NEW YORK -- A few months before Carmelo Anthony was traded to Oklahoma City, theNew York Knicks-- along with every other team in the league -- were asked by the players' union to vote for the2017 Teammate of the Year Award.
New York's pick? Yup, you guessed it: Melo, who just so happens to open the season against his former team Thursday night in Oklahoma City.
It's an honor that might surprise critics who saw Anthony as a selfish player in New York -- one more likely to tear a team apart than to keep it together. So why did Anthony's peers choose him for the award?
"He kept us together," Lance Thomas said earlier this month. "It's something that you wouldn't know if you weren't in there with us. It didn't ever get [discussed by media and fans]. ... But no matter what was going on, he was smiling, he was keeping all of that stuff outside of the locker room."
All of "that stuff" included trade rumors involving Anthony that began in January and didn't stop until he was dealt to the Thunder in late September. It also included a few indirect -- and direct -- criticisms of Anthony from ex-team president Phil Jackson that turned into national storylines.
Anthony didn't always keep his cool, which is understandable. But teammates say he never let the ongoing drama seep into the locker room.
Kristaps Porzingis, now the unquestioned face of the Knicks in a post-Melo era, says Anthony's approach to dealing with the off-court drama left an impression on him.
"You could never tell that something was going on. He was always calm, collected -- every day. It was no big deal for him, all the off-court stuff," Porzingis said. "And that's one thing I can learn from him -- 'don't give a s---' [about the drama]. He was just doing his thing and focusing on things he needs to focus on and not letting anything else come in his way."
Porzingis knows not to expect the same kindness from Anthony on Thursday night. Even though some former teammates might meet Anthony for dinner in Oklahoma City on Wednesday, everyone involved knows it will be all business at tipoff.
Porzingis might even defend Anthony for stretches of the game -- which will be a unique assignment for the 7-foot-3 forward.
"He's been in the league 13, 14 years. I think everybody knows what he's doing but nobody can stop him. It's going to be a challenging for me," Porzingis said. "If there was an answer to what he's doing and how to defend that, that would be nice. But there's no film I can watch and say, 'Now I know how to guard this.'"
Anthony said his first action with his new team will offer the chance to "close the chapter" of his Knicks tenure in New York, one that toward the end was seemingly filled with constant turmoil.
"He was getting it from every angle," Courtney Lee said. "So for him to be that mentally tough and still show up and still come to work and fight with us, our level of respect grew for him."
Anthony probably started earning forward Mindaugas Kuzminskas' respect on one of the first days the Lithuanian forward spent with the Knicks.
Kuzminskas had never played in the NBA, so he didn't know how a star like Anthony would treat him.
"I saw him in the Olympics in 2016, but I was afraid to say 'hi' because I didn't know what was going to happen," Kuzminskas says. "I remember one of the first practices, I didn't know if he knew who I was or if he knew my name."
Kuzminskas quickly learned that Anthony knew plenty.
"He came over and asked me how was the Olympics? How was Lithuania? How is [Anthony's ex-teammate] Linas Kleiza doing? So I was surprised," Kuzminskas said. "Probably the biggest thing that I learned from Melo is that even being a huge star, huge player, you can be still a great person, great teammate. It doesn't matter if you're a rookie or a veteran. He's going to treat you the same way."
AddedKyle O'Quinn: "Never changed. Dinner at his house. Dinner on the road. He never let [off-court drama] sway his attitude to us."
No matter how things unfold Thursday night, the Knicks and Thunder will walk off of the floor on opposite ends of the NBA spectrum.
Oklahoma City, after revamping its roster with offseason additions of Anthony and Paul George, is trying to challenge the defending champion Golden State Warriors.The Knicks are rebuilding, aiming to compete with the league's best whenever Golden State's run ends (two NBA front-office people who watched New York early in the preseason believed the Knicks could be the worst team in the league).
The Knicks also would prefer to stay under the radar in the wake of the drama surrounding Anthony and Jackson.
So it's at least a little bit awkward that the baby Knicks open the season on national television against one of the most talented teams in the NBA -- and against a player who probably wouldn't mind making a statement against his old team.
"Melo's going to have extra motivation against us," Kuzminskas says.
And he probably won't be thinking about that "best teammate" award.