CHICAGO – Boil it all down – the hand-wringing over Knicks star Carmelo Anthony‘s future whereabouts, the wild guesses about Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau‘s long-term future and the grass-is-greener presumptions about one or both somehow coveting what the other has – and what’s left is pretty simple:
A clash of cultures. Anthony’s vs. Thibodeau’s. The Knicks’ vs. the Bulls’.
The gap between them had little to do with Chicago’s 109-90 pasting of New York in a Sunday matinee at United Center and everything that went on before, during and after that lopsided network game. It was more than just one team losing six straight and the other bagging its ninth win in 10 games, getting right to the respective organizations’ tone, vision and priorities.
The Knicks are of, and for, Anthony. He is the sun of their solar system, around which everything revolves. It’s the supernova, BIG MARQUEE approach that New Yorkers love. So fans at Madison Square Garden can’t have LeBron James now or Shaquille O’Neal or Michael Jordan back in the day? Fine – they’ll take a second-tier star and feed his dreams as if he is one of those guys.
And that’s what they have. Anthony is a prolific scorer who does the most important thing in basketball – he puts points on the board – without doing a lot of other things that matter on the very best teams. Like defense, intensity or making lesser players better.
Then there are the Bulls, who continue to draw admirers and win over doubters with their Three Musketeers approach. Already this season, they’ve taken two of the most severe hits a team can endure – another season-ending knee injury for MVP Derrick Rose and the trade of All-Star forward Luol Deng. The Bulls took those hits, their knees buckled even … but they have steadied themselves right into the third-best record in the Eastern Conference.
“Everybody knows what this team is going through, playing without our best player,” Bulls center Joakim Noah said after orchestrating his way to 13 points, 12 rebounds and 14 assists, his second triple-double this season. “Right now, our mentality is, we just want to get better playing those big games and do everything we can to play the best basketball possible. So when our young boy comes back, we’re ready.”
Ready for what? That barely matters. It’s the attitude evident in words spoken by Noah but straight out of Thibodeau in all his next-man-up glory.
Thibodeau is the guy who renders any personnel losses or roster shortcomings irrelevant in Chicago. As much as his players miss Rose as their offensive big gun or felt sorry for themselves and their friend Luol, on and off the court, in the days immediately after the trade, the Bulls have pushed forward with shark-like tenacity.
The Knicks, meanwhile, get lost gazing into their vast, shiny navel over whatever that day’s crisis might be, whether it’s yesterday’s shot-blocking or next summer’s free agency.
“It says a lot about their team, the character of the players in the locker room and their preparation,” New York center Tyson Chandler said after the game. “They obviously feel that they can win with whoever they throw out there. It wasn’t fun to watch, playing against them, but as a player, you can respect what they’re doing.”
Said Noah: “Y’know, people really counted us out. We’ve gone through a lot, and just to be in this position feels good. We’re happy with today. We’re not satisfied. We’re still hungry – I feel like we’re still the hungriest team playing in the NBA.”
Now compare that to Anthony’s comments after he scored 21 points on 8-of-17 shooting.
“It’s just hard to keep coming up with excuses about whys,” he said. “We’ve got to have some sense of pride just to go out there and compete. It doesn’t seem like we’re even competing right now. … It’s frustrating, it’s embarrassing. A winning attitude is just not happening.”
That’s it right there, isn’t it? A winning attitude doesn’t just happen anywhere. It isn’t happening in New York because it hasn’t been a priority of the team’s best players and of management. It didn’t happen in Denver when Anthony was there, either, in the way that the Nuggets needed.
George Karl, who coached Anthony to a string of Denver playoff berths but just one trip beyond the first round, talked with Harvey Araton of the New York Times recently about Anthony and his history of never really going “all in”.
… “I don’t think Melo understands that coming to work with the best attitude every single day is a precious commodity when you’re the best player. That’s not the same thing as playing hard. That’s bringing the total package, 100 percent focused on all the little things. Those are rare breeds. Kevin Garnett. Michael Jordan. LeBron didn’t always have it, but he has it now.
“Melo doesn’t get an A in that department — maybe not much more than a B-minus. It is, in a sense, the A.A.U. mind-set: We worked hard yesterday, maybe we can take a day off today. That’s why he really needs that player – the point guard or someone who takes on that role – to be the bridge from the coach to him.”
That’s why the talk about Anthony maybe signing with Chicago this summer troubles some skeptics, including this one. He is a culture unto himself who, so far, has swamped two organizations. Even if Rose returns as the player he was, the point guard’s personality isn’t dominant enough to prevent the Bulls from becoming “Melo’s team.” And all indications are, “Melo’s team” will be winning nothing, not now, not later, not with Anthony as the unassailed No. 1 option and presence, not with him on the dark side of 30.
Anthony increasingly needs to be the second- or third-best player on a contender, which will require him taking less money in a shorter contract if he’s even willing to leave New York. He needs a point guard more headstrong and established than him – the Clippers’ Chris Paul would be ideal or, as Karl suggested, Jason Kidd of about five years ago. He needs to bring as much good Melo as he can while shedding the bad Melo, in terms of ego, sideshows and what his old coach in Denver flat-out called selfishness.
Could Thibodeau’s drive and will impose itself on Anthony’s habits and sense of entitlement without any player-coach “bridge” from inside the locker room? Or maybe, could Noah be that guy? Anthony did call him the Bulls’ “quarterback” and “spirit of their team” Sunday.
But 11 years into his NBA career, he’s never done it. He’s been Allen Iverson with more size and less incorrigibility, a scorer who needs to have (and stop) the ball and a supporting cast fashioned around him.
Even if Anthony really wants to win – enough to leave New York, enough to give up serious dollars for four years and that fifth-year bonanza entirely – he would have to have the guts to seek out a possible champion with no assurances. He would risk signing with a better team but not the right team, getting himself two, three or even four rounds of playoffs but not necessarily a ring.
He would have to answer the question, what’s more important to him really: Two months each springtime, possibly without a payoff? Or 12 months guaranteed as a billboard in New York?
It comes down to a clash of cultures, instilled by Anthony and Thibodeau and embodied by the Knicks and the Bulls for all to see Sunday: Me vs. we.