Carmelo Agonistes

It’s getting harder and harder to ignore the buzz. Harder to excuse bad games, harder to fall back on conventional wisdom. It’s time to say definitely what has been increasingly hinted in all sorts of outlets: Carmelo Anthony’s time with the Knicks is not working out. It’s nothing irreversible of course—I’m not here to say that things can’t or won’t get better—but so far, Carmelo has not been good and neither have the Knicks.

Y’all remember Samson, right? Old Testament dude, strength of an entire legion, killed a thousand Philistines with the jawbone of an ass? That one. In John Milton’s epic poem Samson Agonistes, which is the rare retelling that improves on the original, Samson is pretty much the same as he was in the Bible: impossibly strong, battle tested, the savior of a people and so on. Except in Milton’s poem, the main conflict is not really between Samson and a foxy lady who wants to cut his hair, but Samson’s own private morality and the desires of the people. The whole poem through, Samson is in conflict with his private morals and his public role; he has to parse out the correct way to save the Jews even as the chorus keeps hollering different things at him. He’s torn, paralyzed with conflict, the ultimate warrior stopped in his tracks by contradictory feedback. He’s in the same place, basically, that Carmelo is now.

When Carmelo was brought to the Knicks, it seemed like a perfect fit between city and star. Anthony is the rare kind of player who seems to court every facet of the New York media meat grinder: he loves the sense of the moment, and his brand of basketball has always won over hardened observers who insist upon an “alpha dog” machismo out of their stars. And it’s not like Carmelo doesn’t deliver on that swagger—a list of the most effective crunch time scorers from not that long ago had Carmelo right at the top. With such seeming harmony between market and player, how have the Knicks ended up here?

I would argue that being imported to New York as The Man has turned Carmelo from an oft-gunning scoring threat to a parody of his own image. Like Samson, he has heard the chorus, and he is allowing the public perception of his strength to inflate his hubris. So far this year, Carmelo has a career high usage rate and a career low true shooting percentage—he’s shooting with more of his team’s possessions than ever, only worse. When you watch him in Madison Square Garden, it’s easy to understand why. When he catches the ball on the wing in the secondary break, the susurrus buzz of the crowd turns kinetic, and every jab step is punctuated with the hint of a roar. This is it, you think, and feel him thinking, this is the salvation these people have waited for. When he makes that shot, the Garden is possessed of an energy that no arena can match during the doldrums of a weeknight back-to-back. It’s easy to see why it happens. The trouble is that the shot hasn’t been falling, and that, truth be told, it never really has.

Carmelo’s career true shooting percentage has never really blown the league average out of the water: his career peak is the 27 games that started his Knicks stretch, when he posted a 57.5% TS. The league average for the season was 54.2%, and high-usage players like LeBron James, Dirk Nowitzki, Dywane Wade, Kevin Martin and Kevin Durant all posted better numbers than Anthony, with a lower usage rate to boot. How did we get here? How did a player like Carmelo ever ascend to superstar consideration? Here again, the chorus. Carmelo hails most prominently from Baltimore, a locale violent and underprivileged enough in the public imagination to provide narrative breeding ground. He may never have brained a thousand men with the jawbone of an ass, but he did lead Syracuse to their only national championship in dominant fashion. In short, he has the requisite messianic backstory. As much as any player currently in the league, Carmelo came tailor made to have superstardom grafted onto him.

Further, unlike some other, more effective players, Carmelo passes the eye test for fans who want to see a dominant scorer. Whereas LeBron has made a career frustrating people who demand he develop a post game, Carmelo has always been willing to use his size and fluidity to punish smaller defenders in the post. His movements are graceful where LeBron’s are brutish. In sum, he is the perfect player for the public to misinterpret as a savior. Before Carmelo, the Knicks were a fast-paced team-oriented operation whose lone star, Amare Stoudemire, excels at capitalizing on ball movement and finishing plays that stretch the defense. Now, however, they feature the league’s most methodical swingman. As Carmelo slowly inspects every tool in his belt from the wing—first jab-stepping, then backing his man down, then feinting one direction with his shoulder—a team that was predicated on movement and funneling the ball to a devastating finisher has ground to a halt. And yet, Carmelo has so internalized the noise from the chorus, has grown around his reputation like so much ball-hogging ivy, that he doesn’t seem capable of playing any other way. When he’s not the focus of the offense, Anthony can become stunningly disinterested—at one point in last night’s game against the Suns, he was literally pacing the weak-side sideline, hips perpendicular to the bench, back and forth. Like Samson, he lives for his image, and like Samson, it is his downfall.

I’m dubious as to whether Carmelo can ever become the player the Knicks need. It’s been well-documented how well the Nuggets have done in his absence, and unless the Knicks are willing to build their organization around Anthony wholesale, he may never by able to fit within a larger team concept. Here’s the thing, though: Samson might have been a tragedy if weren’t so compelling, but he probably wouldn’t have garnered attention from the poet who rewrote Genesis; if Carmelo wasn’t so captivating, nobody would be mistaking him for a savior in the first place.

Last night against the Suns, mired in a dismal shooting night that has seen him shoot 3 of 20 to that point, Carmelo almost dragged the Knicks to a victory. First, with ten seconds left, he put back his own miss to pull New York within two. After Steve Nash made his two free throws, Anthony answered by hitting a three with six seconds left—no matter what, if the Knicks fouled, they would get a look at a tie. And in that moment, after that three, I was sure he was going to do it. The chorus was calling for Samson, and he was prepared to knock out the temple walls.

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  4. What Can Chris Bosh’s Exit Tell Us About Carmelo Anthony’s future?
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  1. [...] Carmelo Agonistes « HoopSpeak.comBy Danny NowellIt's time to say definitely what has been increasingly hinted in all sorts of outlets: Carmelo Anthony's time with the Knicks is not working out. It's nothing irreversible of course—I'm not here to say that things can't or won't get better—but so far, …HoopSpeak.com [...]

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