Contrary to popular belief, New York Knicks fans aren’t particularly demanding. If we were, they might’ve actually won something over the last decade.
We can accept the idea that winning a championship every year is impossible. Lost in the stereotype of the short-tempered New Yorker is a fan base that is, without question, the smartest and most patient in the NBA. You don’t have to win every year, you just have to show us that you’re working towards something. We want a team New York can be proud of, not one that can’t even keep its fans in the building during the NBA Finals.
That’s why we embrace certain players more than others. We don’t ask for perfection, we don’t even ask for stardom, but we ask for a New York attitude. We want players who will go to war for their teammates and this city. We want gritty, blue-collar players who may not be defensive stoppers but never get questioned for their effort.
We love rescuing castaways from other teams. As impossible as it is to quantify, there’s definitely something to the idea that playing in our building, under our lights and with the name of our city across your chest can completely rejuvenate a career. That’s why Latrell Sprewell remains, to this day, the most universally beloved Knick of my lifetime. He stood for everything New York wants to see in their players, even if it all fell apart in the end.
He came to New York as a malcontent, but stayed on his best behavior as a Knick. He never played defense in Golden State, but he did a complete 180 in New York, lowering his DRtg from around 111 with the Warriors to below 101 in his first threw years with the Knicks. He embraced playing for the Knicks and for New York City, and we loved believing that all of this was only because of our effect on him. His effort was never questioned, his commitment to his teammates everlasting.
Sprewell never won a title for New York, but because of him, the Knicks came a lot closer than they ever should've. To this day the '99 Knicks remain the only No. 8 seed to ever play in the NBA Finals.
We don’t ask for perfection, we don’t even ask for stardom, but we ask for a New York attitude.
J.R. Smith most closely fits that mold now. If Tyson Chandler is our favored son (and for the record, he is, ask any Knicks fan above the age of 12 who their favorite player is and they’ll immediately answer Tyson), then J.R. is the wayward cousin whose life we’ve helped get back on track. He’s the Will Smith to Tyson’s Carlton.
He’s still a chucker, and he still makes boneheaded mistakes, but we know he’s changed. He’s stopped partying over the last year to focus on basketball. He’s embraced Mike Woodson as a father figure. He even took below market value to re-sign with the Knicks (you’re crazy if you think someone wouldn’t give him more than $6 million, for God’s sake the Kings and Bobcats exist). We have a relationship with him that doesn’t quite make sense and is somewhat frustrating, but is fulfilling nonetheless.
If J.R. is Will and Tyson is Carlton, then Carmelo Anthony is Hilary, the spoiled brat with a million dollar body and a 10-cent head. Blessed with as much talent as any non-LeBron player in basketball, Anthony’s selfish attitude, laissez-faire approach to defense and overall refusal to subjugate his game for the sake of his teammates has put him in a rare position among superstars in any sports: he is largely disliked by his home fan base.
Even if ‘Melo were born here, we don’t look at him as a real New Yorker. We think of him the same way we think of A-Rod: he’s an outsider. He’s someone trying to capitalize on all that New York can offer him without giving anything back to the city in return. You don’t get the Jeter treatment just because you have Jeter’s talent. You have to show us that you want to win as badly as Jeter does.
And frankly, there’s not much evidence to suggest that winning is high on Carmelo’s agenda. Say what you will about LeBron, but we know for sure that he at least thought he was giving himself the best shot to win a ring.
But Anthony? He forced a midseason trade to a middle-of-the-road Eastern Conference team that completely gutted their roster. Not only did he need to play for the premier New York team (he turned down SEVERAL overtures from the Nets), he needed to do it before the end of the season because he feared signing an extension under the new CBA would cost him money.
Just for fun, let’s consider Carmelo’s options had he decided to wait until the end of the lockout to explore free agency:
New York Knicks
Not the Knicks he ended up with, a fully-loaded Knicks team that wouldn’t surround him with Jared Jeffries and Anthony Carter in the closing minutes of a playoff game. How does a starting five of Raymond Felton, Landry Fields, Danilo Gallinari, ‘Melo, and Amar’e Stoudemire with Wilson Chandler, Toney Douglas, Timofey Mozgov and veteran free agent X sound? Pretty good right? That isn’t a stretch, THAT’S WHAT SHOULD HAVE HAPPENED!
Even without Tyson Chandler, this team has plenty of possibilities. Remember, the entire plan was built around Carmelo, Amar’e, and Chris Paul playing together, but after the ‘Melo trade, the Knicks didn’t have the assets or the cap space to chase CP3. In this world? An offer of Gallo, Chandler, Mozgov and draft picks would have at least earned David Stern’s attention. By forcing the trade midseason, Anthony completely hamstrung his own team’s flexibility.
Deron Williams, Brooklyn, and an insane owner who has no problem shelling out millions in luxury tax dollars? Doesn’t that sound pretty appealing? Let’s say ‘Melo chooses the Nets. Joe Johnson is off of the table, but KG and Paul Pierce aren’t. They could still make a similar trade for at least one of them (let’s say KG) using some of the same cap filler and draft picks.
The other benefit to getting ‘Melo? No dumb Gerald Wallace trade. Hello, Damian Lillard. The Nets could have potentially run out a starting five of Williams, Lillard, ‘Melo, KG and Brook Lopez. Yikes.
Los Angeles Clippers
Yet another option that sets ‘Melo up with an elite point guard. This one is admittedly unlikely, as it would have required his signature before the Chris Paul trade, but imagine that pairing with Blake Griffin. The offensive possibilities are limitless.
Again unlikely as it would have required a sign and trade, but it would’ve been entirely possible had Carmelo wanted it. Even if the Bulls wouldn’t give up Joakim Noah, an offer of Luol Deng, super-sub Omer Asik, and Charlotte’s unprotected 2016 pick would have been more appealing to Denver than losing him for nothing to the Knicks. The Bulls start the 2011-12 season with a core of Anthony, Noah, Derrick Rose and Carlos Boozer with Jimmy Butler looming in the background.
Needless to say, Carmelo screwed himself over unless it wasn’t about winning. Objectively, it looks like it was about getting to New York and securing a contract extension. Not the worst idea if you’re a lawyer or stock broker, but sacrificing so much on the court for a few extra bucks off of it doesn’t exactly scream, “I really want to win a championship.”
And that’s ultimately what playing for New York is all about. We can forgive losing. We can’t forgive a losing attitude. The defense, the effort, the grit. These are all traits that New York prides in itself. These are traits that are embodied by real New Yorkers. There’s no coasting in New York. If you want to make it here, you’d better be ready to work your ass off. We expect the same from our athletes. Even if we can’t hold the trophy, we want to see our guys die trying.
Even in the absence of talent, these are the traits that lead to success. We hold stars to a higher standard because that talent so obviously exists within them. Wearing New York across your chest creates an unspoken promise that you will do everything in your power to represent our city the right way. It’s a privilege to wear orange and blue; Carmelo Anthony treats it like it’s his birthright.
By forcing the trade midseason, Anthony completely hamstrung his own team’s flexibility.
That’s what’s so frustrating about him. In Carmelo we see a player born with the talent to win championships, not just for himself, but for us. He takes that talent and treats it as if it exists exclusively for his own benefit. In doing so, he has alienated the city he claims to call home. That’s not what basketball is all about and that’s not what New York is all about.
When we rescued him from Denver, the expectation was that he'd respond the way that Sprewell did, that he'd embrace playing for New York by playing in a way befitting of the city. If we're comparing players to cities, he's much more Miami than he is New York. All flash, no fire. Unless you have LeBron's flash, you aren't winning with 'Melo's fire.
Carmelo’s failure to win a championship isn’t too far removed from his strained relationship with his hometown. The things we value, the things we want to see out of him, are the same things that will lead him to a title. Embrace defense. Don't shoot mid-range isolation jumpers with 14 seconds left on the shot clock. Stop acting like your sh*t doesn’t stink.
Maybe you’ll never win a championship doing those things, ‘Melo, but you’ll have shown us that you’re willing to die trying. And for New York? That’s more than enough.