Goodbye To All That

Subway 1934, Lily Furedi

“For when we have suffered a long time, we have great difficulty in believing in good fortune.” – Edmond Dantès, The Count of Monte Cristo

Of the myriad tectonic shifts that have changed the landscape of the NBA this offseason, one of the least surprising was always bound to be Carmelo Anthony’s departure from the New York Knicks. In fact, that it took so long, as well as where he ended up, is the most shocking aspect of the deal. While Anthony is headed for surely greener pastures, albeit with a presumably (and rightfully) reduced role, his time with the Knicks will always inspire conflicted reactions. Before looking ahead, we always look back.

When the Knicks traded for Carmelo Anthony in February 2011[1], it was the culmination of a Knicksian search, which had begun with Amar’e Stoudemire the previous summer, for a glimmering light in the endless tunnel of despair, if only because he had to be. While Mike D’Antoni had been coaching the first post-Isiah Thomas Knicks squad to 32 wins two seasons prior, Anthony had been co-piloting his Denver Nuggets to a Western Conference Finals appearance.

This was a certified superstar, in the prime of his career, joining forces with another All-Star. The Knicks made the playoffs that year for the first time since 2004. With Tyson Chandler’s arrival the following summer, fresh off a championship with the Dallas Mavericks, popular sentiment suggested that the league’s foremost frontcourt could be in New York[2].

We all know what happens to the best-laid plans of mice and men, of course. Stoudemire’s talcum knees fell apart, and Anthony himself got injured, allowing for the rise of Linsanity in the spring of 2012. Anthony promptly ushered Jeremy Lin out of town, all but personally rolling a carpet for him from Madison Square Garden to Houston and ending the single most explosively exciting period of Knicks basketball this millennium before it ever had a chance to grow.

It set a troubling precedent that went on to include the exits of Stoudemire, D’Antoni and, perhaps most inspiringly, coaching legend and ex-Knick hero Phil Jackson. It did not, perhaps most encouragingly, include Porzingis, with whom he generally enjoyed an uneasy yet understood bond, particularly toward the end of the Latvian’s second season in the NBA.

Courtesy FOX Sports

The Great Unanswerable Discussion Question of Melo’s tenure with the Knicks will always concern who his best teammate was (late-period vintages of Chauncey Billups or Jason Kidd? Chandler? J.R. Smith? A nascent Porzingis?), but perhaps the more telling question focuses on point guards in particular. As someone who hawks the ball as much as he does – using 29.1% of his team’s possessions last season, at age 32, good for seventeenth in the league – Melo never settled into a comfort with anyone else orchestrating the offense.

That is, except for during the 2012-’13 season[3], when he ceded playmaking duties to the likes of Kidd and Pablo Prigioni. Coincidentally, that team won 54 games, earning the 2-seed in the Eastern Conference and winning the franchise’s first playoff series in over a decade. Melo won the scoring title that year and garnered the only first-place vote for Most Valuable Player that didn’t go to his good friend LeBron James.

It was the pinnacle of Anthony’s spell in New York; that it came crashing down so spectacularly over the following two seasons, and that the Knicks hadn’t returned to the playoffs in any of the four seasons since, is as much a product of his own refusal to bend when he needed to as it is management’s refusal to hold him accountable or, really, do anything other than introduce star power to combat frustrating ineptitude on the court.

Anthony’s greatest contributions as a Knick occurred off the floor, his social activism remaining prevalent even to the brink of his trade: on September 22nd, Melo established a donation page for hurricane relief in Puerto Rico, the home of his father. This, after most notably standing up at the ESPYs in 2016 alongside his Banana Boat friends to speak about Black Lives Matter and police brutality. His goal is to reach $1,000,000, all while the leader of this nation tweets through his own frustration at being #UBum to scores of influential athletes and the millions of people who adore them.

It is fitting that Anthony hands the reins of the franchise to Porzingis, the only second star with whom he ever seemed even remotely, truly comfortable and a player whom he made an effort to mentor. Melo wanted to win in New York, but he simply couldn’t, and nothing was going to change that as things were – not a simplistic reduction of his ego, nor a sudden embrace of playing power forward, nor an incremental salary cut at the behest of an owner and an organization whose guiding purpose over the past two decades has seemingly been to spectacularly waste as much money and break as many Big Apple-sized hearts in the most bafflingly insane ways as possible.

That isn’t to siphon any responsibility away from Anthony. Quite the contrary, in fact: the Knicks sold the farm for a fully-formed NBA player in the midst of his prime in 2011, a scorer around which to build, and it wasn’t up to Anthony to suddenly, drastically change his game for a roster as decimated as the trade for him had left it. He certainly forced things, both on and off the court, but he shouldered much more than even he could’ve expected when he first arrived, and he handled the infamously, exceptionally self-important local media with concerted dignity.

For that, he deserves some measure of commendation, the likes of which he (of course) never fully received in New York. Personally, I wish Carmelo Anthony all the best; the fact that #HoodieMelo now has a season to conduct a joint search for peace with the likes of Russell Westbrook and Paul George in Oklahoma City brings me unending joy from afar. I only hope they can find it, right where and when they least expected.

*     *     *

[1] Or: when James Dolan forced Donnie Walsh’s hand in a lopsided deal for a player who likely would’ve signed with the Knicks in free agency regardless, something that could go for several thousand extra words, but anyway, it happened, and we all acknowledge it was far too steep a price to pay six years later, even if we didn’t necessarily then (we did then).

[2] At precisely the time in the NBA’s development when the traditional idea of a “formidable frontcourt” was becoming rapidly antiquated; if Roy Hibbert couldn’t undo LeBron’s Heat in 2013, no big man tied to the paint was going to do so.

[3] A personal note: I’ve never had as much fun watching Knicks basketball as I did that season, and I’m certain I’m not alone. Many nights that winter married a Knicks victory with the splendors of the city, and it’s a miracle that neither I nor my friends were the primary cause for the permanent closure of a notorious outpost on 42nd Street named McFadden’s. In our defense, college is expensive, and happy hours are cheap.

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