HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Carmelo Anthony and the New York Knicks could win 48 straight games and Anthony would still have critics who could find something wrong with his game.
That’s just the world we live in and the one Anthony has had to survive in since he came into the league with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and others in the celebrated NBA Draft class of 2003.
A league-best eight-game win streak, in the wake of the Miami Heat’s 27-game streak and the Denver Nuggets’ 15-game streak, would normally be plenty to be excited about. Anthony and the Knicks, however, are taking it all in stride. A rugged playoff road lies ahead and they know it. But the potential to dispel notions about who and what this team is about, to redefine who Anthony is as a player, in relation to his Draft class peers as well as the larger scope of the league, could be on the horizon.
With his contemporaries enjoying loads more playoff success than he had during his career, this Knicks team in particular offers Anthony an opportunity to close that gap a little.
For years, Anthony’s critics have made their case … that Anthony’s not an elite leader, he’s not a big-time playoff performer (as the Prime Minister likes to remind me regularly) and that he wasn’t willing to sacrifice what he does best (score) for the greater good. I’ve always argued the other side, that those teams he led in Denver were never quite as stout as they appeared on paper.
The one time they had all of the required parts healthy and ready to go in the playoffs, they made their run to the 2009 Western Conference finals, where they fell to Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers in six games. The Lakers, of course, went on to win the first of back-to-back titles that year.
Those championships, sans Shaquille O’Neal, helped redefine Kobe’s legacy.
Might Anthony be on a somewhat familiar path to redefining his own legacy this season? At least one observer thinks so. Harvey Araton of The New York Times makes the case for Anthony following in the transformative footsteps of Boston Celtics enigma-turned-superstar Paul Pierce, whose image and reputation changed dramatically after the Celtics broke through and won a championship in 2008 with Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen:
With the Knicks poised to displace the Celtics as Atlantic Division champions after beating them, 108-89, on Sunday night at Madison Square Garden, this would be a propitious time to present Pierce as Exhibit A in the case for Anthony’s potential growth into no-questions-asked superstardom.
Anthony’s critics, including me, have never underestimated his combustible package of size, strength and first-step speed. But his teams in Denver and in New York have produced poor playoff results, and he has admitted to failing to fully grasp the essence of collective elegance until last summer’s Olympics.
Isn’t it fair to say that when it comes to winning at the highest level, Anthony is still an undergraduate student trying to complete a master’s program?
Pierce captured his championship in 2008 after he sacrificed more than 5 points off his scoring average from the previous season to accommodate Allen and Garnett. He also embraced the defensive tenacity brought by Garnett and preached by Tom Thibodeau, who then was an assistant to Doc Rivers.
“You may need that one person in someone’s life, or something to happen off the floor in that person’s life, family-wise, or something,” Rivers said before Pierce gave him 24 points, 15 rebounds and 5 assists, not enough against the streaking Knicks, winners of eight straight. “You just never know what triggers a player to play and do all the right things.”
Before their title season, the Celtics’ best playoff run with Pierce was in 2002, when they were beaten by Jason Kidd and the Nets in the Eastern Conference finals. Pierce was 24, the same age Anthony was when his Nuggets lost in the Western Conference finals to Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers in 2009.
A coincidence, for sure, but the Pierce-Anthony comparison of 20-something high-octane, low-team-grade forwards is no novel concept. While Anthony was contriving his endgame in Denver two and a half years ago, reporters and bloggers noted the same crossroads that Pierce had reached in Boston after the 2006-7 season, and how he had warned the Celtics to improve the roster, or else.
The Celtics delivered and, to his everlasting credit, Pierce responded. Although Anthony chose a different path, forcing a trade, he is approaching his 29th birthday, on May 29, with still much to prove, and gain, similar to Pierce at that age.
Unlike Pierce and the Celtics, there is an Eastern Conference and NBA juggernaut standing in the path of Anthony and the Knicks. The Heat aren’t going anywhere any time soon. And much like those Bryant-led Lakers teams that were always blocking the way for Anthony’s Nuggets teams, these LeBron-led Heat teams will likely be in the way now and for at least the foreseeable future.
That will make things substantially tougher for the Anthony to complete his career rewrite, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible …