SUBJECT: CARMELO ANTHONY VS. PAUL GEORGE
J.A.: Yo, Knicks vs. Pacers on Wednesday night. That means Carmelo Anthony vs. Paul George. That's a sentence that wouldn't have been written a year ago. Now it's a legit matchup. And Anthony or George is actually a legit question. My question to you is how did this even become a thing? Is that more a reflection of how far our appreciation of George has come ... or how much Carmelo has fallen out of favor?
Israel: You know what else is a thing? The term "pure scorer" becoming more of an insult than a compliment -- at least in the context of winning at the highest level. Not too long ago, we loved Carmelo's game because he was more aggressive offensively than, say, a pass-first LeBron James. We loved him because every shot seemed like a pretty good shot for him. We loved him because he was "clutch" and because that all seemed like the starting point for a wildly successful career. Problem is, his game hasn't grown. He's scored more, sure, but not more efficiently, and not to the benefit of his teammates, who are stuck standing and watching a 45 percent shooter go to work.
But here's why I'm not even coming close to giving up on Carmelo: Not too long ago, there was a guy named Shaq whom Carmelo would have won a title with had they played together. Not too long ago, a Tim Duncan would've gotten Carmelo a ring. If he and Paul Pierce had traded places in 2008, Carmelo would have a ring. In other words, he's more than capable of winning at the highest level. He just needs -- get this -- better teammates. Remember, he got to the West finals with Chauncey Billups in 2009. But Melo has never had a Shaq or a Duncan or a KG. He's never even had a Russell Westbrook, who's playing alongside another "pure scorer." Melo got a past-his-prime Allen Iverson, a broken Amar'e Stoudemire and now some Knicks creation that includes Andrea Bargnani and Metta World Peace. How's that supposed to work? Yes, George is the all-around player of choice in this discussion, but Melo is getting too bad a rap these days.
J.A.: I'd buy your "look at the teammates" argument, but did you see the roster Dirk Nowitzki won with in 2011? Not even the Mavs' own owner thought highly enough of that team to keep it from being immediately dismantled. Melo has had similar parts in New York: J.R. Smith as Jason Terry, Raymond Felton as J.J. Barea and, um, Tyson Chandler as Tyson Chandler. Dirk beat Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and LeBron in the playoffs with those guys. Melo couldn't beat George even when the Knicks had home-court advantage.
Israel: That Mavericks team was more complete than you're giving them credit for, including the defensive play of DeShawn Stevenson and Shawn Marion, but I see your point. You'd expect Carmelo to at least reach a conference finals in the East with a team somewhat similar to that Dallas group.
And I'm not giving Carmelo a complete free pass. Nowitzki wasn't exactly a point forward, but he was more willing to share than it appears Melo is.
But there's another element to this season's Knicks that makes judging Carmelo a bit more difficult. That cast around him is not just an odd combination of talents, but a bunch of -- let's call them unique -- personalities. To his credit, Carmelo has been speaking like a leader after games, even after the difficult losses. But we expect him to lead and create a unified group with guys like World Peace, a seemingly uninterested Bargnani, a somewhat defeated Stoudemire, and Smith, from whom Melo can't seem to shake free? And that's without the defensive anchor in there for several weeks. I'll just put it this way: There's a reason Melo's dreaming of free agency, and it has little to do with money.
J.A.: Yeah, the Knicks in their current state have to be the most -- how can we put this delicately? -- challenging roster Carmelo's had since his rookie year.
We certainly agree that George has better teammates. The question is whether the Pacers' roster is optimized for George to lead it to a championship. Maybe he isn't quite ready yet; he's only 23. Maybe LeBron isn't done winning championships yet. Maybe Durant and Derrick Rose get their turns next. While Roy Hibbert and Lance Stephenson are young enough to wait it out with George, David West and Luis Scola are both 33. If this is a four-year process for the Pacers, will those two key parts be able or be around to contribute when George reaches his prime? One thing that makes him so appealing is his youth. For championship purposes, though, he might be a little too young.
Israel: I feel like I've learned something new about George every year, and this year is no different. Did you know former Lakers guard Mike Penberthy is a shooting coach, and he worked with George? Don't know why, but I find that very interesting.
As for what George is prepared to do this season, it's an intriguing contrast to what's going on in New York. Whereas Carmelo has clearly been the go-to guy his teammates naturally defer to, George is transitioning into that player. Last season, letting George handle more of the offensive load was almost an experiment. He had a bunch of turnovers early, but he eventually settled in and became more comfortable in the lead role. But last year's Pacers were still largely David West's team. And against the Heat, it was just as much Roy Hibbert's team. And George had a couple of games in those conference finals that a superstar wouldn't be allowed to have without significant criticism. George had seven points on 2-of-9 shooting in Game 7, a 3-of-10 shooting night for 13 points in a Game 3 loss when the Pacers could have taken a 2-1 lead, and he had a staggering 32 turnovers in that series.
This season, George is playing like a guy ready to take full responsibility. He's putting up 17.2 shots a game -- up from 14.9 last season -- and taking 5.8 free throws a game, up from 3.5. That means less shots for West and Hibbert, which might be fine against most of the league. But the Heat, for example, would much rather have George shooting than West and Hibbert living in the paint. Point is, George is now taking on superstar responsibilities, and everything that comes with it. Will his teammates let him continue that path? Will he handle any criticism that comes with it? I believe the answer to both of those is yes. But all that matters is the final result. And if Indy doesn't reach a Finals with this version of George, what will it really mean for him?
J.A.: I can't get over that Mike Penberthy reference. That has me thinking: Carmelo's .426 field goal percentage is on track to be the lowest since his rookie year; maybe he should work with Matt Maloney.
But your post also made me think that George is afforded a luxury we don't offer Melo: the right to fail. Imagine the tabloid back pages that would have greeted Melo after a 2-for-9 Game 7. Heck, Carmelo caught flak for having one shot blocked in his own Game 7 loss to the Pacers, even though he scored 39 points on 15-for-29 shooting that night. Melo has averaged 28 points per game in the playoffs since he's been a Knick. In George's "breakout" playoffs last season, he averaged 19 points.
Still, George has the feel of the hot new tech stock on NASDAQ. Melo is starting to become a stodgy brick-and-mortar company on the NYSE. (Just thought I'd throw in a little Wall Street reference for the Madison Square Garden crowd.) So far we've been holding these two to different standards. Melo is judged by results, George by potential. When the stakes are the same, when there is equal glory or blame to be had for each, then we can truly compare George and Anthony.
Israel: Clearly, circumstances help mold your career. Carmelo entered the league with a superstar label and absorbed the expectations that come with it. George has had a few years to grow into it, and this will be the first year he's judged as a true carry-the-load star. But you can still compare them this way: If Melo and George switched places, would the Pacers still be a real title contender, and would the Knicks still be a middle-of-the-pack Eastern Conference team? I say yes to both.