last season with the Knicks.

Melo Madness Points FG% 3-Point% Rebounds Defensive Rating
2016-17 (Knicks) 22.4 43.3% 35% 5.9 113
2017-18 (Thunder) 17.7 40% 34% 6.4 104

I remember Xmas Day 2016.  The Knicks played the Celtics. Everyone knew what was going to happen in the Garden once the Knicks tied the score and had the ball to take the lead late in the game. Carmelo held on, dribbled while surveying the court and Avery Bradley, a top rated wing defender, anticipating the Melo move that is available on game film from every Carmelo matchup, stole the ball and the game.

That is why the Knicks and Melo had to part ways. For both of them to save face. Let Melo try to win a ring. Let Porzingis lead the Knicks.

It has been a long time since Melo was a 26 point per game scorer like Porzingis. The binary evidence seems to indicate he has turned a page in his NBA career. His career average is 24.6 points per game and last year he managed 22.4 points. Of course if the Knicks had a winning product, Carmelo’s production and efficiency would have been overlooked. But the Knicks weren’t winning with him.

This season, Carmelo is ranked 30th in Real Plus-Minus. Kristaps Porzingis is ranked 14th. The Knicks did the right thing. Carmelo Anthony has changed. It doesn’t matter if age is the cause. Like the Knicks, the Thunder are finding out he can’t save a team anymore just by his presence. His superstar cache has faded even as his popularity remains the same. He is an older player who has to adjust to how older players must play. More we and not me. Even when the game is on the line.

Phil Jackson disrepected him but Phil knew what he had to do. For the Knicks to become great, Carmelo had to leave. It wasn’t his fault. Carmelo is the same player the Knicks loved. But that player took up too much cap space and coudn’t pay for himself with his game. It worked for three years. In a perfect world, those Knick draft picks would have developed when Melo was in his prime.  But the world is not perfect, particularly the James Dolan Knicks world.

And so here we are with Melo returning home. The Garden will cheer. Russell Westbrook will do his best to make sure Melo gets a win. The Thunder’s defense will be the difference but Melo on Porzingis or Steven Adams on Porzingis will be funny (for me) and embarrassing (for them).

The Garden who loved Melo will show up. The Garden who were exasperated with Melo will show up. The Garden who love this next chapter will show up.

Melo has love.  He does. Whoever said you can’t go home again was lying.

 

 

 

photo via llananba