12:09 pm Oct. 3, 2012
October, for teams in the N.B.A., is a time to dream big.
The season and its cruel realities have yet to set in. Players can hope that coming into camp in better shape, or having worked on a particular skill, will translate into fundamentally different performances. Occasionally, that's what happens. Usually, though, past results dictate future results.
Still, it was striking to hear Jason Kidd, the grizzled veteran and Knicks backup point guard, compare Carmelo Anthony to his former teammate with the Dallas Mavericks, Dirk Nowitzki.
“Oh, yes, very similar, very talented,” Kidd said. “Demand a lot of attention, so hopefully what I’ve helped with Dirk, and Dirk is now one of the top players in this league, hopefully I can do the same with Melo.”
The implication, just as Walt Frazier's declaration last month that the Knicks can contend for a championship if Anthony becomes LeBron James, is that Anthony will need to become a fundamentally different, better player at this stage of his career. Now 28, and in his tenth N.B.A. season, chances are that Anthony is finished developing, and the only thing that will likely change about his game moving forward is decreased athleticism due to age.
But Nowitzki is an intriguing comparison, because he succeeded at the power forward position in much the same way Anthony did last season. Both took advantage of what are often significant defensive mismatches playing there. For Nowitzki, they came about in a different way than Anthony's; he is seven feet tall, so the difficulties covering him had to do with size, while Anthony, who is a muscular 6'8", got mismatches through superior quickness.
During the month last season when Anthony played primarily power forward, as Amar'e Stoudemire recovered from a back injury, Anthony put up numbers that fit nicely in the best seasons of Nowitzki's career.
The problem, of course, is that Stoudemire is back, and the Knicks plan to play him with Anthony regularly, which will push Anthony to the small forward position. This isn't a problem if Stoudemire regains the offensive form that led to the Knicks giving him a five-year, max deal in the first place. But it does mean that Anthony will be used suboptimally, though he's certainly capable of providing a ton of offensive value at small forward.
What the Knicks really need to hope for, I'd argue, is that Anthony becomes their Paul Pierce, a onetime free shooter for lesser teams who became a far more efficient scorer and late-game killer for the elite Celtics teams of the past five years. (Knicks fans, obviously, need no reminder of this.)
From 2000-01 through 2006-07, Pierce took 18.3 shots per game, making them at a 43.9 percent clip. The Celtics missed the playoffs three times, and didn't win 50 games once during that time.
From 2007-08 through 2011-12, Pierce took 13.6 shots per game, but made 46.6 percent of them. His three-point shooting percentage went up as well, suggesting that he took more of those shots as open looks, not forced. He did so because his surrounding talent improved. And he managed it for Celtics teams that won 50 games twice, 60 games twice, and won two Eastern Conference titles and an N.B.A. championship.
For those who doubt that Carmelo Anthony can be Paul Pierce, remember that few saw Pierce developing into the player he ultimately became. And Anthony, at least, is saying all the right things in training camp.
Is he still capable of evolving, though? We'll soon find out.