The NBA Dribbled Out

Carmelo Anthony’s defense problem and how it again affects this year’s Knicks team

If the Knicks are going to win a playoff series this year, and actually be in title contention— which they’ve alluded to yet again this off-season, Carmelo Anthony has to figure out how to play on both sides of the ball.

It’s become easy to dismiss Carmelo Anthony as a me-first player whose preternatural ability to put a spherical ball in a circumferentially larger circle of iron has vaulted him past his actual value to a basketball team. His defense, which is half the game (and whose importance to winning is inversely proportional to it’s markability), could best be described as when he feels like it. This could be explained away as merely the result of carrying a team’s offense, and how that takes a lot out of him, but—ahem—this other guy has dominated both sides of the ball, and of course there’s MJ—who terrified opponents equally as a scorer and defender. 

Since defense is closely associated with hustle and effort and less with god-given talent, ‘Melo’s lack of defensive prowess has led many to believe he doesn’t care much about winning, so long as he gets his. The problem for many Knicks fans is that he could be a great defender, which is almost worse than if he simply didn’t lack the mobility to do so. But, he’s athletic enough to be among the game’s best defenders, he just hasn’t extended God’s genetic gifts to the defensive end of the court.  

When Carmelo Anthony says he doesn’t need to score 35-40 points a game, he’s trying to placate those New Yorkers who ingest the full game (both offense and defense) like oxygen and have been left with more carbon dioxide since the Knicks-Nuggets blockbuster which brought ‘Melo to the mecca of basketball, and that’s increasingly—dare I say—looking like the Cowboys draft day haul for Herschel Walker back in 1989.

There are a myriad of excuses ‘Melo has to defend accusations he can’t defend, rather than won’t. The first is the coach he had for the first half of last season and the last half of the season before, Mike D’Antoni. While it was D’Antoni’s offensive style* that led to his departure (and the rumor Dolan and Co. balked when D’Antoni asked that they trade ‘Melo for Deron Williams), he does not care much about defense. This probably excited ‘Melo after toiling under George Karl’s defense-first approach in Denver, but once ‘Melo realized he’d have to pass the ball quickly for D’Antoni’s offense to work and to nullify a lack of defense intensity, that’s when he jumped ship and stopped defending, yet again. 

He can also blame his one year in college for failing to prepare him for the rigors of man-to-man defense in the NBA. Jim Boeheim, Carmelo’s coach at Syracuse, only preached defense within the spectrum of ‘Cuse’s ubiquitous 2-3 zone. That didn’t prepare Carmelo for the man-to-man that still dominates even in an NBA that now allows zone defense.

Then, there’s the implication ‘Melo started to care about defense and try harder when new Knicks coach Milke Woodson came on board, which is difficult to quantify in just 24 regular season games and 5 playoff games Woodson coached. But why would ‘Melo play defense for Woodson, and not for Karl or D’Antoni? D’Antoni never really expected him too (Nash certainly didn’t), but for Karl, defense is what wins basketball games, not Carmelo’s pretty turnaround. So, again, he loafed on defense for two different coaches, then defended harder under Woodson. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for this year since what’s to prevent ‘Melo from again giving up on defense if he and Woodson’s relationship deteriorates?

Last year, New York was a worse defensive team when ‘Melo was on the court—although his offensive additions made up for it slightly. That defensive discrepancy continued in the playoffs where they were eliminated in the first round, again. He ranked 142nd in Defensive Rating last year, and it was the best defensive rating of his career. Possibly the biggest strike against Anthony’s defense is San Jose Mercury News' sportswriter, Tim Kawakani, naming Anthony his 2011-12 No Defense Player of the Year (NDPOY). He writes:

Anthony’s peripheral stats aren’t great, but they aren’t horrendous, either–the Knicks were slightly worse on D when Carmelo was out there than when he wasn’t. Not close to the bad numbers Jefferson and Kevin Martin put up in their award-winning years, for instance.

Yes, it looked like Anthony was really trying to play some defense there, once Mike Woodson took over, and the proof of that is in the victory total (18-6 after Woodson replaced Mike D’Antoni) and the general look of that team in the spring.

But Carmelo’s a fitting 2012 NDPOY because he so perfectly fits the careless mood of this reckless season–he essentially admitted he didn’t try hard on defense for D’Antoni, then got in the mood for Woodson, then was awful on both sides in the playoff series against Miami, playing either SF or PF.

LeBron James didn’t have a particularly great series vs. NY, but he didn’t have to–he was so much better than Anthony for every second of that series that you had to laugh at the thought that they once were considered peers.

They’re not, and defense is one of the many reasons why they’re not. LeBron is one of the best, most consistent defensive players in the league, and…

Anthony’s the NDPOY. Part of this is because he has shown he can play D, as he has displayed intermittently through his haphazard NBA career first in Denver and now in NYC.

And then this season, Anthony stopped giving the full effort and made it worse by doing the “I’ll look super-aggressive by bumping and crowding my man in the first 8 seconds of the possession, then either foul him or get distracted almost immediately and give up something easy.”

That’s false hustle. That kills team defense. That’s passive-aggressive don’t-blame-me superstardom. That’s a signature no-defense move for 2012. That’s why Carmelo’s the man this season.

'Melo has again gone on a publicity tour this off-season recently saying he’s changed his attitude due primarily to his time with the USA Olympic Basketball team:

"For me, just trusting my teammates more…At the end of the day, all of us trust each other on the basketball court … being with those guys [in London] put everything in perspective." 

… 

“It’s a matter of me just doing it.”

But defense is a large part of helping your teammates and believing in your team. Helping as a weak-side defender and defending your own opponent is part of being a good teammate. Almost a decade of evidence, not to mention last year’s defensive schizophrenia, suggests we’ll just get the same ol’ ‘Melo and in-turn, the same ol’ first round playoff loss.

Until Carmelo Anthony proves he can be a top-flight defensive player—regardless of coaching—the Knicks will continue to be on the precipice of contention without really contending for anything.  

*ironically, almost socialist in its attempts let anyone gun it; except that D’Antoni has never made the NBA finals, and Melo is dictatorial in his want for the ball.

[Top pic via nyknicks instagram]

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