Time Out: November 14, 2012

What does it take to be an NBA champion? That’s the central question in the basketball education of New York Knick’s forward Carmelo Anthony. ‘Melo,’ as he’s known in basketball circles, has emerged at the onset of a new NBA season with a new outlook, a basketball perspective that has long-suffering New York Knick’s fans dreaming championship.

No one would have predicted that, through the first four games of another professional hardwood season, the Knicks would be the NBA’s only remaining undefeated team. Even more astonishing is the Knicks new, physical, ‘tough guy’ defensive persona. As difficult as it is to imagine, the Knicks lead the league in defense, allowing fewer points per game than any other NBA team.

At the center of the Manhattan’s basketball tempest is Anthony, a basketball prodigy known for his ability to do almost anything with the basketball in his hands and almost nothing without it.

It’s a total makeover
The Carmelo Anthony the Knicks unveiled this fall at Madison Square Garden looks nothing like the Carmelo Anthony of old. The “new and improved”’ Anthony has been a model of leadership, unselfishness, consistency, and, yes, defense.

“Just trying to lead the pack in other areas than scoring,” Anthony told the press after a Knick win over the 76ers. “I think when my teammates see me out there doing the little things to help us win, they feed off that energy, and they feed off that momentum. They do the same thing. It kind of works hand in hand”
What happened?

First, came a coaching change late last season when offensive run-and-gun aficionado Mike DiAntoni was replaced by Mike Woodson as the coach. Woodson learned his ‘defense-first’ approach to basketball under the tutelage of coaching greats Bob Knight, Red Holtman and Larry Brown. The new Knick coach was an assistant for the ‘Bad Boy’ Detroit Pistons in 2003-2004 when Detroit captured a world championship. In Woodson, Anthony had a coach demanding accountability, demanding the best Knick player attend not just of offense but also to every facet of the game.

Then came summer and Anthony’s time as a United States basketball Olympian. On the Olympic squad, Anthony found himself spending time with Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony and other basketball greats. Olympic coach Mike Krzyzewski carved out a role for Anthony coming off the bench and spent time with the Knick star helping him understand the importance of that role. Anthony credits much of his new outlook to his summer Olympic experience.

The off-season remake of the Knick roster has also played a hand in Anthony’s conversion. With a strong three-star nucleus that includes Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler, Knick’s management procured the services of aging players, consummate professionals, guys who know how the game is supposed to be played and might lead by example. Forty-year old Kurt Thomas, 39-year old Jason Kidd, 38-year olds Marcus Camby and Rasheed Wallace and 35-year old Pablo Prigioni were added.

Old man’s game?
Sports pundits snickered noting the Knicks had the oldest roster in the history of professional basketball. But, as management hoped, the new ‘oldsters’ elevated the standards in the Knick’s locker room and walked the talk emphasized by Woodson.

Case in point: “You can’t guard the pass. No matter what you do the ball is going to travel faster and guys are getting wide open looks.” That’s Jason Kidd talking about the Knick’s new passing half-court offense. Or, “Once we get to the point where the defensive engine is running nice and smooth, we’re going to be hellacious. Offense sells tickets, but defense wins championships.” That’s Rasheed Wallace, the Knicks walking, talking, scheming, defensive encyclopedia campaigning for the team’s new emphasis on defense.

This combination of factors has had a huge impact on Anthony. The ‘new and improved’ version of Anthony is playing fiercely on both ends of the court, has moved willingly to the low post at times to help augment the loss to injury of Stoudemire, and was actually sighted in Madison Square Garden diving into the stands after a loose ball.

Inspirational effort
The Knick’s long-range shooting specialist J.R. Smith said it best. “When you see a star player going out there diving in the crowd, giving up open shots, going for loose balls, that really filters through the team. It makes you want to dive for loose balls, too. As long as he keeps doing that, I think everybody will want to do it.”

Will Anthony keep doing that? Will the Knick’s star have the long-haul resilience to stay with the plan? That’s the $64,000 question for the Knicks and their fans.