The Step Back

Carmelo Anthony always gave the New York Knicks a chance

The true end for Carmelo Anthony with the New York Knicks, the tell that there was no way forward, came during a media gathering with team brass late last week at the team’s training facility.

No, it wasn’t when team president Steve Mills presented the future of Anthony and the Knicks in two-day increments, explaining that the team’s plan was “that Carmelo will be with us on Monday, and be at our Marketing Day, and Media Day, and be with us on Tuesday when we start practicing.”

Instead, it was what Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek said when asked about Anthony’s role for the third time during a press conference in which the media could ask about any subject, but repeatedly, understandably returned to Anthony: “Well I think the role’s not going to change. We’re going to implement certain plays, certain defensive schemes, that he’s going to be asked to do. But if you don’t think I’m not going to start him, you’re crazy.”

(Clearly this was a slip on Hornacek’s part, the opposite of what he meant to say — that Anthony was too talented to not be starting, no matter what the situation.)

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And that was what ultimately led to the divorce — Carmelo Anthony, bruised and battered by, oddly enough, his own organization, both the victim of his own limitations in seeing how to navigate the situations he chose for his own career and negligence of the kind that ends front office tenures, represents a disappointment to many.

But here in the real world, where Jeff Hornacek needs to keep his job, Carmelo Anthony is a player, a starter, a building block.

He is all these things. His presence limits discovering what exists in his absence. And thus, he doesn’t make much sense for the New York Knicks at this point in time, like a man with a New York apartment who owns an elephant.

The Knicks, with or without Anthony, are at a point where they need to figure out what defines them next. For better or worse, what has defined them since the moment they acquired Anthony in the winter of 2011 is Anthony.

Again, part of this is his own fault, his failure to play the leverage game properly. When he chose his destination, he made just enough noise about being absolutely sure he’d get paid, expressed just enough willingness to consider other destinations that the Knicks were bluffed into giving up the talent that could have either supported or been traded for those who could reinforce the very best of Carmelo Anthony’s prime years.

Accordingly, his apex with the Knicks crested at the height of a jump late in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, a Roy Hibbert block keeping the Knicks from expanding their lead and ultimately, sealing their fate shy of the championships so many seem to think is the only way to properly measure one of the league’s 50-75 greatest players ever, a multiple gold medalist and NCAA champion.

Denied a proper supporting cast, Anthony brought the Knicks that far with J.R. Smith playing the best ball of his career, Tyson Chandler breaking down, Jason Kidd in a shooting slump so vast he chose just weeks later to go into coaching instead — an achievement, complete with 54 wins. But no further, and in a town that’s been searching for an NBA title since Richard Nixon was the one committing crimes in the White House, that lands at his feet, unjustly, the same way Patrick Ewing paid for what came before him.

Both stars had plenty they could not do, and Ewing didn’t leave town until those skills had evaporated, but there is reason for hope that Anthony gets the chance in Oklahoma City to still shine. Even his final season with the Knicks, battling an utterly self-defeating public shaming from Phil Jackson over what are principally Jackson’s own failures as a team executive, Anthony posted his customary efficiency from the field with an endless array of shots, moves and frankly, will.

But learning whether Kristaps Porzingis can handle the late-game scoring, the 20-shot per game load, that simply wasn’t going to happen with Carmelo Anthony on the court. Moreover, it shouldn’t happen with Carmelo Anthony on the court, not the current version of him, not if the team is trying to win the game and needs baskets late. The focus on Anthony’s limitations come in part because of how any other aspect of his game pales in comparison to his decade and a half as an offensive force, but partly that is because he is an offensive force like this league has rarely seen.

For the Knicks, though, timetables haven’t been, well, an organizational priority. The early returns on Porzingis could not have been anticipated, and they obscured the reality that was apparent from the moment he was selected — no realistic pathway to a championship featuring both the peaks of Anthony and Porzingis existed, merely by virtue of the enormous gap between the two men’s birthdates. Anthony was in a hurry, Porzingis needed time, Phil Jackson — well, he kept alternating between patience and expedited plans until his tenure ended early. What was the chronological path? It seemed to involve time machines.

Now, the Knicks get to find out about Porzingis, yes, and Willy Hernangomez, and Frank Ntilikina, and there will be enough shots to go around. And it will take a while. Consider general manager Steve Perry, talking about the role Ntilikina will play here in year one of his career, along with the offseason veteran signings, Ramon Sessions and Jarrett Jack.

“Ultimately the division of labor is going to play itself out. And Jeff, and the staff will decide that in terms of the number of minutes that will be played. I think the thinking all along again, that position, that point guard position is akin to an NFL quarterback, in my opinion.  So for a young guy who’s just turned 19 years old, the more knowledge, that he can tap into in that film room, that point guard film room, the better for him. And so I think it’ll be a healthy competition, it’ll be a healthy education for him, and I think it will help grow and develop him at a faster pace.”

Logical to be sure. And yet there is the daunting task for Perry tucked into that answer. Look at this Knicks roster, and for the team to progress from the roughly 32-win group the wise men of Vegas and Nylon Calculus see to the future title contender the city of New York would probably choose over somebody fixing the subway, Ntilikina really needs to become this team’s best, or second-best player.

Sessions and Jack are knowledgeable, useful veterans. But just how wide is the gap between battling Ramon Sessions and Jarrett Jack for a job and becoming an NBA equivalent of a Klay Thompson, a Tony Parker, a Kyrie Irving? Well, assuming all else goes as planned, that Porzingis can develop further and isn’t looking for the exit to avoid an Anthony-like fate, the Knicks are that far away from contending. And as Mills put it, “He’s never had any strength conditioning, any balancing training. He just basically played. And he’s a young kid, 19 years old.”

The team isn’t pretending otherwise, not with Ntilikina, not with this team. After Michael Beasley, whose career fits so snugly into a Knicks-like arc it seems like a cosmic oversight he hasn’t called The Garden home until now, predicted the team would be a five or six seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, Perry didn’t try to hide his amusement.

“I guess he didn’t lack for confidence,” Perry said. “I can say that. Mike Beasley. But what I would say look we just want to get better each and every day. And I would never put a finite number on what that looks like. But we want an environment where our guys are practicing every day, and going into the locker room on games believing, that they have a chance to win basketball games. That’s ultimately what it’s about.”

Really, that’s what the Carmelo Anthony era was about in New York. It didn’t bring the Knicks a championship. It is, in many ways, his acquisition that precluded such a thing, insofar as you can suspend disbelief long enough to pretend that the Knicks, without dealing for Anthony, would have used their assets in an optimal way as Jim Dolan reached peak levels of interference.

But the Knicks, in a way that’s been in short supply since the Y2K disaster was averted and Patrick Ewing was sent to Seattle, entered every night of the Carmelo Anthony era with a chance to win, fans and team alike believing it was more possible because he was there.

That might not look like how an NBA team builds a championship roster. But it is going to be a while until the Knicks look that way again, and it will be noticeable, and it is a loss.

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