Rebirth: The Second Coming Of Carmelo Anthony

[Note: Originally Posted 10-26-2008 at 11:00 AM by DenButsu]

When speculating about upcoming NBA seasons, I’ve generally tended to play it safe. But it’s time for me to break from that humble tradition and boldly predict:

The 2008-09 season will not only be a breakthrough for Carmelo Anthony, it will be the pivotal season of his entire career. At long last, he will arrive. He’ll become the player we’ve all been waiting for.

Why? He has to.

After five consecutive first round playoff exits, numerous reputation damaging on and off court incidents, and a career marked by a general perception that he has fallen significantly short of expectations, Melo’s back is against the wall, and his legacy is at stake. He faces a fork in the road in which the right choice leads to genuine superstardom and championships, while the wrong choice leads to the blowup of the Denver Nuggets, and his being known as one of the NBA’s historic disappointments.

I think he gets this. Finally. I’m sure he’d say it differently, but all indications are that he knows what’s on the line this season.

In the span of just a few months, Carmelo has just lived the life of a phoenix, consumed by fire and reborn from the ashes. This started with his arrest for drunk driving, an embarrassing and inexcusable mishap which brought back all of the old past skeletons and cast them onto the jumbotron in full relief. The timing could not have been worse, as the Nuggets proceeded to face the overwhelmingly strong Los Angeles Lakers in the playoffs, where they were promptly and thoroughly trounced. Melo put in his career worst postseason performance, and appeared to add insult to injury by proclaiming that he and the team had quit. From there, however, things rapidly turned around as he rejoined the U.S. Olympic team and played a key role in helping to bring back the gold to America.

Every single account of Anthony’s Olympic experience pointed to a new improved attitude. With Dwayne Wade back in full health, and a new offensive design that put LeBron James and Kobe Bryant at the forefront of the starting lineup’s attack, Carmelo was asked to step back from his role as a primary shooter (he was the team’s leading scorer in the previous summer’s FIFA tournament), and focus instead on defense, rebounding, and “the little things” that the supporting cast must bring for effective team play.

Not only did he accept that role, he did it with not one peep of a complaint, and with that famous grin on his face the entire time. He was gushing patriotic. His happiness at playing any part on the team was evident – and, I believe, genuine. And worn on his sleeve for all the world to see, his pride in representing his country and his hometown of Baltimore. But that positive mindset was only half the story.

On the court, he played some pretty great defense, and he was aggressive on the glass. I repeat: Carmelo Anthony played defense and went after the boards. The words we were hearing from him in the press were actually finding their expression in his basketball game. This to me was the first sign of hope that he wasn’t going to let the DUI and the playoff failure own his mind. Just maybe, in the best case scenario, they had sparked a reawakening in him, and might now become fuel he could use for motivating himself to get truly focused on his game, to start paying proper attention to the elements of it such as defense that he’s neglected for all too long, and perhaps most importantly of all, to become the true leader by example that the Nuggets need him to be.

So that’s the dream that we took going into training camp, and now that we’ve had the opportunity to see how things have gone in camp and in the run of preseason games, how are things looking?

Very, very good. I won’t dwell on all his scouting reports and interviews from the preseason, but the short version is that off the court he’s been saying all the right things, and on the court he’s been a more vocal leader, he’s been working hard, communicating with his teammates and (like the rest of the team) entering into a new focus on playing a more intense and defensively oriented style of ball.

But the real proof is in the pudding. Here are some key stats from Melo’s preseason outings. I’ve calculated them per 36.4 minutes, his average from last season, and stacked them against last season’s numbers. My point in doing so is not to suggest that these will be his real numbers if he plays 11 additional minutes, but just to show by way of comparison the things he’s doing more – and less – than last season. Also, I should just state that I understand this sample size isn’t truly significant in terms of what kind of production he’s capable of, but I think it’s an accurate indication of which areas of his game he’s focusing on, of how he’s spending his minutes on the court.

Code:
		MIN	FGM	A	%	OREB	DREB	REB	AST	STL	BLK	TO	PF	PTS
		26	5	12	0.417	1	4	5	3	3	0	1	4	16
		24	6	14	0.429	0	9	9	5	2	0	3	2	14
		24	6	14	0.429	0	9	9	5	2	0	3	2	14
		28	5	9	0.556	1	5	6	6	2	0	2	2	15
		23	4	11	0.364	0	6	6	0	1	0	1	2	11
Average		25	5.2	12	0.433	0.4	6.6	7	3.8	2	0	2	2.4	14
Per36.4		36.4	7.57	17.47	0.433	0.58	9.61	10.19	5.53	2.91	0	2.91	3.49	20.38

2007-08		36.4	9.5	19.2	0.492	2.3	5.1	7.4	3.4	1.3	0.5	3.3	3.3	25.7

Difference 0 -1.93 -1.73 -0.059 -1.72 +4.51 +2.79 +2.13 +1.61 -0.5 -0.39 +0.19 -5.32

So what is he doing differently? All the things everybody has always recognized as the things he’d need to start doing in order to lift his game to that higher level:

1. Shooting a little less and passing a lot more, as evidenced by the decrease in field goal attempts and the increase in assists. And in an interesting development, George Karl has actually had Melo spending some time playing as a point forward, but notice that the difference in turnovers is negligible.

2. Being much, much more aggressive on the defensive glass.

3. Playing more aggressive defense, as seen by his impressive steal numbers, while at the same time doing so efficiently, with a negligible difference in fouls.

4. Intangibles. Leadership. Doing the little things better. These things of course don’t show up in the stats, but as they did in training camp, they are also happening on the court in real game action.

Carmelo seems to be genuinely focused this season, and to be more serious than I’ve ever seen him before about truly stepping up his game and assuming the responsibility of being the team’s leader. I think he means it this time, although it’s understandable that many of you will remain skeptical. I admit, my optimism is tentative – but it’s real.

So, these are the reasons I’m making my prediction, and I’ll stand by it (and, I’m sure, eat crow if it doesn’t come to pass):

This is the season when Melo will elevate his game from that of a star to that of a superstar, and by season’s end, he will be widely recognized as a top 10 player in the league.

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