Translating this mind-set to the court is a different trick, though. Anthony always struck me as a certain type of basketball player: Call it the Myopically Brilliant or the Blindly Talented. He was like a basketball contractor. If you need someone to score, you hire Carmelo. But don't expect defense or passing or leadership. For those you'd need to hire someone else. You paid money; Carmelo provided buckets. End of transaction.
Yet here Anthony was, making the case that he's done something that few if any players blessed with his talent have done while still in their prime: changed. Not just superficially, but substantively.
Now, whether you believe him or not—whether you think this Knicks run will continue and Anthony will finally realize his full potential, or he will at some point revert—well, that depends on your perspective.
It is a cold night in Syracuse, as all December evenings are up here, and Jim Boeheim is sitting in his large, well-appointed office. A signed jersey from his recent 900th win is framed on one wall, above a couch with orange throw cushions. Through a series of tall windows, the two glistening courts of the Orange's practice center are visible. The facility is named after the man who, at the behest of Boeheim's wife, Juli, donated $3 million to it: the Carmelo K. Anthony Basketball Center.
On this night the Knicks are playing the Nets at the Garden, and Boeheim has cued up the game on one of the two flat screens in his office. Most nights he watches about half a dozen games, both college and NBA. ("Not for scouting; I just love basketball," he says.) He follows the progress of Anthony, who is not only one of Syracuse's most famous alums but also someone Boeheim has coached as an assistant on the last two U.S. Olympic teams.
The Nets game begins with Anthony guarded by Gerald Wallace. "The big difference this year is that [Carmelo's] a better shooter," Boeheim says, and indeed Anthony is hitting a career-high 42.1% of his three-pointers. "He didn't used to have that range." Back when Anthony played at Syracuse, the coach and star had a deal: If Anthony missed two jumpers, he had to head down to the post. Apparently it worked; Anthony says he still hears Boeheim's voice when he misfires.
There's something else Boeheim notes about Anthony: "Even when we had him, when something's bothering him, he doesn't play his best." Boeheim points at the screen. "You can tell he's comfortable now." This is due in large part, Boeheim says, to how the Knicks have built their team around him. From ownership to management to coaching, the message has been clear: This is Melo's team. Not Lin's. Not D'Antoni's. This year the Knicks look to Melo to lead by scoring. "I think he likes that responsibility," Boeheim says, leaning back in his chair. "That's what he feels he's getting paid for, to do that. He can be a perfect team player. In the Olympics he would just go in and play and make his shots and come out. He's fine with that. But in the NBA, I think he feels he should be the one they direct things through, and you can't really argue with that. The thing that bothers me is that when he was with the Nuggets, people said, 'They didn't win playoff games.' Well, they got in the playoffs; they hadn't gotten in before. You're not going to win a lot of playoff games when you're the seventh or eighth seed and you're playing the Spurs or Lakers in the first round. It doesn't mean you can't play or you're not a good leader or you're not a winner."
On this night Anthony is playing as an undersized power forward, as he has all season. Doing so allows him to exploit mismatches: Put a smaller man on Anthony, and he posts up. Use a traditional four, and he can't match Anthony's quickness. Anthony's greatest attributes are his feet, which, as Weber says, are "unusually quick in a small area, which is somewhat unique."
On the TV, Chandler rips down an offensive rebound. "I love Chandler, but they can't play him with [power forward Amar'e] Stoudemire," Boeheim says. The problem is spacing. With only one big man on the court and the shooters in the corners, there is room for Anthony to operate, especially at the elbow. Leave the shooters, and you give up the most efficient shot in the game: a corner three. Leave Chandler, and he rolls for the lob. But put Stoudemire and Chandler on the floor together—which has always been the problem, not Amar'e and Carmelo—and defenders can pack the paint.