It’s Melo’s Time

When Donnie Walsh was named President of the Knicks in April 2008 he had a plan. The former Pacers GM intended to rid the franchise of  the bloated contracts left over from the disastrous Isiah Thomas era in order to create cap space to sign one or two superstars during the free agent bonanza of 2010, the kind of superstars that would return the once proud franchise to championship contention.

Almost four years later, Walsh’s plan has come to fruition, albeit with different all-stars than he had anticipated. After striking out on LeBron James and Chris Bosh in the summer of ’10, Walsh signed former Phoenix Sun Amar’e Stoudemire to a five-year $100 million contract.

Unlike many of his peers Amar’e embraced the challenge of returning the Knicks to glory. He made it cool to play in New York again, so cool that his buddy Carmelo Anthony forced the Nuggets to trade him to the Knicks several months later. Two weeks ago, the two superstars (along with $58 million) enticed Tyson Chandler, of the 2011 champion Dallas Mavericks, to sign with the team as well.

In Stoudemire, Anthony and Chandler the Knicks have the most formidable front line in the NBA and the makings of a good team. If Amar’e and Melo learn to play together they can be very good.

But in order for them to win a championship in the next few years Carmelo Anthony needs to be great. Great like Dwyane Wade when he refused to let the Heat lose in the 2006 NBA Finals or Dirk Nowitzki knocking down off-balance shots from every angle on the court in the closing minutes against the Heat last season. Every championship team (with the exception of the 2004 Pistons) has had a dominant player who took over games in crunch time. Carmelo has to be that guy.

Come playoff time, when New York faces Derrick Rose and the Bulls, Wade and Lebron’s Heat and possibly Kevin Durant and the Thunder in the Finals, Melo needs to be the best player on the floor. Not necessarily at all times, but for significant stretches, particularly in the fourth quarter. Carmelo can be that guy.

Amar’e’s importance to the Knicks shouldn’t be glossed over. His winning attitude changed the culture of a moribund franchise and without his decision to come to New York, Melo and Chandler wouldn’t have followed. He’s earned the right to be captain and the last Knick introduced during player introductions. Though he lacks the explosiveness of his younger days, he’s still an imposing offensive force and the team will rely on his scoring. But he’s not Melo.

There are less than ten players in the world who possess the skills necessary to lead a team to a championship and Carmelo Anthony is one of them. He’s the best pure scorer in the league. The 6’8 forward can blow by his man with a devastatingly quick first step, which he allows him to get to rim with ease or set up a jab-step to create space for his picture perfect jumper. He can light it up from behind the arc or take his man in the post.

Teams are forced to double team him and when they do he makes them pay. Though he may seem like a one-dimensional player at times, Melo is an excellent passer, so much so that Knicks Coach Mike D’Antoni plans on running the offense through him this season, and is capable of grabbing double digit rebounds every game.

Perhaps most importantly, Melo possesses what ESPN’s Skip Bayless refers to as “the clutch gene.” He wants the ball in the closing minutes of tight games and he’s consistently among the league leaders in shooting percentage for game-tying or game-winning shots.

Still, despite an NCAA championship, Olympic gold medal and four all-star appearances, Melo hasn’t reached his full potential as a player. There are some glaring holes in his game, particularly his reluctance to play defense, a tendency to bog down the offense with his isolation plays and an unwillingness to take conditioning as seriously as many of his peers. In fact, some of his teammates on the 2008 Summer Olympics team teased him about his belly.

Now in the prime of his career, at the age of 27, the Brooklyn native has a chance to make a fresh start with a Knicks team that has the nucleus in place to form a championship team, something he never had in Denver. The Knicks aren’t a finished product, as General Manager Glen Grunwald continues to work to solidify the point guard position (He’s hoping newly signed Baron Davis will fill that role once he returns from a back injury) and add some front court depth.

It’s also typically a slow climb to a championship, beginning with tough playoff losses, as a team grows into a cohesive unit and learns how to finish games in the playoffs. The Knicks probably won’t peak for another year or two, but the run starts now and it begins with Melo.

His seven-year stint with the Nuggets was a prelude to the main event. Madison Square Garden is where Carmelo Anthony will define his basketball legacy. Deliver a championship to New York and he’ll go down as a legend.

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