Our weekly look at four topics — players, issues, numbers, trends — that are impacting and, in some cases, changing the game.
First Quarter: ’Melo’s big problem
Carmelo Anthony made a less than ho-hum debut for the Portland Trail Blazers on Tuesday night in his first NBA game in 376 days, scoring 10 points on 4-of-14 shooting with five turnovers and grabbing four rebounds in 23 minutes in a loss to the New Orleans Pelicans.
Nothing he did in a rusty debut was going to change anyone’s mind about whether he can be a dynamic fit in the right place or if he’s a relic from another time, incapable of playing in today’s game on either side of the floor.
Before we start evaluating what he is, let’s remember he’s 35 and the NBA clock on his body started when he was a teenager.
He entered the league when games were slog-filled 75-70 affairs that featured bad shooting that was mistakenly considered the result of good defense. Finding a player like Anthony — a threat from inside and out, capable of getting a bucket at a moment’s notice and having the ability to do it outside the framework of a set offense — was invaluable.
Too big for quick defenders, too quick for bigger opponents, Anthony played at a perfect time — in a way.
Now scores are higher, and a guy who can create on his own, even if he were in his prime, isn’t en vogue. Multi-dimensional players are in demand, and even though ’Melo was an above-average rebounder and could pass, those weren’t consistent parts of his game.
The problem is Anthony played in the time of LeBron James. They will forever be linked through their friendship, their draft class in 2003, and the banana boat Anthony refused to ride, but most of all, he was usually compared to James.
And that would be an indictment for anyone. ’Melo needed the right system and good point-guard play (Chauncey Billups and Jason Kidd, for example) to maximize his gifts. But LeBron was the system.
’Melo wasn’t leaving money on the table in free agency; LeBron sacrificed at times to maximize the bigger picture and win championships.
To James’ Michael Jordan, ’Melo became Dominique Wilkins — a player who even at his best could only hang with the player of his time for moments.
And as basketball Twitter rejoiced in ’Melo’s return to the land of the living, it’s important to remember he’s 35. This should be a victory lap.
But LeBron will be 35 in a couple of weeks, and he’s playing like … LeBron.
Second Quarter: Is ’Melo’s time up?
Anthony shouldn’t be expected to help save Portland, a team that’s gone from the Western Conference finals to second-to-last in the conference.
Can he help?
He can still get his shot, but that doesn’t seem to be the Blazers’ main issue. And since when do we expect players who haven’t been inclined to play defense to all of a sudden change? Besides, there have been very few Hall of Fame-caliber players who were effective in Year 17 or at age 35.
Michael Jordan was finishing up his last championship season in Chicago as a 35-year-old in 1998, but we’re talking about the GOAT here. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was still effective in 1983 as a 35-year-old, but his prime was largely extended due to the arrival of Magic Johnson.
There are a few others, but maybe with the exception of Karl Malone, even the best Hall of Famers were clearly lesser versions of themselves at this stage. Even Anthony probably expects too much of himself at this age, but time never loses a battle.
Retirement has been knocking at ’Melo’s door for awhile now, and we should encourage him to answer soon.
Third Quarter: The struggle for black coaches
It’s not as rare these days to see black coaches in the NBA, but as trends change through eras, it always feels like we’re a couple of firings away from lack of diversity being an issue again.
Enter Knicks coach David Fizdale.
Depending on who you believe, Fizdale’s job is in jeopardy or will soon be. The Knicks are underachieving after a summer that didn’t net Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving, and the free-agent pieces haven’t yet fit.
If Fizdale is feeling a little gun shy, you can’t blame him. He was fired 19 games into his second season with the Memphis Grizzlies after qualifying for the playoffs his first year.
How’s that for data?
He’s one of eight black coaches in the NBA, and his plight isn’t lost on his players.
They feel it, and they try not to carry the extra weight when turmoil is around.
“I wouldn’t use it in that sense, as in fighting for a black coach, but [Fizdale] relates to me a lot more than a lot of other people do,” Knicks forward Marcus Morris Sr. told Yahoo Sports recently. “That means a lot to me personally, the way we talk, the place he comes from, what he’s been through. We have that relationship where he cares about guys’ well-being. Around this league, you don’t see that, white, black, no matter what you are.”
Morris took some satisfaction in the trust Fizdale gave him, as Morris isolated late against the Dallas Mavericks last Thursday for a step-back three that gave the Knicks a win — and Fizdale seemingly a stay of execution.
That coach-player relationship, as adversarial as it may seem, does produce camaraderie. And black coaches, fair or not, often get tagged as “players’ coaches”, whatever that means.
So when it’s good, players fight harder.
“Hell, yeah,” Morris said. “He’s a big reason why I came here. When he’s going through that and putting forth the effort to turn stuff around, it means a lot. It’s not we’re sitting back. We practice like a motherf- - - er, we’re in here and going hard. We trust him. I trust him. We’re gonna turn this thing around.”
Fourth Quarter: The Knicks’ big issues
Here’s a thought on Fizdale and the Knicks.
The Knicks are a punching bag, with 20-plus years of flirtations, near-misses and controversy. Adding the news conference called by team president Steve Mills to express disappointment shouldn’t necessarily be added to the ledger.
Nobody expected the Knicks to be good this season — maybe not even team owner James Dolan. But that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be a standard of competition on a nightly basis.
It’s not so much the losing that seemed to cause alarm to the Knicks’ decision-makers but the “how” — dropping games in blowout fashion to the equally rebuilding Sacramento Kings and Cleveland Cavaliers seemed to trigger things.
Fizdale doesn’t have a go-to guy on the roster, so shuffling rotations and figuring out who should be playing aren’t the easiest tasks.
The front office is culpable, too. A lot of this would’ve been alleviated had it acquired stability in the form of a point guard this offseason. Elfrid Payton is hurt, but could he provide the necessary leadership to bring together a deep group of players who have different roles every night?
More falls on Julius Randle, who’s trying to create plays with clogged lanes and increased pressure. Turning him into a secondary playmaker could alleviate that, but that would require more from the point guard spot.
The Knicks are walking the delicate balance of not handcuffing themselves financially with long contracts, while developing the young players they’ve hit on the recent drafts (RJ Barrett and Mitchell Robinson).
There’s a method to the madness, even amid the noise. For it to make sense, the youth has to develop and be given room to do so while the well-paid, short-term veterans provide enough leadership and help win a few games.
The plan sounds good. The execution hasn’t met the plan so far.
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