The NBA's Eastern Conference is undergoing a sea change in the wake of LeBron James's decision to leave Miami for Cleveland. A series of high-profile player moves have turned conference on its head—there's no real favorite as of yet in the race to make it to the Finals and lose to the Spurs. Welcome to the Inscrutable East, our offseason rundown of the teams that matter.
One day after LeBron James got Lee Jenkins to do his homework for him in Sports Illustrated, Carmelo Anthony followed in the King's footsteps to much less fanfare and adulation, releasing his own musings on his site about home and heart.
The sharks came out almost immediately, and not without cause. The optics and the timing made Melo's decision feel like an off-brand copy, but that's practically par for the course. Since they were drafted, Melo, either by his own design or by the efforts of the chattering class, has been measured against LeBron—a near impossible standard that's doomed him to failure.
He'd never admit that LeBron's LeBron-ness haunts him the way Kobe's borderline sociopathic on court persona has always been a slightly botched clone of Michael Jordan's actual laser-like mania.
This is the horrible tragic flaw in Carmelo's heroic arc, that there was always a better version of himself: an older, better-liked, and more perfectly loathed (during LeBron's post-"Decision" period) version of him that people could point to and essentially ask, "Why can't you get it together... like your brother? Such a lovely boy, that one."
There's nothing particularly wrong with being a slightly worse version of the greatest basketball player on the planet. But when people write about Melo, there's rarely ever a discussion of the pleasure one takes in watching him. It's partly due to the fact that the nature of his game doesn't immediately lend itself to easy rhapsodizing, but the vast majority of What We Talk About When We Talk About Melo is a deep analysis of what non-Knicks squad he might fit best, or an infinite advanced stats-based parsing of his skills on the court, or his value as it relates to other prime scoring forwards.
Worst of all is the near-constant moralizing and hand-wringing about what his decision to take X dollars less than the max to remain in New York might say about him as a human being. His contract can't just be a contract—it's a referendum on whether he's selfish or greedy, a pathological liar when he talked all season about "taking less" or just terrible at spewing talking points.
It all adds up to a near-constant buzz of disparaging white noise of what Melo could be and might be or should be or will never be, such that it's almost impossible to take pleasure in what he is, here and now, in the present moment.
The closing paragraph to Bill Simmons's Grantland piece might be the peak example:
"How much money is enough money? What's the price of peace? What would it have been worth to know—to really, truly know? Was he good enough? Could he have gotten there? Did he have it in him?"
And by returning to New York, he went to one of the few places on the planet that's absolutely going to magnify that dialogue a thousandfold, specifically because New York can understand absolute wretchedness or insanely opulent and triumphant glory, but has a real hard time with anything that's forced to trudge in the gray, murky, less-easily defined middle ground.
Talk all you want about the hoary myths of the kid scrubbing dishes that by bootstrap pulling and grit and pure determination and perhaps a special indefinable glint in the corner of his eye, winds up on Broadway. That's the myth. That's the fiction that draws people here when the reality is the city is a self-contained Third World nation. Massive, almost inconceivable wealth literally rubbing up against abject poverty as the latter tries to scrounge a quarter or a loosie.
New York City doesn't do small victories, half-measures, or managed expectations. To do so would suggest that the slim chance at greatness might not be worth the cost in years or decades of struggle and hardship. This is especially true when it comes to the city's sporting heroes. We want gods that can be elevated to mythic status, or bums that can be shredded ad nauseam like so much tattered tabloid newsprint. The middle ground? Not so much.
Take Derek Jeter, as a point of comparison: an equally flawed player who, when met by a horde of protractor-wielding haterz trying to bring him down, felt the full wrath of Yankee Nation. And yes, winning does create an entirely different frame for how we perceive an athlete, but Jeets's greatness is a thing that's accepted as an axiomatic truth no matter how many times we see his dead-eyed yet perfectly plastically friendly mug on camera blurting, "Check out my website."
But yes, the championships. Melo, for a slew of reasons that have little to do with Carmelo Anthony, hasn't come close to doing that.
In fact, he's been mired in the tail end of one of the worst stretches in Knickerbocker history. For 20-something fans that's all they've known—the equivalent of a cold-water sixth floor walkup tenement. It's caused a weird bifurcation in Knick fandom between those that are wildly, irrationally optimistic, and those that are unnecessarily pessimistic and are twitchily wary of the next emotional/psychological beat-down that's inevitably around the corner, and these sides genuinely dislike one another. Hell, they HATE each other.
New York's a priori sense of entitlement leads to people feeling as if they should win, that they deserve to win. And when that doesn't happen, it shunts people into these two poles as the only way to really cope with reality.
There's no part of Carmelo Anthony that's enjoyable within this paradigm. The optimists, the ones that want to believe that the team is on the precipice of living in the penthouse, even in the face of 14 years of hard evidence are seen as hopeless rubes/dupes or stooges/enablers of a particularly shitty owner. The pessimists, crouching on the floor in a particularly grubby outhouse, are told that their incessant grumping is due to an Upper West Side-ish sense of self-loathing. Neither side is right, really but in the midst of this constant shouting match—and New Yorkers love few things more than a serious, full-throated scream—neither side is actually having much fun watching Carmelo play.
And that's there, if you can separate him from the almost unbearable burden of expectations. For a while, I wanted him gone, if only because I was tired of the debate, and because I kinda just wanted to see something new and different, or at least fight about something that wasn't inevitably reduced to the final assessment of all things Melo.
(Yes, I realize the attendant irony of using Melo as a metaphor for the failures of New York City as a whole to decry the fact that Melo is constantly being shoehorned into all kinds of ill-fitting metaphors.)
But now that he's back, I think there is a third way—to appreciate him as a player in and of himself. Knicker-backers like me can like watching Iman Shumpert try to regain his mojo. They can root for Cole Aldrich and his goofy Greg Ostertag 2.0 game to make it's way into the rotation. I can revel in Phil Jackson and Clyde Frazier swimming in the deep end of nostalgia for of the great Knicks teams of the 70s, and an Antetokoumpo of our own, and even J.R. Smith's red clown's nose and so on and so on.
Cheer for the now, for a Knicks that are the Knicks without or outside of New York and all the dumb choices and hatefully binary options of total success or abject failure that it inevitably forces its inhabitants to make as a kind of twisted survival mechanism.
And gain pleasure in Melo, and all the beauty and brutish and brutal poetry of his game, operating out of the pinch post, facing down a defender, with (hopefully) triangle-patterned cutters whirling around him, making the net dance.
Robert Silverman is a contributor with the Daily Beast and a staff writer at the Cauldron. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Salon, ESPN.com, Deadspin, the Classical, and he co-wrote We'll Always Have Linsanity: Strange Takes on the Strangest Season in Knicks History. You can follow Robert on Twitter at @BobSaietta