It doesn't take much reading between the lines to notice Carmelo Anthony giving New York Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni a stronger shove toward the door as the team's current losing streak ticked up to five, then six games.
D'Antoni looks like a goner, all right. But Anthony officially made himself a deserving scapegoat in the past few days, too, by behaving like a player on the verge of checking out until a new coach checks in.
After the Knicks' lackluster effort in Sunday's rout by the Philadelphia 76ers, the way they were embarrassingly out-rebounded by a shorthanded Chicago Bulls team Monday, the latest installment in this losing streak is on the players and not D'Antoni for a change. Anthony exposed that he has a lot to learn about leadership -- real leadership -- after the way he acted during Monday's five-point loss to the Bulls by refusing to join D'Antoni's timeout huddle at one point, waving a hand and complaining on the court when Landry Fields didn't feed him the ball on a fourth-quarter possession, and then saying after the game, "I can't go through this myself."
Of course, Anthony also said: "My job as one of the leaders of this team is to keep everybody up."
That's the sort of empty caveat that players add when they're trying to avoid blame. The Knicks have thudded to a 2-8 record since Anthony returned from injury, and neither his actions nor his attitude lately suggest a man who's really interested in making a wholesale commitment to change to fit the team rather than make the team fit him.
What Anthony's behavior suggests is that he exquisitely understands a little about Power Dynamics 101: When you know your owner, James Dolan, overruled his front office and head coach before trading for you, and that same coach is now a lame duck, it's obvious who's going to be around for the long haul. And it ain't him.
So Anthony seems to be biding time as much as anything. He's irritated at the criticism he's catching as he waits for Dolan to act, and now he's tossing banana peels in D'Antoni's path when he can as well. Remember how he questioned his role after a recent road loss to Dallas? He was angry again Monday that Fields overlooked him for one possession on a night he still got off 21 shots. Maybe he should've taken a look at how the Bulls were killing the Knicks on the boards and aimed for 21 rebounds instead. That might've stopped the Bulls from gouging out 24 second-chance points.
That's what a real leader does.
At this point the D'Antoni-Anthony shotgun marriage has a big enough sample size to justify the feeling that either D'Antoni or Anthony has to go.
The Knicks are nine games under .500 in the calendar year Anthony has been here, no matter who they surround him with.
D'Antoni has been dragged through more upheaval than any coach in the NBA during his 4½ seasons here, but the Knicks might indeed benefit from hearing a new voice who also conjures up new substitution patterns, more discipline and respect, and so on.
But Dolan should also beware. Because what ails the Knicks is not something that more moves by Thursday's NBA trade deadline, or promoting defensive-minded assistant coach Mike Woodson is likely to fix unless the Knicks move one of their big two. Why? Because Amare Stoudemire can't seem to play better defense and Anthony won't. When they improve or are merely split up, the Knicks' team defense will improve too.
But regardless of whether D'Antoni stays or goes, there's another fundamental problem here, and increasingly it's the biggest elephant in the room involving Anthony.
Is he really a winning basketball player? Or just a great talent?
Anthony needs to look around and take a cue from the other top players in the league and honestly compare how his approach stacks up to theirs.
Until Anthony does that, Jeremy Lin won't be the most overhyped Knick -- Anthony will be. He's kidding himself with this conceit that he's a top-five player in the NBA. He's a top-five talent. Big difference.
If he doesn't want to listen to media nitwits or even D'Antoni anymore, perhaps Anthony would be interested to know that was the great Magic Johnson who seemed to be fingering him Monday when Johnson noted on TV how a lot of the Knicks' latest acquisitions have said they wanted to come to New York for the fame and celebrity "but they didn't say they wanted to go play for the Knicks." Or that Kenny Smith, whose pedigree includes playing college ball for Dean Smith and winning two rings with the Houston Rockets, told ESPN New York 1050's Stephen A. Smith on Monday that Anthony needs to drop "that extra 15 pounds" he's carrying and quit being the "two or three second guy" who holds the ball too long as he figures out what to do, ruining the Knicks' offensive flow in the process.
That neatly explains how the Knicks often seem to rally and flourish when Anthony is not on the floor.
There's no denying Anthony has been asked to adjust here. At times he's tried.
The fact that Anthony has been mediocre in New York may be less of a character indictment than evidence of some sincere confusion on his part.
But if he really wants to be the Knicks' self-styled leader and a winner, there are blueprints all over the place to fix that too.
It starts with ex-teammate Chauncey Billups' frequent assessment before he left New York that Anthony is a gifted passer and rebounder and one of the top two or three players in the NBA "when he wants to be."
Paul Pierce changed to more of an all-around game when the Celtics put together their Big Three, and he got a ring. Rather than lay down after how he's been torched by critics, LeBron James plays defense as if he's on a 10-day contract and spent the offseason with Hakeem Olajuwon, working on his post game.
Anthony is a terrific talent. Theories abound about what's wrong with the Knicks (is it the coaching or the personnel?), and D'Antoni isn't the only smart basketball mind who can't figure out the mess.
But when it's all said and done, whether D'Antoni is a goner or not, Anthony shouldn't kid himself about the rest. How the Knicks go on to play, and whether they eke into the playoffs or not still revolves around him being better at everything than he has been. And when it comes to who gets the blame, Anthony needs to remember this: When or if D'Antoni is shoved out the door, the only guy left in the bull's-eye will be him.