Melo escapes New York, leaving behind a complicated legacy

ByIan Begley ESPN logo
Saturday, September 23, 2017

A few weeks into the 2014-15 season, a handwritten message appeared on the whiteboard in the New York Knicks' locker room.

"The pain that you have been feeling can't compare to the joy that's coming ... Romans 8:18."

The message was designed to give hope to a Knicks team in the opening stages of a free fall, but the words take on a new meaning now for Carmelo Anthony as he heads to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott and a 2018 second-rounder.

It's a transaction that shakes up the NBA and makes a Western Conference power even more dangerous. It was eerily similar in scope to the three-team, 12-player trade that sent Anthony to New York seven years ago. In many ways, Anthony's legacy as a Knick can be summed up in the same way you'd describe these two trades: extremely complicated.

Early in the 2014-15 season -- a few months after Anthony signed a $124 million deal to remain with the New York Knicks -- he was already having second thoughts about his decision.

After one vexing home loss, Anthony shared his frustration with a few friends at the arena. One friend summed up Anthony's mindset at the time: "He said he should've signed with Chicago."

It wasn't the last time Anthony questioned his decision to re-sign with the Knicks. Over the next three seasons, it became clear that Anthony and New York, under team president Phil Jackson, were stuck in one of the NBA's most dysfunctional relationships.

So now that it's over, how do you unpack Anthony's time with the Knicks?

Some will remember him as a ball-stopper whose preferred style of play ultimately impeded the Knicks' ability to win. There's merit to that theory.

Others will hang on to the idea that Anthony never had a chance to truly succeed in New York because of the Knicks' perpetual roster and coaching instability. There's plenty to support that point as well. As is usually the case, the truth probably lies somewhere in between.

The raw results during Anthony's Knicks tenure aren't pretty. New York never advanced past the second round of the playoffs, and the club missed the postseason entirely in each of the past four years. The Knicks finished 207-269 during Anthony's six full seasons and went 1-3 in playoff series.

But how much of that was Anthony's fault?

His six-plus seasons in New York were filled with constant turnover. A half-dozen executives and coaches were hired and fired during Anthony's tenure. He had 72 different teammates in his past six seasons. That's the sixth-highest total in the NBA in that span and 10 more players than the NBA average.

"I've had nightmares about that," Anthony said late last season.

If you want to start a fun argument among Knicks fans, ask them who Anthony's most talented Knicks teammate was. Was it Amar'e Stoudemire? Kristaps Porzingis? Tyson Chandler? A 40-year-old Jason Kidd?

Of course, Anthony's detractors will point to his isolation-heavy style of play as a reason for the revolving door of executives, coaches and players.

People around the Knicks will always question whether Anthony did enough with the hand he was dealt.

Multiple teammates over the years complained privately about the ball stopping in Anthony's hands. They lamented his poor habits on defense. (Last season, Anthony finished 66 out of 70 qualified small forwards in ESPN's defensive real plus-minus). One veteran Knick went as far as telling friends that he "hated" sharing the floor with Anthony because of those traits.

But this wasn't a uniform opinion.

Anthony engendered loyalty among many of his teammates, particularly the younger Knicks. One Knick last season told his agent that if Phil Jackson traded Anthony, he'd want to be dealt to the same team. That loyalty, at times, went both ways.

Case in point: Shortly after Cleanthony Early was shot in the leg during a robbery attempt in his second season, Anthony told Early that if he were cut, he'd help ease any financial burden he incurred, according to people familiar with the matter. "That was real," one teammate said.

Whatever goodwill Anthony built with teammates didn't always transfer to management. Some in the Knicks' front office started to sour on Anthony when Porzingis emerged as a potential franchise player after his rookie season.

Several top members of Knicks management told associates that they felt they couldn't win with Anthony and that his habits would negatively affect Porzingis and the other young Knicks, according to sources. That whisper campaign turned public, of course, late in the season when Jackson leveled public critiques -- some direct, and some indirect -- at Anthony. Jackson openly stated his desire for Anthonyto waive his no-trade clause, which complicated any potential deals.

Anthony was bewildered by the Knicks then-president's tactics. He told friends that despite the embarrassing episodes on and off the court and the critiques from Jackson, he remained loyal to the organization.

He understood the responsibility that came with being the face of the franchise -- "You have to make every shot in this m-----f-----," he said once early on in his Knicks career -- and felt that he'd handled it well.

Anthony couldn't understand why Jackson didn't have the same type of loyalty toward him.

To most close observers, the beginning of the end for Anthony was March 12.

Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek lit into the team at halftime of a game that day against the Brooklyn Nets. While Hornacek unloaded in an expletive-filled critique, Anthony sat in the corner.

Coaches giving R-rated critiques of their teams' play at halftime isn't unusual. But something extraordinary happened that afternoon.

The normally laid-back Anthony -- his preferred social media hashtag is #StayMe7o -- was moved to respond. And it wasn't pretty.

According to people familiar with the matter, Anthony said to no one in particular that "this whole thing" is a "joke" and added "f--- this place" loud enough for most in the room to hear. Associate head coach Kurt Rambis responded to Anthony directly, asking him if he had anything to say to the group.

"Yeah I have something to say: This place is a f---ing joke," Anthony responded.

Rambis, using the same expletive-laden phrase, then questioned Anthony's effort. Things didn't escalate from there, but it was clear to most around the team that Anthony was done with the Knicks.

In the ensuing weeks, Anthony was still thinking about staying in New York to remain close to his son amid a family situation and stay in the city that he comfortably called home. He thought about leaving as well but was concerned about being seen as a player who "bounced around" during his career, according to people in touch with him at the time. Still, Anthony kept coming back to the idea of starting over in a new city and with a new team -- a feeling that ultimately won out.

Anthony will start his new NBA life on the Thunder. In OKC, he'll be paired with the kind of elite talent in Russell Westbrook and Paul George that he never shared the floor with in New York. There's reason to believe that those two -- along with center Steven Adams -- can help bring out the deadly Team USA Melo whom observers have seen over the years.

Will it be enough to contend with the defending champion Golden State Warriors? We'll begin to find out in a few months.

In the meantime, Anthony leaves behind more questions than answers in New York. The club is looking to go young now and views its core of Porzingis, Tim Hardaway Jr., Frank Ntilikina and Willy Hernangomez as a strong foundation to build upon. New additions Kanter and McDermott (both 25) fit that timeline as well. But New York has a big void to fill with Anthony -- and his 22 points per game -- headed to the Thunder.

For Melo, it's a new start with a new team, but that old whiteboard message in the Knicks locker room still rings true.

Anthony felt plenty of pain amid all of the losing over the past three seasons in New York. He won't be around to feel any of the joy that's coming -- if it ever does.

Maybe he'll finally find it in Oklahoma City.

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