by Paul West
I’ve watched the New York Knicks for just about as long as I’ve watched sports. In the epic spring of 1994, I spent two months on the edge of my seat as the Knicks and New York Rangers energized a city whose sports fans needed a boost. I’ve always been convinced that John Starks‘ corner three, an aspiring walkoff that would have won the championship in six games, was unequivocally headed through the bottom of the net if not for Hakeem Olajuwon‘s outstretched fingernails. I’ve been with the Knicks through more ups and downs than I can count, from Larry Johnson‘s epic four-point play (which I watched in an upper west size corner pizzeria) to PJ Brown‘s assault on Chris Childs and the subsequent letter-of-the-law suspensions that cost us Game Seven against the Miami Heat. Through it all, I stuck it out even when other Knicks fans jumped ship.
The Mike D’Antoni era was both particularly hopeful and particularly frustrating. The core of the team was an energetic collection of high-scoring but defensively challenged hustle-bunnies that was never out of a game, and included David Lee, Wilson Chandler, Nate Robinson, Jamal Crawford and Danilo Gallinari; that cast of characters will always have a special place in my heart, and I still believe they would have been a dangerous playoff threat if they’d been coached to play defense as more than an afterthought. And when that team was blown up to bring in Carmelo Anthony, I railed against it. I predicted doom, and told anyone who would listen that Melo was the ultimate ‘subtraction by addition’ scoring machine who would kill the collective offense and create disharmony in the clubhouse. I continued to rail as the Nuggets went on to have one the best records in basketball over the better part of the following year, before being derailed by injuries. And finally, I’m sorry to admit, I gave up on the Knicks. Yes, they had one of the best pure scorers in the league; but that pure scorer was often a ball-stopping crusher of team momentum, who shot the ball with astounding impunity while playing defense half-heartedly and seeming to frustrate his teammates. Even as Melo piled up points, the Knicks could only score when he was red hot–and when he was red-hot, teammates’ shots went ice cold. For weeks at a time, glares and sidelong glances were shared more readily than assists.
When Phil Jackson came to town, I thought, if any coach can ‘fix’ Melo, it’s this guy. Phil has a long history of building contenders around egotistical superstars, and he’s uniquely skilled at pushing the otherwise uncoachable to evolve as players. Yet for most of last season, things looked the same as they had before Phil: Melo was shooting constantly, arresting ball movement and not rebounding or defending with any conviction. The rest of the team lacked chemistry and a sense of itself. Then Melo got hurt, and there was no fallback strategy as the team swooned even farther.
Then came this year’s draft. The Knicks drafted as wisely as they have in seemingly a generation, and the Knicks as currently constructed have the air of a team with purpose and a future. They hustle, they’re balanced, they’re energetic, and they seem to play for each other in a way the Garden faithful haven’t witnessed in years.
Make no mistake: Kristaps Porzingis‘ poise, versatility and explosive athleticism is a huge reason for the Knicks’ resurgence. Aaron Afflalo was a huge acquisition, and roleplayers like Langston Galloway, Jerian Grant and Jose Calderon have helped give this team its energy, balance and tenacity. But none of this would be happening if Carmelo Anthony was still playing as described above. Instead, Melo has been rebounding and defending with an energy he used to show only intermittently; he’s cheering for teammates in a way Knicks fans have never witnessed; and most instructively, he seems unperturbed by sharing the spotlight with his exciting young teammate.
The evolution of Carmelo Anthony might be the biggest key to the current state of the Knicks as a surprise contender.
At this point, one can make a viable chicken/egg argument about the relationship of the latest draft class to Melo’s new approach. One might suggest that he’s playing team ball because he has a big man he trusts to score, rebound and make plays. One might say he’s playing team ball because he’s surrounded by higher-quality guards. But Melo has been surrounded with a decent supporting cast before, as he was with the Denver Nuggets before they finally traded him for two-thirds of a new squad. Say what you want about JR Smith and Jeremy Lin, they’re both talented and highly athletic and have gone on to measures of success in their new locales. This might be the best combination of youth and talent Melo’s played with here in New York, but it isn’t as if he’s never had talented teammates–if not here, then certainly in Denver. The key, really, seems to be that Melo just finally ‘gets it.’
Maybe Phil’s finally worked his superstar-whisperer magic on Melo. Maybe Melo’s come into greater wisdom by way of age. Maybe he’s begun to see his basketball mortality come into view, and realized that team titles go down in history more often than scoring titles. Either way, if this year’s Melo was last year’s Melo, Porzingis might be currently viewed as a bust and this year’s Knicks draft class would be seen as a cast ‘you can’t win with.’
The bottom line: the New York Knicks are, at long last, fun to watch again. They appear, at long last, to be having fun again. And playing for each other again.
At a recent home game, the Madison Square Garden crowd chanted Porzingis’ name as he stood at the free throw line. Some even chanted “MVP.” Melo didn’t grimace or grouse, and when the time came to take over on offense, he did just that–but when the time came to be a playmaker, or to lead a cheering section as one of his teammates hit a big shot or hammered home a putback dunk…he did that, too. Carmelo Anthony is expanding his game, leading by example, and doing more than just scoring.
It’s been a while since I’ve eaten my words so gladly, but it’s also refreshing to write this: Carmelo Anthony is one of the reasons why the New York Knicks are turning it around. That he seems at peace with not being the only reason, and perhaps not even being the biggest reason…that’s as important as all the points he can score.