The Love Below
What Jeremy Lin has taught us about Carmelo Anthony.
by Mike Piellucci / @mikelikessports
Take a moment, if you will, to strip down the layers of the Jeremy Lin mystique.
Look past the herky-jerky jumper and late-game heroics, the internet memes and inane monikers. Forget where he went to school, the color of his skin, the city he plays in, the other teams’ uniforms he modeled. Set aside, if you can, the maelstrom of coverage that has saturated him for over three weeks and examine the network of plotlines that have us all so infatuated.
What you are left with are questions.
Can he keep it up? Why did a player this good slip through the cracks? Is there any real precedent for this? How much of a role does race play in this story? How much of a role should race play in this story? What parallels, if any, are there to Tim Tebow? Has he already become the biggest athlete in New York? Linsanity, or Fernandomania? How did Mike D’Antoni, for even five seconds, think that Toney Douglas and Mike Bibby’s corpse were better options at point guard? Where does he rank among the League’s floor generals right now? Will he have enough of a career to continue to merit that discussion? Is this the greatest sports Cinderella story of all time?
There is one more question, though, that isn’t really a question.
How will Carmelo Anthony coexist with Jeremy Lin?
It’s referendum camouflaged in query, a rejection of the status quo. Knicks fans were exhausted of the terrible product that preceded Lin to the point of demoralization, both aesthetically and in the standings; it’s genuinely astounding that a team featuring two lead dogs on Melo and Amar’e Stoudemire’s level turned in such a horrific 8-15 product.
So it’s hardly shocking, then, that a Linfusion of seven consecutive wins powered by D’Antoni’s long-lost brand of frenetic, uptempo basketball has the public rallying behind the man who, almost to a comical degree, turned New York’s season into a before-and-after split screen fit for a hokey weight loss infomercial.
In one pane, a weary Stoudemire hauling his woe begotten knees up the floor, hoisting jumpers an ocean away from the basket, only to bound down the court in the other, a whirring force on the pick-and-roll reminiscent of his Phoenix days when he was the most awesome athletic marvel the League employed. There’s Tyson Chandler, not three weeks ago wound so tightly that it was becoming plausible to wonder when—not if, but when—he was going to snap and physically assault someone after one too many botched rotations by an apathetic teammate; now, buoyed by some distant cousin of the success he enjoyed last year in Dallas, he’s throwing down alley-oops and chest bumps with a delirious grin on his face, genuinely giddy that someone competent is running the point. Landry Fields has his confidence back. Iman Shumpert has a better-suited role as the first guard off the bench. Jared Jeffries is actually earning his paycheck.
This stuff isn’t supposed to happen instantaneously. It’s supposed to be the product hawked in those infomercials—a process that takes weeks, months, years—but this time it’s as immediate as the smoke-and-mirrors show behind it, pounds magically sloughed off in the ‘after’ photo thanks to the wonders of Photoshop. Only this is real. It ultimately may only last for another week or two or three, but it is impossible to watch the pre- and post-Lin Knicks and conclude anything other than that a complete paradigm shift has occurred.
On January 3, the New York Knicks were a dumpster fire of a team that took bad shots, monopolized possessions in the half court, didn’t move off the ball, and outside of Chandler, couldn’t be bothered to defend.
On January 4, the first game Lin played extended minutes, they became a fast break, pick-and-roll, ball movement-oriented squad that demonstrated actual effort on the defensive end and started piling on wins accordingly.
Conventional wisdom has attributed that phenomenon solely to Lin when, in actuality, it’s a two-man operation. Anthony’s absence for the bulk of this run looms every bit as large as Lin’s presence, and not solely due to the advent of Linsanity coming largely at Melo’s behest. It’s Carmelo who epitomizes those Knicks in the ‘before’ frame, both symbolically as the face of the franchise and literally with his compunction to horde as many possessions on offense as he concedes them on defense. Only when he sat out seven games with a groin strain was Lin truly able to run roughshod, bending the offense to his will out of sheer necessity. Which returns us to that rejection of the status quo; less than a year after his own coronation as the Knicks’ savior, the five-time All-Star is now the one expected to assimilate to the whims of an undrafted point guard and not the other way around.
This, put bluntly, is totally insane. For all Carmelo’s warts, he is one of a mere handful of players capable of being a lead scorer on a Championship team, someone who not only can create their own offense but comes through in the biggest moments. In each of the past three seasons, he’s finished in the top-10 in clutch points per 48 minutes, and that’s before delving into the shots themselves, how time and again we’ve witnessed him take over in the last two minutes and steal games he shouldn’t, embracing the pressure situations in which so many of his counterparts wilt.
It’s become trendy in the throes of the advanced stats revolution to trivialize the value of what he does as a predominantly offense-oriented player but the fact remains that since 1980, the 2004 Pistons—an anomaly in almost every way—are the only team to win a title without superstar-caliber lead scorer, a mantle Anthony most certainly bears. Jeremy Lin may be bigger commercially, economically, culturally and globally, but Carmelo Anthony is the type of currency that wins Championships and nothing is of greater importance within the game itself.
Yet siding with Lin over Carmelo, in and of itself, is neither surprising nor interesting. It’s the same logic behind why the backup quarterback is perpetually the most popular player on a bad football team, the intoxicating idea that hand-in-hand with the unknown comes exciting, limitless possibilities instead of the intimately acquainted confines of the imperfect present. Nevermind that 999 times out of 1,000 that pine-straddling signal caller is the next JT O’Sullivan instead of the next Tom Brady; there’s always a chance, no matter how astronomically remote, that things could be better. As Peter Griffin explained in an episode of Family Guy why, after winning a contest, he chose as his prize a mystery box instead of a boat, “the mystery box could be anything… even a boat!”
What’s significant about all of this is the response, or lack thereof: Nobody is taking Carmelo Anthony’s side. That comes with the territory in New York, ground zero of this revolution, but there’s nary a peep of support anywhere. Indeed, with every added iteration of this story, it becomes increasingly difficult to conclude anything other than Carmelo being the least beloved superstar in the League.
That’s different than being the most loathed; LeBron and Kobe both have legions of haters, along with battalions of equally impassioned fanboys. Carmelo isn’t really hated by anyone apart from bitter Nuggets fans, who have every reason to despise him after last season’s trade fiasco, yet he is adored by even fewer. Knicks fans certainly like him, but all it took was a smattering of games from Lin to demonstrate just how far away from their adulation Melo truly is.
He’ll always have the backing of Syracuse fans, I suppose, but their interest only extends so far into the pro game and he has grassroots support in his hometown of Baltimore, but the city’s basketball priorities vacillate between rooting for John Wall to save the Wizards and rooting against JaVale McGee continuing to reinvent on court stupidity.
After that, who else is there?
What is Carmelo Anthony’s constituency?
There’s always a ‘but’ with Melo—purists love the polish in his game, but hate his ball-dominating ways; advanced stats gurus respect his ruthlessness in the game’s waning minutes, but disdain his indifference on defense; older fans marvel at the ease at which he fills up the score sheet, but bristle at his criminal record; younger fans recognize his swag, but are only so wowed by his feints, jab steps, spins and postups when juxtaposed against the jaw-dropping athleticism of LeBron, DRose and Blake Griffin. The result is someone who has a foothold in every demographic but roots in none of them, a player who genuinely matters in sport’s folklore but eminently disposable in the hearts of those who cherish it.
Perhaps that will be Jeremy Lin’s ultimate legacy whenever the Linsanity finally peters out—showing us where exactly Carmelo Anthony stands. Because, after all, isn’t this all a love story? A city once again swooning over its basketball team, a people falling in love with a player who reshapes outsiders’ perceptions, a society reigniting the flame with the innocence of sport after a grisly year of scandals. It’s only fitting, then, that the man furthest removed from it all is the same one so noticeably absent from adoration itself.
It’s the only real answer we have so far in the Jeremy Lin story: love. It’s the one thing he has that Carmelo doesn’t, and the reason a city has taken the side of an undrafted point guard over the superstar forward, even if none of it makes any sense at all.