File this under: Be careful what you wish for. Knicks fans and Knicks owner James Dolan, if not Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni and Knicks general manager Donnie Walsh, have been drooling over forward Carmelo Anthony for months, and now they’ve finally got their man. Amar’e and Melo! Why it’s almost – almost – as good as LeBron, Dwyane and Bosh. With these two chucking it up, can a title be far behind? Who cares if you just gutted your roster? Who cares if you just precluded a real shot at Dwight Howard, Chris Paul or Deron Williams when they hit the free agent market? Amar’e and Melo! The net will be ripping at the Garden now.
Until cooler heads prevail, you may be forgiven for thinking that this could be another near-LeBron moment, except that it isn’t, and here’s why: Carmelo Anthony, despite the fact that he was a first-team Western Conference All-Star selection (over Nowitzki! Come on! Over LaMarcus Aldridge! Come on!), a perennial contender for the scoring title, a high draftee in the stellar 2003 class of LeBron and Dwyane, isn’t really all that, even if the Knicks needed a small forward, which, frankly, is not, from a basketball standpoint, high on their “to do” list.
As far as Anthony’s lust for New York, it should be noted that his ultimatum to get out of Denver had nothing to do with the conventional excuse for wanting out of town: Winning a championship. He probably had a better chance of doing that in Denver than he does in New York (OK, no chance in either place), but his lust for The
Garden is understandable and also illustrates what’s wrong with Anthony.
The Garden is a stone’s throw from Broadway, and Anthony is more of an entertainer who will lift fans out of their seats than he is a basketball prodigy who will lift championship banners to the rafters. As such, he panders to a blind spot among fans not just of basketball but of all sports: We like to be entertained so much that we often don’t care if it comes at the expense of the real beauty of the game, which is seeing individuals harmonize into a team, and the purpose of the game, which is winning. Anyone who thinks that Anthony is going to bring the Knicks a championship has been inhaling too much second-hand smoke at Grateful Dead concerts.
Granted, Anthony entered the league with tons of promise as the youngster who led Syracuse to the NCAA title, and wise observers thought that Detroit made a grievous mistake in choosing a tall pine, Darko Milicic, over him. (Those wise men, by the way, were right; Anthony may not be LeBron, but Milicic isn’t even Desagana Diop.) And Anthony made a good first impression, averaging more than 20 points his rookie year; he’s never averaged under that since, reaching a peak of 28.9 in 2006-2007. He’s also been a consistent 45 percent shooter from the field (until this year, when he has sunk to 43 percent), and he’s been an 80 percent shooter from the free throw line. His playoff numbers are pretty close to these figures, so if he doesn’t pick it up a notch when it counts, he doesn’t lose a notch either. (Yes, playoff crunch time is another story and not a particularly happy one.)
But he who lives by numbers can also die by numbers, and there are whole lot of metrics that go beneath and beyond Anthony’s scoring to expose him for what he is: A good, one-dimensional player but hardly a superstar, maybe not even a top 20 player.
Basketball Prospectus found him last year to be worth 8.6 wins above a replacement player, which is to say a player with average statistics. Not bad, but LeBron was worth 25.4 wins, Wade 20, Durant 18.3 and Dwight Howard 18.2. The glitch is that while Anthony is a prolific scorer, he is also a prolific shooter. His “true shooting percentage,” which takes into account both shooting from the field and the free throw line was 55.8 percent, again compared to 60.4% for LeBron. (He’s also an abysmal 3-point shooter.) By another metric, this one devised by 82games.com, in the past two years, Anthony accounted for 5.84 points more than an average player would per 200 possessions. This compares to 15.41 for LeBron, 13.85 for Durant, 10.15 for Nowitzki and even 6.22 for LaMarcus Aldridge. Anthony ranked 20th, which is still higher than he ranks according to John Hollinger’s comprehensive Personal Efficiency Rating, where he sits in the 22nd position so far this year. To complete the picture, he also takes a high percentage of jump shots (62 percent), seldom works the clock, and has more of his shots blocked than any other player in the league.
The problem is that, numbers aside, he can be fun to watch. He can shoot from any spot on the floor, and he knows how to put the ball in the hoop. He’s a scoring machine –- Dominique Wilkins 2.0 without the hops. He’s so silky smooth you can almost excuse the fact that he is a lackadaisical defender, though Anthony did exert some effort for the better part of two playoff games two years ago against the Lakers before he reverted to form and invited his man to blow by him. He’s just not that into defense.
But the deeper issue with Carmelo Anthony isn’t that he hates to defend, shoots too much, takes tough shots or stagnates the offense by doing his own thing while his teammates pull up chairs to watch. The deeper issue is that Anthony’s offense obscures all the things he doesn’t do -- the intangible things that transform a player from talented to great and that lead a team to victory.
I can’t think of another player in the league who is the best on his team who isn’t also the leader of his team. LeBron, Kobe, Dirk, Nash, Durant, Derrick Rose, Amar’e –- these guys are not only the best, they take the load upon themselves. But in Denver, Chauncey Billips was the acknowledged leader. He’s the one who set an example, lit the fire under his teammates, chewed out slackers, took the last shot. Anthony is just a guy who shoots. Most of the time he’s got the body language of a sulky teenager who doesn’t want to clean up his room.
The only conceivable reason that any team would want to give a max contract to a guy who shoots a ton, can’t defend worth a lick and has no leadership skills is because most fans like offense –- it’s entertaining –- and they confuse showmanship with skill. And if you think sophisticated Knick fans won’t fall for this, let me remind you of how they cheered Nate Robinson, a showman extraordinaire who is also one lousy basketball player.
And that’s where Anthony becomes an object-lesson that reaches beyond himself and beyond the NBA. Entertainment isn’t necessarily mutually exclusive with teamwork and winning. Lots of great players are also great showmen –- Kobe, for example –- and lots aren’t –- Tim Duncan, for example.
But entertainment in the wrong hands is a dangerous force, and it can distend the game in less than salutary directions. Entertainment is the reason why baseball looked the other way when its hitters were obviously bulking up on steroids and their heads were expanding like balloons: because lots of you wanted to see more balls jacked out the park. It is the reason the NFL was so slow to punish hits to the helmet: because many of you love the violence of a guy being knocked unconscious. It is the reason the NHL has historically had such a difficult time policing goons: because many of you like to see two goliaths pummeling one another. This stuff is so much fun to watch, it’s better than the pure game. It’s even better than winning.
So Carmelo Anthony may not be all that good, but he is good to watch ... so long as you don’t care about viewing fundamental team basketball or seeing defensive basketball or witnessing an exercise in leadership or winning a championship. He’s a pretty nifty showman. He’s just not much of a basketball player.