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The Curious Case of Carmelo Anthony’s Injured Knee

Is Carmelo Anthony making the Knicks his top professional priority? Some of his decisions suggest he’s not.

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Here’s what we know: At some point, New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony had an MRI that revealed he needed season-ending surgery on his left knee. Last Thursday, a few days after he played 30 minutes in the 2015 All-Star Game, Anthony underwent the required procedure, which included a patella tendon debridement and repair. Knicks president Phil Jackson announced Anthony’s recovery window would likely be between four-to-six months.

Here’s what we don’t know: Exactly when did Anthony, Jackson, team doctors, owner Jim Dolan and the rest of the organization come to the realization that Anthony had sustained a significant injury to his knee, an injury that required major surgery and would keep him sidelined for potentially up to half a calendar year?

The timeline on the Anthony injury has been murky this whole season. Was the seriousness of the situation downplayed at ‘Melo’s request, or was the team and/or Anthony neglectful in their attention to this issue? Either scenario is worrisome.

The warning signs were certainly there… During a loss at Milwaukee on November 18, Anthony left in the second half to have his left knee re-taped. Afterwards, he admitted he had been dealing with “soreness” in his left knee since the second game of the season (the second game of the 2014-15 campaign was played back on October 30).

Then, over the first two weeks in January, ‘Melo sat out six straight games. He decided to come back just in time to play in the NBA’s international showcase game, when the Knicks took on the Bucks in London, England.

Anthony then sat out three of the Knicks’ next nine contests, including two of their final three regular season games leading into All-Star Weekend.

However, ‘Melo deemed the All-Star game important enough that he needed to participate. Not only did he participate, but ended up playing total of 30 minutes, which was more court time than any player on the entire Western Conference roster received, and second only to LeBron James (who played a game-high 32 minutes) on the Eastern Conference squad.

This is troubling because it calls Anthony’s priorities into question.

If ‘Melo was physically able to play 30 minutes in a meaningless exhibition game, wouldn’t he have been able to give the Knicks 30 minutes in their final pre-All-Star break game? That game was a six-point loss to the Orlando Magic at Madison Square Garden, in front of Knicks fans who fork over exorbitant sums to watch their favorite team, and favorite players, play.

Many fans and media members supported Anthony’s controversial decision, but many others were perplexed. Chauncey Billups, Melo’s former teammate, was up-front in his disappointment with Anthony’s choice.

“If you are hurt and you know you are going to shut it down, just get the surgery and make that commitment that the Knicks made to him and just get better and not worry about playing for the fans and the All-Star Game,” Billups told ESPN Radio in New York. “I thought it was poor judgment but to each his own.”

Billups went on to say that he believes ‘Melo needs guidance and leadership in the locker room.

“My perception of him [is] he really needed my guidance, he needed my leadership,” Billups said. “I don’t know that he quite knew how to lead a team or a franchise, but at that time he was young. I can’t expect him to. He was already a great player, but he is best served when he doesn’t have to be the leader of the team.”

For better or worse, Anthony is the face of the Knicks franchise. He is their cornerstone. They committed to him wholeheartedly this past summer when they handed him a monstrous $124 million contract. In return, shouldn’t his sole focus being on helping the team that has paid him approximately $561,450 per game this season? How does appearing in an inconsequential All-Star Game help the teammates he should be devoted to?

Initially, ‘Melo intimated that surgery was an option, but it would likely only keep him out of action for six-to-eight weeks. The shocking news that ‘Melo could miss up to six months casts some doubt on his availability for the start of training camp next season. The 2014-15 season is already circling the drain, and the fewer games ‘Melo plays this season is actually better for the Knicks, as the worse their record is, the better the chance they have at winning the draft lottery.

Yet, hopes remain high for next season. The Knicks will have a top draft pick coming in, as well as oodles of cap space to upgrade their roster. Still, a healthy Anthony is a perquisite to any Knicks success in 2015-16.

Which brings us back to the question of when did Anthony and the Knicks first discover he needed this intensive procedure?

At the press conference announcing the surgery, Phil Jackson told reporters: “I had a meeting with him in London and we discussed this process of having the surgery sooner than later because we know the process can take some time for rehab and getting back on the court and we want him to make a full recovery and be ready for this next coming season in the process of not only rehabbing but reconditioning.”

The Knicks left for London back on January 12. At what point did Phil and ‘Melo sit down to discuss the future? The All-Star Game wasn’t played until February 15. That’s more than a month of time. And that’s assuming Anthony and team doctors weren’t fully aware of the severity of the injury prior to January. When was the first MRI taken? What did it reveal?

Even if ‘Melo makes it back in time to participate in training camp in late September/early October, he will have missed invaluable time to improve his game during the summer. The NBA’s best players often use the offseason to fine-tune and improve their game. He will not have that same opportunity.

If Anthony had his surgery a month earlier, or six weeks, or even eight weeks earlier in December, he’d have far more time to ready himself for all-important the 2015-16 campaign. As Phil explained, it is not only rehabbing but reconditioning that is important.

Was there a conscious decision on ‘Melo’s part to sacrifice more than a month of rehab time this summer in order to play in an All-Star Game?

Prior to the season, Anthony expressed how important it was for him to “build up his brand.” Did the opportunity to play a game in London or showcase his brand on the All-Star stage in New York City cloud his vision and blur his priorities?

If this was the case, why would Phil Jackson and rest of the Knicks hierarchy be willing to give in to ‘Melo’s wishes?

Now, even under the most optimistic scenario, the Knicks’ future is a bit murkier due to questions regarding Anthony’s long-term health. Unfortunately, it wasn’t difficult to predict that signing Anthony was highly risky since, among many other reasons, Anthony had already endured a massive amount of wear-and-tear throughout his career.

Consider this: Last season, Anthony became just the second player, age 29 or older, since 2010 to log over 3,000 minutes in one season. The only other player to have matched that feat is Kobe Bryant, who played over 3,000 minutes in 2012-13. (As we know, Kobe has been unable to stay healthy since the conclusion of the 2012-13 campaign.)

Still, despite these issues and the fact that no team in the NBA could offer Anthony more than $98 million, Jackson and the Knicks caved and acquiesced to nearly all of Anthony’s demands, including a no-trade clause, a player option for the fifth and final season and a 15 percent trade-kicker.

The Knicks were exceedingly loyal to Anthony. Did Carmelo return the favor? Will he make the Knicks his sole professional priority going forward? We shall see…

Tommy Beer is a Senior NBA Analyst and the Fantasy Sports Editor of Basketball Insiders, having covered the NBA for the last nine seasons.

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