Thursday night, in the Knicks' 102-88 loss to Miami, Carmelo Anthony was forgettable. His 19 points led New York, and they're the most he's scored since returning to the lineup on Monday night. They also marked Melo's first three-game stretch without breaking 20 points since November of 2008. Counting the Utah game when he got hurt and the one before, he's in the midst of the longest period between 20 point games in his career.
You would never know this scanning the New York sports sections Friday morning. The headlines are all about Jeremy Lin, replete with the New York Post calling him "Lin-ept." Just a year ago, New York was so excited to have Anthony, it pretended a man with "West Baltimore" tattooed on his arm was really from New York. Monday night, he returned after missing eight games due to injury with the big question being whether he's willing to hold back so as to make room for a guy who's played 11 NBA games anyone actually remembers.
Even if Melo wasn't good enough Thursday, he's still the Knicks' best player. His media circus seems like an eternity ago, as do the days when he averaged nearly 30 points per game. But he's still the guy who would have to lead New York, even if only on the scoreboard, if they want to make the second round of the playoffs for the first time in 12 years. That's how it should be for the man making nearly $20 million per season.
But the reputation, and maybe even legacy, of a man who scored over 20 points per game in the 2008 Olympics is out on its feet, and Thursday night's game against Miami won't make things any better. The Knicks are headed into the All-Star break with something to play for, and plenty of eyes will be on Anthony while it happens.
Anyone watching Melo play against the Nets and Hawks noticed how timid he was, as if he was afraid to step on anyone's toes. And while he did more against Miami, even while Lin was being overwhelmed by the Heat's pressure, that wasn't the alpha scorer we saw in Denver.
Since when have five-time All-Stars been expected to play second fiddle to recent D-Leaguers? Forget any clever pun. The notion is patently insane.
But instead of stating the obvious: that Melo has struggled, why have so few people asked why? Unless he forgot how to play basketball during the lockout, the problem is bigger than him. And it just might be bigger than anything Linsanity could fix.
Here's how confused the basketball world is about Melo -- he's averaging fewer points than he has since 2005, has the highest assist percentage of his career and has attempted fewer field goals per game than any years in his career but two ... and has been deemed selfish. It's an illogical notion, but understandable to anyone who has seen Melo with the ball on the wing doing what he does best: patiently waiting for his chance at the right moment to attack a defender and score.
It's been called "ball stopping" and everything else, but it was called something else before Melo got to New York -- effective. He was a "ball stopper" when the Knicks did whatever necessary to acquire him, and he was a "ball stopper" when he became a star in Denver. But selfish? He hasn't complained about his shots being down, nor has he expressed any jealousy about Lin's emergence. Plus, let's not forget Melo found a way to coexist with Allen Iverson and J.R. Smith at the same time.
The problem isn't his mentality. He just hasn't been as good. It's not how many shots he takes, but the quality of those looks. Check this chart from HoopData.com.
Long of the short: this year, and since he's gotten to New York, Melo's taking less shots near the rim and more from three-point range. This season, he's shooting worse from the field than ever and, while chucking up more threes than ever, carrying his lowest three-point field goal percentage since 2007. According to Synergy Sports, while playing less in isolation this season than he typically did in Denver, he's taken nearly twice as many threes per game in iso as he did in 2010 ... and made all of three. Since he started playing in Mike D'Antoni's vaunted system, he's doing more of what he does the worst and less of his best.
Could Lin do anything to correct that? Has he gotten more touches for Melo in the post, where Synergy says he's eighth in the league in points per play? Has Lin's emergence allowed Anthony to handle the ball more on the pick and roll, where Melo's second in the NBA in PPP? Is Lin even in a position to make it easier for Melo? Linsanity's done a lot for many, from David Stern to Steve Novak, but it's done nothing for the Knicks' best player.
Lost in the glow of Lin's star has been an honest discussion of his skills as a point guard. Many asked whether Anthony could fit in with Lin, but when has that ever been a question to ask about a good point guard? The better question would be -- and still is -- whether Lin could get the best out of Carmelo. Many asked if Melo could stay out of the way. They should have asked if Melo could lead the way, and what Lin could do to make that happen.
And what exactly has D'Antoni done to work with Melo's talents? He surely has access to the same Synergy stats as the rest of us basketball nerds. He can see how Melo's game changed as soon as he got to Gotham, and how that hasn't been for the better. He also must know his system has always been friendlier to point guards and shooters than slashers and guys with inside-out games. D'Antoni has to recognize that regardless of Melo's current health or confidence level, there's no way he stopped being one of the best scorers in the league at age 27.
And if Melo continues to struggle after the All-Star break as he did before it, with the postseason ahead and a chance to avoid a first-round matchup with the Bulls or Heat, something has to change.
This was why D'Antoni's job was in danger before Linsanity -- his bosses moved heaven and earth for a very expensive player, and D'Antoni did nothing to maximize a return on that investment. The timing of the Knicks return to Earth coincides with Anthony's return, but nothing has truly changed since he left. They've changed for the Knicks, certainly, since they finally have someone to play point and reason for optimism. But if the Knicks continue to misuse Melo, that might be for naught.
The backlash Melo's fought all season was almost preordained after the madness surrounding the trade that sent him to New York. He made the trade difficult by making it clear he only wanted to go one place, thereby minimizing Denver's bargaining power, but they still forced the Knicks to gut their roster the way a team does when it has a chance to acquire a superstar.
The problem is they weren't trading for a superstar. They acquired Melo, a dynamite scorer with a helluva reputation. But he's still a better player than Jeremy Lin or anyone else on New York's roster. He's still the man who will have to carry the Knicks if they want to get to the second round of the playoffs for the first time in 12 years.
But he wasn't a guy that would flourish no matter the system, someone who could control games in more than one way. He's a scorer, first and last. He needed to be put in situations where he could be successful. His game wasn't adaptable to any style of play. He needed space and time to operate, and the flexibility to go inside and out. There are better perimeter players and those with superior post games, but no one combined the two like Anthony. To take one away would be to make him ordinary, just as LeBron James would be if forced to become a long-range gunner.
If Melo only puts up 21.5 points per game, as he is now, is he more than Kevin Martin with a cooler name? Unless he starts playing more like a young Ron Artest, scoring as he has this season doesn't make him a franchise player. It probably wouldn't make him an All-Star, were it not for fan voting. In this way, he has been exposed.
But this should not be damning to him. A player that talented with the ball in his hands shouldn't have to be much more than a scorer on offense. He's proven himself a willing passer this season, making it hard to believe he has to stagnate an offense to be effective. He was brought to the Garden to fill it up, and he gets paid too much money for that not to be his team's primary focus. Seeing how Amar'e Stoudemire has as much lift as Zach Randolph these days, Anthony remains the only truly special player on New York's roster.
And in this "players' league," it's foolish of a team and coach not to get the most out of their rarest, most valuable and most expensive commodity.
Should Anthony be able to fit in any system, at his price? That doesn't matter now that the Knicks have him on the payroll. All that matters now is figuring what's best for him, because that is ultimately what will be best for the team.
Those jobs, traditionally, fall on the head coach or point guard. If they can't figure it out before the playoffs roll around, Lin isn't the phenomenon he's purported to be, and the only real winner from Linsanity was a man whose job shouldn't have been saved.
The loser? The Knicks' true star, the man who's not complaining, but has every right to.