Melo called it a career, calling into question how he will ultimately be viewed as a Knick and whether he should be immortalized in the rafters of Madison Square Garden
This week Carmelo Anthony retired from the game of basketball, capping off a career that will likely culminate in admission into the Basketball Hall of Fame. Anthony played 19 seasons which saw 10 All-Star selections, 6 All-NBA selections, a scoring title, 3 Olympic gold medals, and a collegiate National Championship. He also ends his NBA career as the 11th highest scoring player in NBA history, a testament to the prolific scorer that he was throughout his career.
As players offer their praise of Carmelo and all that he accomplished, many analysts lament what he was unable to achieve: win an NBA championship. Carmelo’s career is one that is a tale of three chapters. The first is his ascent into greatness in Denver. The second is the solidification of his stardom in New York. And the third is the acceptance of his decline and coming to peace with the fact that he never won a championship in the NBA (check out this piece from Chris Herring on this subject). But as a Knick fan that watched the Carmelo era unfold in New York, it is the second chapter that interests me most, and the conflicted feelings that I and many Knick fans have about Carmelo Anthony in the context of him as a Knick.
The summer of 2010 was an important one in the landscape and axis of power in the NBA. LeBron James was the prize of that class. This was a big summer for the New York Knicks, as they were coming off a 29-win season and felt ready to make a splash in free agency to return to greatness. They had dreams of luring LeBron to New York City, and to potentially pair him with another free agent. This of course did not happen, as LeBron teamed up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami to form a superteam that would go on to win two titles in four seasons.
The Knicks instead pivoted and signed Amar’e Stoudemire, the big man from Phoenix, to a 5-year deal that saw him reunite with his former head coach Mike D’Antoni. Stoudemire was a good player, but he was not LeBron James. More importantly, there was concern around his health as he had been dealing with knee injuries in his last days in Phoenix. The Knicks with Amar’e were an interesting team, and a fun story. Going into the All-Star break they were 28-26 with contributions from young players and an impressive first half of the season from Stoudemire where he averaged 26 points and 8 rebounds per game. But the team was nowhere near contending for a championship, and they determined that they needed a second star to pair with Amar’e to go to the next level.
Enter Carmelo Anthony. Anthony had grown discontent in Denver and wanted to come to New York. The Knicks jumped on the opportunity and made a massive trade with the Nuggets that saw New York receive Anthony in addition to Chauncey Billups. The Nuggets received players such as Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler that would be the foundation of playoff runs in the future. The Nuggets also got three draft picks from the Knicks that eventually turned into one of their cornerstone pieces today: Jamal Murray. This is a trade that still divides Knicks fans, over a decade after it occurred.
On one hand, it got them a second star player and the NBA is a league of stars. But on the other hand, they gave up on two 16 point per game scorers in Gallinari and Chandler, in addition to a steady hand at point guard in Raymond Felton who was averaging 17 points and 9 assists per game before the trade. Many felt and continue to feel that the team could have signed Anthony the following off-season, despite the fact that they would have had to do some salary maneuvering to make that happen. On top of that, a lockout was looming so securing the services of Anthony was even more important. The Knicks had gotten their star and finally had some hope of resurgence for the first time since Patrick Ewing left.
Excellence and Expectations
When you look at Carmelo Anthony’s tenure in New York, it is fair to characterize it as a rollercoaster. In his 7 seasons in New York the team had a losing record of 196-216, with three playoff appearances and only one series win. For a team that was acquiring a star, there is no other way to describe that other than disappointment. But those numbers do not tell the whole story. Almost immediately, his co-star Amar’e Stoudemire started to miss games. He missed 31% of his eligible games in the 5 seasons that he played with the Knicks, leaving Anthony on an island.
Carmelo will forever be linked to LeBron James. They were drafted in the same year, went head-to-head for Rookie of the Year, and Anthony was ultimately the Knick's target after James rejected them and went on to greatness in Miami. It was at this moment that Anthony proved that he simply was not LeBron, he was not enough to carry a lackluster roster to greater heights as James did in his early days in Cleveland. Holding players to that expectation is incredibly unfair, but it is the standard that Carmelo Anthony was held to in New York.
Statistically, Anthony was magnificent as a Knick. He averaged 25 points per game as the primary option on decent efficiency. But with co-stars like a young Kristaps Porzingis and a disappointment in Andrea Bargnani, it is hard to fault Melo for his lack of success. Despite all of that, Knick fans loved Carmelo. He had a game that was fun to watch, scoring came effortlessly to him, and he was born in New York City. There was something sophisticated about Carmelo and his game that was easy to root for. These intangible feelings that have led to the difficult task of how to measure his Knicks tenure and whether the team should consider retiring his jersey.
How Should You Honor a Legend?
If you go on Twitter, you will often see a subset of Knicks fans talking about something called “Knicks for Clicks”. The idea is that mentioning the Knicks is better for engagement of online posts and rumors, so throwing the Knicks in the mix helps to boost visibility since the fan base is typically very engaged. This will often lead to many outlets predicting that the Knicks will trade for or sign a player that it never had any intention of acquiring. And when they inevitably go elsewhere, it is easy to make fun of the Knicks and their fans. The side effect of this is that many players do not see the point of going to the Knicks, that it simply isn’t worth it.
We saw this happen when Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant chose Brooklyn over the Knicks. Carmelo Anthony always wanted the pressure that came with playing at Madison Square Garden. He relished the stage, always giving Knicks fans everything he had on a nightly basis. This is something that this fan base in particular respects above all else. The Knicks have largely been a poorly run franchise for the last two decades but the Carmelo Anthony era offered a small glimpse of life with high-level talent. Carmelo has a niche among Knicks fans that make him untouchable because of this desire to win as a Knick, even if it was a detriment to his overall standing throughout the league. This commitment makes him deified in the eyes of fans in New York City.
The ultimate way to immortalize a great player in the league is to retire his number. Every team has a different standard for making that decision to retire a number. The classic example of this is the fact that the Oklahoma City Thunder retired Nick Collinson’s number as a testament to his long tenure with the franchise despite being a role player. The Knicks have two players numbers they have retired that did not win a championship with the team: Dick McGuire and Patrick Ewing. McGuire was an All-Star point guard for the Knicks in the 1950s and Ewing is arguably the greatest Knicks player in history. Both Ewing and McGuire made the Finals (McGuire three times, Ewing twice) despite never winning a championship in New York. Carmelo Anthony never had that level of success as he never reached the Conference Finals as a Knicks.
But there is reverence for Carmelo among the fans and players in the league. Since he left in 2017, no Knick player has dared to take on wearing Anthony’s #7 jersey. When the team signed Evan Fournier in 2021, the Frenchman admitted to considering taking the number as an homage to the day his son was born but decided against it out of respect for Carmelo Anthony. Inherently, the jersey retirement debate centered around Anthony is similar to the view of his tenure in New York.
Carmelo Anthony was a beacon of light in a very dark chapter of the Knicks long history. Currently, the team is in a much better spot financially with exciting young talent as a part of a strong foundation. One has to wonder what would have happened if Carmelo had inherited this team, with this front office. For many, Carmelo was the saving grace of a bad period of Knicks basketball. But he was a part of that era, for better or worse.
I do think that the Knicks will eventually retire his jersey because Carmelo represents New York City basketball on an emotional level outside of the walls of Madison Square Garden. He is a major driving force behind a whole generation of basketball fans. And that means something. Carmelo Anthony had a great basketball career, one of the best to ever wear a Knicks jersey. He deserved better from the Knicks, but now they have an opportunity to give him the recognition that he has earned. Carmelo’s tenure was far from perfect, but he was an iconic Knick, warts and all.