Carmelo Anthony's best just wasn't good enough...again. His 39 points (on 15-of-29 shooting) in Game 6 against the Indiana Pacers couldn't quite keep alive the New York Knicks' hopes of cracking the Eastern Conference Finals.
Not that Anthony's banner season was all for naught. He led the Knicks to their first NBA playoff series victory since 2000, their most regular-season wins since 1996-97, and their first Atlantic Division title since 1994. That's plenty of which Anthony can be proud, even more so when you throw in his first scoring title and third-place finish in the MVP race...
Except this is New York we're talking about, where the size of the Big Apple is rivaled only by the city's expectations for its most beloved sports franchise. With 'Melo at the helm, the Knicks had been pegged by many as a near-lock to advance to the NBA's Final Four. And with their success against the Miami Heat during the 2012-13 campaign, the Knicks (by a certain logic) were well-equipped to give the defending champs a run for their money, at the very least.
That will be the job of the Indiana Pacers' now, after New York's nauseating flame out in the second round. As for Carmelo, he and the Knicks will have their own bit of business to attend to as they seek out new solutions to the problems that have long plagued the patrons of Madison Square Garden.
2012-13 by the Numbers
Say what you will about the end result of yet another ringless season for 'Melo. There's still no denying that the 2012-13 campaign was arguably the finest of his decorated career.
Anthony did well to snuff out Kevin Durant's streak of scoring titles at three by capturing one of his own. 'Melo finished the season averaging 28.7 points per game—the second-highest mark of his NBA life and one that checked in 0.6 points ahead of Durant's 28.1.
Anthony can thank his own post-All-Star Game hot streak for the distinction. In 15 games after the break, 'Melo averaged 32.5 points on 48.8 percent shooting from the floor (39.7 percent from three), with six 30-point games, two 40-point games and one 50-point game sprinkled in.
However, 'Melo would still be waiting on his first honor if scoring crowns were determined by totals rather than by averages. Anthony's 1920 points were the fifth-most compiled in the Association, behind Durant's 2280, Kobe Bryant's 2133, LeBron James' 2036 and James Harden's 2023. Carmelo wasn't helped in this regard by the 15 games he missed due to injury.
On the flip side, Anthony's 2.6 assists were the fewest of his career, though that didn't necessarily hinder the Knicks' offense any. According to NBA.com, New York averaged 5.2 points more per 100 possessions when 'Melo was on the floor this season, with an assist rate that, while somewhat small, was still comparable to that which the Knicks compiled without him.
In any case, this season won't go down as the winningest in which 'Melo's yet to participate. His 2008-09 Denver Nuggets won as many games in the regular season (54) as did his 2012-13 Knicks, but his Mile High 'mates take the cake by way of a 10-6 advantage in postseason victories.
To date, Anthony's record in the playoffs stands at a subpar 23-42 (.354 winning percentage).
What They're Saying
'Melo didn't have much to say after the Knicks' 106-99 loss in Game 6 to the Pacers, in which he tallied a game-high 39 points on 15-of-29 shooting. However, he did express a bit of optimism to Frank Isola of The New York Daily News, albeit after characterizing the season as "a disappointment":
“Overall, we had a helluva season. It’s a learning curve for us and we’ll be back better and stronger next year for sure.”
Then again, what else is the guy supposed to say? That it's all doom and gloom from here on out? That the Knicks are hopelessly cap strapped until the summer of 2015? That the team will be hard-pressed to add talent so long as the likes of Amar'e Stoudemire, Marcus Camby, Jason Kidd, and the declining Tyson Chandler are still on the books?
At the expense of building a title contender around Anthony, no less.
For all of his foibles, Carmelo Anthony is still one of the five-to-10 best players in the NBA today and should be for at least another few years, assuming his latest shoulder injury doesn't prove too much of a hindrance (via Frank Isola). He just completed his 10th season as a pro, each of which has concluded with a postseason appearance—which would suggest that he's got plenty of mileage on his wheels.
Which he does, though, with his 28th birthday less than two months past, he's neither old nor broken down at this point.
And it's not as though 'Melo's game has stagnated, either. He played remarkably well in his new role as a "small ball" power forward for much of the season. The switch allowed Anthony his outside shot to spread the floor, his quickness to get around slow-footed foes, his strength to overpower more sinewy ones and his low-post game to set up his teammates on the perimeter.
But the move wasn't necessarily a slam dunk in all respects. Anthony often found himself at a disadvantage defensively against bigger, stronger opponents while manning the 4 and absorbed more of a beating on the court as a result. 'Melo's relative fleetness afoot has served him well against such slogs, but what toll might such tactics take on Anthony's body should Knicks head coach Mike Woodson employ him in this role going forward?
None of this will matter, either way, unless/until Anthony leads the Knicks back to true championship contention. Put the Knicks within striking distance of the Larry O'Brien Trophy, and 'Melo will forever be a legend in his hometown. Fail to do so, and Anthony will be lionized only tepidly—if not wholeheartedly disgraced or forgotten—by the MSG faithful.
Such lofty expectations aren't without justification, though. According to Spotrac, Anthony is due just under $21.4 million in 2013-14 and a shade over $23.3 million in 2014-15 before his current contract with the Knicks comes due.
In essence, 'Melo will have at least two more years to prove that he's worth the expense, that he can carry a team in New York to the top. Assuming the entire situation doesn't turn sour by 2015, it's reasonable to suggest that Anthony would welcome an opportunity to stick with the Knicks beyond that particular date. After all, why would he want to flee his native soil after pushing so hard to ditch Denver—and make a mockery of himself in the process—back in 2010-11?
Whether the Knicks will have any financial wiggle room with which to upgrade the roster before then is another can of worms entirely. Their front court of 'Melo, Amar'e Stoudemire, and Tyson Chandler ranks as the most expensive in the NBA, with billings of $57.2 million (i.e. nearly the entire salary cap) next season and $61.3 million (i.e. more than the current salary cap) the season after that (per Spotrac).
Getting any team to take on the contract of either aging, injury-prone big would require nothing short of a miracle from Knicks general manager Glen Grunwald, as would dumping the pesky contracts of Jason Kidd, Marcus Camby, and Steve Novak.
All of which is to say, Anthony's deal might be the only expensive one of comparable on-court value to New York.
Projected 2013-14 Stat Line
28.2 PPG / 6.7 RPG / 2.9 APG / .451 FG% / .366 3PT%
A similar roster should yield similar results for Carmelo and the Knicks next season. He'll still be called upon to take the plurality of the team's shots and, in turn, carry the bulk of the scoring load.
Even more so if JR Smith takes the money and runs elsewhere. Should Earl III bolt the Big Apple and New York fail to draw comparable production from another unlikely source, look for Anthony to take it upon himself to make up a portion of that gap with his first-ever 30-plus-point-per-game season.
That aside, Knicks fans should expect 'Melo to persist as a volume scorer, with personal hot spots on the court dictated, in part, by the strengths and weaknesses of the talent around him.
The Crystal Ball Says...
Carmelo contends for another scoring title and a top-five finish in the MVP race...and the Knicks still fail to advance to the NBA Finals.
Reaching much further than the heights they achieved this season would require a significant stroke of luck in New York's favor, to say the least. An unforeseen trade/signing this summer (Chris Paul, for all of you hopeless pipe-dreamers out there) here, a breakout season from an unlikely star there, and/or a debilitating injury to one of the Miami Heat's Big Three elsewhere, and who knows? Maybe that would be enough to earn Anthony his first conference crown and give the Knicks a crack at their first NBA title in a decade-and-a-half.
Short of such divine intervention, the onus (fair or otherwise) will be on 'Melo to pull himself and his team up by their collective bootstraps as the Knicks seek to compete with the Indiana Pacers, the Chicago Bulls, the Brooklyn Nets, and (perhaps) the Boston Celtics for second fiddle in an Eastern Conference that will likely belong to the Heat until LeBron James says otherwise.