After a long summer of topless championship parades, free-agency meetings in the Hamptons, Snapchat mishaps, and gold medals, the NBA is finally, truly, really, almost back. The start of training camp marks the beginning of our NBA Preview.
This is Banana Boat Week. We’ll be looking at how that group of friends has shaped the modern NBA and what we might expect from them in these final seasons before they ride the waves into the sunset. Grab your life preserver. This should be fun.
Said she need a ring like Carmelo
Must be on that white like Othello
Those lines open Frank Ocean’s recent LP, Blonde, and the reference to the Knicks’ star forward, Carmelo Anthony, is not a charitable one. The punch line here, of course, is that Anthony winning a championship is the type of feverish conceit that could be prompted by only cocaine use.
Yes, Anthony’s proximity to an NBA title feels increasingly distant. The Knicks won 32 games last season and 17 the previous year. New York went on an offseason spending spree and plopped some luxury products in its shopping cart, but most are dented floor models without return policies. The Westgate SuperBook set the Knicks’ over-under line for the upcoming season at 38.5 wins, a number that would have failed to earn them a playoff spot in either conference last season.
More critically, the sand in Anthony’s hourglass is running out. He is now 32 years old and nearing the league’s top 10 in career regular-season minutes among active players (among those ahead of him, only LeBron James is younger). Anthony has missed 52 combined games over the past two seasons, and his explosiveness has been dampened by knee surgery and inflammations in the same joint. Time is not on his side.
"I do look at my peers and say, ‘Damn, what am I doing wrong?’" Anthony told reporters in Boston last season, comparing the Knicks’ lack of success to that of James’s Cleveland Cavaliers and Chris Paul’s Los Angeles Clippers. "There was one point in time where they were looking at me like that."
Those comparisons are inevitable: Anthony, James, Paul, and the Chicago Bulls’ Dwyane Wade are the so-called Banana Boat crew, and have dubbed their kinship "The Brotherhood." Anthony’s position is more precarious than that of his yellow flotation fruit compatriots. James is arguably the greatest player ever; Paul is the "Point God," the league’s most tragic hero; Wade is a three-time champion and a dead-eyed, alpha-male killer. But, at this point, what do we make of Anthony?
For starters, he is not worthy of Frank Ocean’s crooned mockery. Nor should he receive our sympathy. Anthony is a nine-time All-Star, a scoring champion, a three-time Olympic gold medalist, and an NCAA tournament winner who led the Syracuse Orangemen to the university’s first championship as a freshman in 2003. He is a first-ballot NBA Hall of Famer. Anthony has nothing left to prove, really, nor is he likely to have an opportunity to bend the trajectory of his story to one that resembles the loftier arcs enjoyed by his contemporaries. And that’s OK.
Instead, it’s time to properly appreciate Carmelo Anthony. After five and a half seasons in New York, he can no longer be viewed as the Knicks’ long-awaited liberator. He is probably no longer one of the league’s utmost elites (almost three weeks ago, Sports Illustrated pegged him at 24th in a list of the NBA’s top 100 players). He has become a familiar Knick archetype — like Patrick Ewing or Bernard King before him — a player who became part of the franchise’s collective lore without capturing the ultimate trophy. After 13 years of accepting the accolades and enduring the critiques that accompany being a first-option volume scorer, Anthony is finally seeing expectations dovetail with the reality of what he’s capable of providing.
"He’s a tremendously talented basketball player and he’s helped every team he’s ever been on," Jim Boeheim told The Ringer. He coached Anthony both at Syracuse and as an assistant with USA Basketball. Perhaps because Anthony reached his pinnacle as a teen and has never ascended to similar heights as a professional — his playoff record is a dismal 23–43 — there is an urge to view his career as inconsequential. "Everybody in the NBA judges you on championships," Boeheim said. "I don’t think they take into account who you play with or if you’re on a good team or not. And there’s nothing you can really do to overcome that. It’s really just how it works in the NBA and professional sports, in general. You have to win a championship."
The tyranny of rings drove James to Miami and Kevin Durant to Golden State. Both relocations were harshly scrutinized by basketball pundits and fans alike. Anthony, though, has been criticized for staying put in New York, rather than signing with a stronger team in Chicago, Houston, or Dallas in 2014. But maybe it’s better to stay put than be a perennial bridesmaid clawing for a bouquet that almost always lands out of reach.
"You can’t win on that one," said Boeheim of Anthony’s decision to remain with the Knicks. "If you leave, you’re a traitor. If you don’t leave, you shoulda left. I don’t know. I admire him. He wanted to hang in there and win in New York. He likes the city and where he lives. His critics look at it like he just wanted the money or he didn’t really want to win. You can’t fight it."
At the time, capologists groused that Anthony’s five-year, $124 million contract would hamstring the Knicks, but spikes in the salary cap have made it less of an albatross than expected. While he is among the highest-paid players in the league, he makes only a few million more per season than Chandler Parsons or Harrison Barnes. With the batshit new math, Anthony’s contract is not holding his team back.
Maybe Carmelo believed that he could win in New York. Maybe he assumed a renowned franchise in a major market would inevitably attract other top free agents. But franchise-shifting pieces like Durant, Kevin Love, and LaMarcus Aldridge ended up in Golden State, Cleveland, and San Antonio. Meanwhile, the Knicks inked Joakim Noah, Brandon Jennings, and Courtney Lee, and traded for Derrick Rose, whose civil trial for sexual battery now hangs over the team like a noxious sulphur cloud. There are a few real "superteams," and winning a title is a virtual impossibility for almost 90 percent of the NBA.
But let’s say Anthony put a good-ass job, a high quality of life, and loyalty over greater ambitions. So what? There’s nobility in that. He has comfortably settled into an existence as a middle-class, Joe Lunchpail star, a father figure to younger teammates who has enough left in the tank to get the Garden crowd on its feet with yet another pull-up jumper as the clock ticks down. Anthony has always been a throwback — his refined isolation scoring abilities are antithetical to the preachings of modern basketball philosophers — and playing out the rest of his days in New York would give him an old-school legacy like that of Dominique Wilkins or Reggie Miller.
Fortunately for the Knicks, Anthony has not raged against the dimming of his superstar wattage. Last season, he adjusted his game accordingly, posting his lowest usage rate since he was 20, defending with respectable enthusiasm, and averaging the most assists of his career. He seemed willing — even excited — to cede savior hype to Kristaps Porzingis, who emerged from a glowing clamshell in the East River froth to save us all.
As Knicks fans erect their shrines to Porzingis, complete with sprinklings of Riga Black Balsam and dark slices of rupjmaize bread, they also yoke unrealistic hopes to his narrow shoulders. At long last, Anthony has been absolved of that burden. "That’s just the way it is, especially in New York," said Boeheim. "If you don’t win, it’s going to be held against you. Carmelo is doing the best he can."