The Jeremy Lin story has shifted focus, now that we all accept him as a saint sent down by the Basketball Gods to save the New York Knicks in an act of divine providence. The question has now become whether Carmelo Anthony will ruin the celebration of life that has followed the Knicks around for the past two weeks. Anthony, one of the league's top scorers and a player for whom New York gutted its roster a year ago, is expected to return from injury on Friday against the New Orleans Hornets or Sunday against the Dallas Mavericks.
There are really two levels to this question. The more primitive, Cowherdian version of the question is, frankly, stupid. It assesses Lin as a Winner, 'Melo as a Loser -- the Knicks were a few games below .500 with Anthony leading the way -- and the reintroduction of 'Melo as a direct attack on the Winner. Observers suggesting this train of thought blame 'Melo for being a 25-point scorer and not a point guard -- "damn you for your inability to transfigure on demand" -- and blame 'Melo for Mike D'Antoni's inability to produce an offense that does not rely on heavy playmaking from the guard position. Remember: 'Melo never had the benefit of Lin, by far the roster's best point guard. 'Melo had Toney Douglas and a late-starting, injury-battling rookie Iman Shumpert.
The idea that 'Melo isn't a "winner" is mind-boggling considering he's been in the playoffs every season of his career. Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash -- all considered winners -- can't say that. Chris Paul can't say that. Anthony always had a strong supporting cast in Denver, but he was also always the best and most valuable player on the Nuggets' roster, as he is now with the Knicks. The pendulum has swung way too far on 'Melo in the public eye, all because he couldn't become the point guard that D'Antoni and Amare Stoudemire needed early this season.
There is another version of the "can Lin and 'Melo work well?" question that seems valid as a basketball exercise, and that's one that looks at the strengths and weaknesses of each player and the rest of the roster, and assesses whether this is a good fit. Luckily, 'Melo has had the fortune of playing with a few different strong point guards over the years.
The two that stick out are Andre Miller (Anthony's point guard in Denver from the time 'Melo was drafted in 2003 through the middle of the 2006-07 season, when Miller was swapped for Allen Iverson) and Chauncey Billups (Anthony's point guard for the last three seasons in Denver and New York). Miller is your traditional pass-first point guard, an unreliable deep shooter who thrives in the pick-and-roll and in transition. His assist numbers were rather depressed while playing with 'Melo, but the team won tons of games and Anthony rose to the top ranks of NBA scorers.
After the A.I. experiment -- which also resulted in plenty of wins, and plenty of Anthony Carter starts at point guard -- Billups arrived, presenting a much different look than what Miller offered. Billups was one of the first modern shoot-first point guards, harkening back to pioneer of the field Isiah Thomas. He picked up far fewer assists than Miller -- with an assist rate in the mid-20s vs. Miller's mid-30s -- but scored a good deal more, and did so efficiently. This, of course, resulted in quite a few wins, a solid offensive output with 'Melo and what we would call general success.
Lin isn't quite Miller, and he's not quite Billups, but he's a nice brew of the two. Like Miller, Lin can be an excellent set-up playmaker -- those 14 assists against the Kings on Wednesday looked so effortless as to seem totally repeatable against sub-elite defenses. Like Billups, Lin has shown the ability to be a fearless scorer, a guard willing to go off of the dribble at any point, confident enough to careen toward the rim for lay-up attempts and aggressive enough to fire up jumpers when he has space to breathe.
This is the key: Lin, right now, looks like he could stare the Devil himself in the face and laugh. There's something to be said about the way in which the international hype bubble stemming from Madison Square Garden has forced Lin to accelerate his acceptance of power and responsibility. In a different environment, perhaps, more gradual pressure would have failed to spur Lin's psychological adaptation needed given the stakes involved. You can't go through what Lin has been through for the last two weeks and lack complete faith in your own abilities.
That's what a domineering scorer like Anthony needs as a counterweight: someone willing to ignore the consistent calls for the ball and a clear-out. Look at Kobe Bryant. Four years and two championships later and he and Pau Gasol are still passive-aggressively pumping each other about shots. Yet Andrew Bynum, a man whose sense of his own greatness exceeds his actual greatness, has waltzed right in and taken what's his (that being more shots). I've got to think that after all of this, Lin will take that which he has earned. The kid doesn't look like someone prepared to wilt like an iris in December.
Carmelo's no fool, and this can work if the team's defense holds up, if Stoudemire finds his spots (primarily crashing the offensive glass and working with Lin in the pick-and-roll) and if guys like Steve Novak continue to hit their shots. J.R. Smith, reported to be close to a deal with New York, is both a new challenge and a new opportunity; his three-point shooting is sorely needed, while his propensity to break off plays for pull-up 25-footers with 15 seconds on the clock is not.
'Melo succeeded with Miller and Billups because of mutual respect and a level of sovereignty for the point guards. Few on the planet lack respect for Lin at this point, and 'Melo sure as Hades isn't one of the few blind mice. This can work. This can keep New York basketball relevant all season long, and perhaps beyond.