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Knicks Holdovers Proved Something to Carmelo Anthony and the NBA

Did Carmelo fail the Knicks, or vice versa? As his former teammates proved, the answer is somewhere in the middle.

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As he walked up the tunnel in his dapper outfit and slick looking fedora, Carmelo Anthony had spent the past few nights thinking about this moment.

For the first time as a member of the Thunder, Anthony returned to Madison Square Garden. The building still looked the same, but it understandably felt quite different.

Seeing friends and family he’s missed since relocating to Oklahoma City, Anthony knew that he would be headed for an emotional experience. After a triple-overtime game in Philadelphia the night prior, Anthony said he’d be ready to play at MSG, legs be damned.

He made no secret about wanting to score a win on his former playground, but never did he imagine his former teammates wanted to beat him more than he wanted to beat them.

Even without Kristaps Porzingis, that’s exactly what the Knicks went out and did.

To Anthony’s former teammates, the game meant something, but probably not for the reasons one would most immediately suspect.

* * * * * *

When LeBron James spurned the Knicks and announced his intentions to take his talents to South Beach, word began to trickle out of Denver that another big fish had his eyes on New York.

It was there, in the aftermath of heartbreak that the Knicks and their fans’ infatuation with Anthony began.

Anthony would eventually find his way to the team in February 2011 after successfully leveraging the Knicks into going against the wishes of then-executive Donnie Walsh.

Walsh, despite his saying otherwise since his departure from the team, was opposed to trading got Anthony. His sentiment was that wise teams don’t give up assets for players they could get via free agency, and with Anthony just five months from potentially hitting the open market, the wise Walsh wanted to wait.

Melo had other ideas.

While what was said behind closed doors still remains somewhat of a mystery, the fact is that Anthony never understood the consequences that the Knicks would face by executing a trade with the Nuggets. Out of a fear of his accepting a trade to the Nets, owner James Dolan flinched and, against the wishes of Walsh, gave the Nuggets the Knicks’ farm.

Anthony will forever wear the fact that he wouldn’t put the franchise’s longterm best interests above his personal financial security, and while it’s easy to understand the quandary, plenty of Knicks fans felt that his conduct was selfish and indicative of a player who put winning second to his finances.

That’s a part of Anthony’s legacy.

In the years that followed, even with the talented superstar, the Knicks would spend the majority of his career in New York lacking the talent required to compete for supremacy atop the Eastern Conference.

As the years progressed and the Knicks continued to flounder, fans in New York inevitably split.

Some blamed Anthony for the franchise’s failure to achieve higher. By forcing the trade, they’d argued, Anthony stripped the team of its assets, many of which could have been used to help acquire reinforcements.

Those that defend Anthony would sooner point to the organization’s lack of continuity—both on the bench and in the front office—as the primary reason the team continually fell short.

The truth, of course, lies somewhere in the middle…

And so have the scores of teammates that were cycled in and out of New York in a real-life basketball version of musical chairs.

* * * * * *

Player movement in the NBA has become its own phenomenon. Now, more than ever, superstar players understand their power and that their teams will often cast them aside when their usefulness has expired. Loyalty is fleeting.

As a result, we often spend time trying to figure out who’ll switch teams next. DeMarcus Cousins and Kyrie Irving won’t be the last.

In our discussions, we often spend time talking about things from the superstars’ perspective. The narratives that get told often revolve around the inadequacy of coaching and the lack of auxiliary talent, not the superstar’s inability to adapt and maximize.

So when a player like Anthony is deemed to need to relocate in order to have an opportunity to win at the highest levels, players like Lance Thomas, Courtney Lee and even Kristaps Porzingis begin to be thought of as players who aren’t good enough to succeed in any serious way in the league.

It usually takes many years of futility with more than one team for the superstar to be the one considered inadequate.

So when Anthony and the Thunder came into Madison Square Garden on Saturday night, the 10-time All-Star wasn’t the only one that had something to prove. Subliminally, the role players left behind—the team that many expected to find itself in the lottery once the season was over—was just as eager to show that the team’s failure to win with Anthony wasn’t completely due to their shortcomings.

As the Knicks soundly defeated the Thunder by a final score of 111-96, there’s no doubt that the Thunder’s triple-overtime game in Philadelphia the night before had an impact, but there’s also no doubt that there just so happened to be a little extra pep in the step of each Knick player that had something to prove. Playing without Porzingis only strengthened the team’s resolve.

And when it was all said and done, the Knicks fans that curiously booed Anthony proved a central point: there is a large section of them that believe that Anthony somehow held the team back. His shortcomings have always been well-founded, and the Knicks underachieved mightily with him as its core.

Those that cheered for him and continue to cheer for him, though, understand that the failures of the franchise has always been a two-way street. That Anthony chose New York—a franchise that has been marked by poor management and poorer decisions—resonates heavily.

Sure, Anthony may have failed the Knicks, but they failed him, too. And in the face of it, all Anthony ever did was show up, play hard and answer every question ever posed to him—authentically and honestly.

He proudly wore New York across his chest and showed up every day. In a world where LeBron leaves for Miami and Durant leaves for Oakland, Anthony’s commitment to New York should have meant something to all Knicks fans, but it only meant something to a few.

Flaws and all, Anthony chose New York and it wasn’t until he was told in certain terms that the organization wanted to move on that he honored their wish.

And in the end, Anthony waived his no-trade clause to head to Oklahoma City. In return, the Knicks got Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott and the rights to the Chicago Bulls’ second round pick in 2018 NBA Draft.

Still, heading into the season, the Knicks were projected to be a lottery team. Without a player the caliber of him, they were thought to be a long shot for the playoffs.

Holdovers from last year’s team knew what people were saying about them, and although head coach Jeff Hornacek refused to admit it, there is genuine surprise around the team that, at 16-13, has matched its record through the first 29 games of last season.

Perhaps those that booed Anthony on Saturday night did so because of some warped sense of reality.

Perhaps they believed that it was Anthony that quit on the team and not vice versa. As we look back at Anthony’s tenure, we were wrong about a lot of things—the depth of his love for the team and the city among them. It isn’t superficial, as some began to think along the way.

We were also wrong about his ability to be the foundational piece on a championship contender.

And, of course, above all, we were wrong about what the Knicks would be capable of once he departed.

As the team surprised him with a tribute video during the introduction of the game’s starting lineups, it was obvious that his former teammates and Michael Beasley, the one who proclaimed to be an adequate replacement for Anthony, wanted to prove that the failures of the team to achieve highly wasn’t all because of them.

No, the Knicks might not be a title contender, but we live in a world where a superstar players’ failure to win big is often blamed on the inadequacy of his supporting cast.

Sometimes, in actuality, the superstar is the problem.

Perhaps that’s why the reaction to Anthony was somewhat mixed.

Regardless, wherever you stand as it relates to his place as being underrated or overhyped, the night truly belonged to those caught in the middle of the shortcomings of Anthony and the Knicks.

And in some small way, to Anthony and the rest of the NBA, on Anthony’s old playground, the Porzingis-less Knicks proved something.

Sometimes, they’re not the problem.

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders.

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