In 2012-13, Carmelo Anthony put together his best season ever after a decade in the NBA. There are still holes in his game at age 28, but his offensive dominance goes a long way to offsetting his two-way deficiencies. Keeping up that stellar, yet uneven, play will be vital to the New York Knicks' title pursuit.
Melo does not seem to adhere to the old adage that defense wins championships. When he's on his game, he's one of the most electrifying players in the world, but is that enough to carry New York through the postseason?
The future of the franchise hinges on that question. If Anthony can prove his superstardom at the highest level, the Knicks will play deep into June, but they will need enough D to get by.
Can Anthony Win Without Defense?
The Eastern Conference is rich with small forwards who excel on both ends of the court. LeBron James is, obviously, chief among them, but Paul George, Luol Deng and Paul Pierce will all make major contributions on playoff teams with their defensive play as well as their scoring.
Whether he plays on the wing or as a small-ball power forward, those guys are Melo's main competition in the East. Unfortunately for the Knicks, Melo's impact is much more one-sided.
A disclaimer: Anthony's weakness on the defensive end has been overstated. He certainly has the physical gifts to match up with freaks like James and George, and he has the strength to hold his own in one-on-one post-up situations. He's not going to protect the rim or force turnovers, but he's a serviceable man defender.
That said, he is not always committed to his task. Though his high usage on offense pays obvious dividends, Melo is prone to exerting himself less on defense in order to save his energy for scoring. He can get away with that gambit against lesser opponents, but it's unsustainable in the postseason.
He also has trouble with team schemes, which is where he earns his reputation as a subpar defender. Melo is consistently late or out of position when it comes to any sort of help defense, leading to open looks beyond the arc, as the Knicks constantly switch and offensive rebounds inside.
Yes, Anthony is a very good rebounder for his position, but that's more due to his willingness and ability to battle inside than for any spacial awareness on the floor. The effort is admirable, but he could use it more constructively.
This will be his second offseason under Mike Woodson; Melo has never played for another defense-first NBA coach. With some mental adjustments, Anthony can complement his superb offense with decent play on the other end.
Considering he shares a frontcourt with Andrea Bargnani and Amar'e Stoudemire, the Knicks need him to do just that.
What's on the Line for Anthony and the Knicks?
This is a win-now season for New York and its superstar. Per Rafi Kohan of the New York Observer, Melo wants to become a free agent next summer. This should not come as a surprise to anyone, but it does force both player and team to consider the next five years while trying to win now.
The Knicks can sign Anthony for more years and more money per year than any other team in the league, meaning no one can touch their five-year, $129 million offer. Even so, Melo would need to believe he can win a championship in New York to take that deal.
Stoudemire's injury-prone body will no longer allow him to be Anthony's elite on-court partner, and Tyson Chandler has a history of nagging injuries as well. They were supposed to comprise New York's own "Big Three," but that hasn't worked out. Now Melo has to imagine what the next half-decade with J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert might be like.
On the other hand, if Anthony's offense fails to save a mediocre defensive team, yet again, GMs around the league may wonder whether he has the skill set to be the centerpiece of a contender. In that case, he would be regarded less as a true superstar and more as a supremely talented sidekick without a leader.
Whether this season goes well or poorly, no one will look at Anthony or the Knicks the same way again.
2013-14 Scouting Report
Anthony can use his strength and agility to get past any sort of defender and drive the lane. However, he gets an extra cushion because of his uncommon ability to knock down 18-footers.
Body up Melo and he'll blow right by you, but sag off him and he'll beat you with his lightning-quick release on his jumper. Any hedging defender is toast, but those who don't will fall victim to Anthony's signature more: the jab step.
Look at what he does to Josh Smith, one of the few players with the bulk and finesse to handle Melo alone. From the triple-threat stance, Anthony takes a strong dribble right at Smith to create space, simultaneously stepping back and going straight up with the long two.
By no means is Smith, an All-NBA defender, making Melo settle for this look. In fact, Smith can do nothing to stop it.
For any other player in the league, that's an ill-advised attempt, but Melo has made that move into something artistic. Anthony seems to jab, step back and release in one fluid motion. He makes the move so decisively with such sound mechanics and such rapid execution that he makes a difficult shot look effortless.
Consider Melo's jab step the ultimate safety valve for the Knicks offense. When they're not getting any penetration and the three-point looks aren't there, Anthony will be able to take the ball, create space and manufacture a reliable look out of thin air.
The 2012-13 Knicks had the best spacing of any team Anthony has ever played for, allowing him to shoot from outside and operate inside with greater freedom. That led to a career-best 24.8 PER, as he powered the high-scoring Knicks to the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
New York's wide-open system lessened Melo's bad habit of forcing his offensive game, but the issue still reared its head, particularly in the playoffs. He shot 45 percent from the field and 38 percent on threes during the regular season, but those rates dipped during the postseason to 41 percent and 30 percent, respectively.
At his most cerebral, Anthony can use his formidable arsenal of offensive moves to pick defenses apart, but his emotions can get the best of him.
Especially when he gets banged around inside, Melo is prone to bouts of frustration, compelling him to make reckless drives into traffic or eschew contact in favor of jacking up long shots without even feigning a dribble.
For better or worse, Kevin Garnett probably has the best idea on how to contain him. Bang Anthony around and get his blood boiling, and he's liable to push too hard and shoot his team out of the game. Cereal-based innuendos are not recommended, per se, but are circumstantially effective within a small sample.
Fortunately, Melo has calmed with age.
Those bullheaded performances were more common back in his Denver Nuggets days; he has grown to be more methodical as he has gotten more experience. He still fumes when the referees let defenses tee off on him, but now, he's more willing to dish the ball when he enters that mindset.
Melo is also talented enough that he can occasionally dominate the ball too much and make it work. Whether it's getting second-chance looks off his own missed layups or sparring with his man before nailing a contested jumper, Melo has something more than just offensive skill. He has resilience and perseverance.
Sure, his self-confidence can border on irrational at times, but he still makes it work. He may not be the ablest defender or the smartest passer, but no one scores quite like Melo.
Melo's greatness as an individual is clear. His fit within this Knicks roster will determine how his 2013-14 season will go.
With Smith, and now Shumpert, attacking from the wing, Bargnani and Stoudemire providing some big offense and the Knicks thriving off the three-ball just as they did last season, Anthony has the potential to hit 30 points per game on something like 47 percent shooting.
On the other hand, Shump might not make his leap, Smith might revert to his maddening shot selection and the Bargs/STAT combo might be too weak defensively to play with Melo.
Under those circumstances, he'd draw even more attention from opposing defenses, causing his scoring to drop down to about 23 per game on 43 percent shooting—more in line with his 2011-12 post-lockout numbers.
Ultimately, his 2013-14 stats should fall somewhere in the middle, skewing closer to the 28.7 points he averaged last season. With such a variety of weapons surrounding Melo, the Knicks will likely try to lean less on their cornerstone.
The result will be a dip in scoring to 27.6 points, but he'll shoot 46 percent from the field and 39 percent on threes. Anthony will also tack on 6.6 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game, while his PER will drop down to about 23.5.
Melo should continue to make incremental steps in his facilitating on offense and helping on defense—not enough to make a serious bid for the MVP award, but he'll be more serviceable as an all-around player.
Those small improvements on the fringes of his game might not be noticeable on a night-to-night basis, but they will be essential for Melo to dominate deep into the postseason.
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