Originally Published: November 23, 2012

1. Why Carmelo Anthony Is Now At His Best

Stein By Marc Stein
Kurt Thomas, Carmelo Anthony, Tyson ChandlerLayne Murdoch/NBAE/Getty ImagesSurrounded by veterans who've been around the block, Melo is off to his best start as a pro.

They chose him over Mike D'Antoni. They chose him over Jeremy Lin. They chose to remake the roster to fit the parts as snugly as possible around Carmelo Anthony, no matter whom they discarded or offended with their ruthlessness along the way.

And you already have to say, early as it is, that the New York Knicks chose wisely.

For all he purportedly lacks as a leader, Anthony has spent the first month of the season reminding everyone that he remains blessed with the sort of build-around-me scoring talent that can be matched by very few in this game. Put the proper role-playing pieces in place -- surround him with fast thinkers and blame-takers -- and Year 10 Melo still looks like the sort of player, for a franchise going on 40 years since its last parade, worth whatever it takes to get him. No matter what sort of letdowns, headaches and dramas come along with the package.

The mix around Melo has to be right, just right, to talk seriously about his team in the championship conversation, but the Knicks just might have pulled it off. I can't sit here and say that I saw this coming in September, or even October, but I've been quickly sold on the idea that the Knicks have indeed assembled a more convincing version of the 2008-09 Denver Nuggets, who rank as the only squad Anthony managed to drag beyond the first round of the playoffs.

What the Knicks have done, when you really look at it, is borrow from the Nuggets' template and two more blueprints that took things a step further and delivered the ultimate prize. There are echoes, too, of the 2011 Dallas Mavericks and the 2012 U.S. Olympic team in New York's locker room, with Jason Kidd brought in to be Anthony's new Chauncey Billups ... and with Kidd and Tyson Chandler reunited to help navigate for Melo as they did for Dirk Nowitzki's career-changing breakthrough ... and with shooters and depth and, most of all, defensive-minded veteran know-how that lets Anthony focus on what he does better than any Knick since Bernard King.

On Team USA, Anthony isn't asked to lead or set examples. All he has to do is score that thing and heed the wise men all around him. The ultimate judgment on these Knicks won't come until Amar'e Stoudemire comes back and we see how he handles the unavoidable move to a sixth-man role most doubt he can accept, but the rising hype around the Knicks stems from more than a mere flying 8-2 start. It emanates from the growing realization that the Knicks' overhaul actually has narrowed Melo's responsibilities and accentuated his gifts.

"They're making me better," Anthony says of Kidd, Chandler and New York's lower-profile sages: Marcus Camby, Kurt Thomas and yes, Rasheed Wallace.

"They're doing it to me."

One afternoon at the London Olympics, Anthony tried to leave the impression that he could tune out all of the post-Linsanity negativity shoveled his way, insisting to ESPN.com: "I don't really deal with haters. I'm tired of 'em. It is what it is." But for the bulk of the summer, Anthony himself could be heard promising a different, better-than-ever Melo for the coming season. He was the one who happily volunteered memories of Beijing in 2008 and what a meaningful springboard that was for him just a few months before the Nuggets traded for Billups.

Asked just the other night about his own time working as a sixth man in London in support of LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul, specifically the theory that six weeks in their company forced him to work toward changing his reputation, Melo acknowledged: "If you don't come back a better player after spending time with those guys, something is wrong."

Yet Kidd showed up in Gotham taking nothing for granted. He's the first person I know to toss out the increasingly popular parallels between the Knicks of today and the Mavs of 2010-11 and has made it a priority, in concert with Chandler and coach Mike Woodson, to keep challenging Anthony to make the extra pass, trust his teammates more when swarmed and stay more plugged in defensively than he's ever been.

One of their go-to lines, according to one practice-floor spy, is needling Anthony about how they got Nowitzki to play D in Dallas and how embarrassed they'd be for No. 7 if he doesn't keep up.

"To me, he's the best player in the league right now," Chandler said Wednesday night of Anthony, conveniently forgetting how well he knows LeBron's game to build up his guy.

Although he was somewhat resistant to likening the Knicks' one-star construction to the Mavs' approach two seasons ago -- "I hate to compare anything, but there's definitely similarities," Chandler said -- New York would appear to have a point or two in its favor that the 2011 champions lacked. Steve Novak and J.R. Smith give the Knicks two elite shooters off their bench, irrespective of what happens with Stoudemire and eventual returnee Iman Shumpert. Woodson, sporting that sparkling regular-season mark of 26-8 since replacing D'Antoni, likewise has no shortage of bigs on that bench for those inevitable situations when Anthony, as a small-balling power forward, might need to be flanked by more size. The presence of Raymond Felton, furthermore, should help Kidd, 39, stay fresher than he was in Dallas, where the workload was immense for a player at this stage of his career.

And best of all?

The rest of the East, don't forget, is a mess for the most part.

Chicago, Indiana, Atlanta and obviously Orlando are all on the decline, whether through injuries or rebuilding, compared to where they were last season. The Boston Celtics give the distinct impression that they're going to need the whole regular season, if it's even still possible, to resemble the team that so troubled Miami last spring. The reality is that the Knicks' conference, unlike what the aforementioned Mavs had to navigate in the annually unforgiving West, offers a real opportunity to snag a top-two seed and potentially avoid the Heat until the conference finals.

For now, though, only this much is certain: Lin won't be getting any apologies when Anthony and the Knicks descend upon Toyota Center for a reunion Friday night, nor will their old coach when the Los Angeles Lakers hit Madison Square Garden on Dec. 13. The Knicks made few friends on the journey from D'Antoni to Woodson, from Lin to Felton, from Lin to Felton and Kidd after the future Hall of Famer made that contentious U-turn by moving to Manhattan instead of staying in Dallas. But the teasing view from where they sit now, as long as the vets' health holds up, has been too absorbing to stop and think much about sorrys.

"I have no complaints," Anthony said. "What our front office did this offseason, acquiring those guys we did, I have no complaints about that."

Dimes past: Nov. 9-10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16-17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21

2. Western Conference

The Clippers have to be as thankful as any team in the West on this holiday weekend.

Back-to-back losses at home in early November to Golden State and Cleveland could have subjected coach Vinny Del Negro -- who happens to be one of seven coaches in the league in the final year of his contract -- to some Mike Brown-style immediate heat had the Clips failed to respond quickly.

The response they mustered was a six-game winning streak, bookended by home and away games over the same San Antonio team that swept the Clippers in the playoffs, with a home win over Miami thrown in as well. The streak didn't end until Wednesday night, when the Clippers took Oklahoma City to overtime before losing 117-111.

Early pressure on the coach, as well as the organization at large with Chris Paul bound for free agency at season's end, was thus eased emphatically.

Things can change fast in this league, as we've all come to learn, but the Clippers can take further heart from the latest, loudest rumbles in circulation suggesting that Paul is growing more comfortable by the day in L.A. Which have only strengthened the notion that the Clippers are on course to re-signing him for the long term.

Who said November games are meaningless in the NBA?

Some numbers of note in the West this week:

20: In scoring a collegiate-record 138 points Tuesday for Division III Grinnell, Jack Taylor took a shot every 20 seconds. By comparison, Wilt Chamberlain took a shot every 46 seconds in his famous 100-point game in 1962, while Kobe Bryant took one every 73 seconds in his 81-point game against Toronto in 2006.

55: For all of the questions raised about the lack of punch in the Thunder's starting lineup beyond Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, two scorers out of five might be enough in this case. Through 12 games, Oklahoma City has outscored its opponents by a league-leading 55 points in the first quarter this season.

3: All three times he's served as an interim coach in the NBA, Bernie Bickerstaff has posted a winning record, which is a league first according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Bickerstaff went 4-1 this month as the Lakers' interim coach between Mike Brown and Mike D'Antoni, following up successful fill-in stints in Denver (20-12 in 1994-95) and Washington (22-13 in 1996-97).

10: Ten of the Lakers' past 11 coaches have won in their team debut, including Mike D'Antoni after L.A.'s 95-90 victory Tuesday over Brooklyn. The exception: Brown last season.

63: The all-time record for points scored on Thanksgiving is the 63 produced by Mr. Chamberlain in 1964 for the San Francisco Warriors, along with 32 rebounds, in a 128-117 loss at Philadelphia. 2012 marked the first Thanksgiving in an 82-game season with no NBA games since 2007-08.

Big man Eddy Curry, waived by San Antonio and Dallas already this season, was pursued hard by Foshan of the Chinese Basketball Association to team with former Minnesota and Sacramento swingman Rashad McCants. But Curry declined the Chinese interest in hopes of landing another NBA job, prompting Foshan to sign Shavlik Randolph. Shavlik Randolph. ... Point guard Gal Mekel, who unexpectedly emerged in October as a player on Utah's radar, has signed with Maccabi Haifa in his native Israel. He is expected to return to the States next summer to try to make an NBA roster with a strong summer-league showing. Maccabi Haifa is coached by former Sixers general manager Brad Greenberg and owned by American businessman Jeff Rosen, who finances a TV show ("Inside Israeli Basketball") that airs on various American sports networks and shows plenty of Haifa highlights if you want to do some Mekel scouting. ... The Division III school that gave us 138-point sensation Jack Taylor earlier this week has only one known NBA connection. Grinnell graduate Norm Sonju went on to be the front-office chief and a founding executive of the Dallas Mavericks after a GM stint with my beloved Buffalo Braves.

3. One-On-One ... To Five


Five questions with Timberwolves forward Andrei Kirilenko:

Q: Was the plan always to come back to the NBA?

A: Yes. There was a real possibility for me to stay in Russia, but the reason I came back to Russia (to play for CSKA Moscow last season) was because of the lockout. That was the only reason. I never really thought about staying in Russia, even though I felt great because it was home. Everything was so comfortable. But the NBA is a different stage. You always want to play against the best guys in the world.

Q: Where does the bronze medal from last summer's Olympics rank for you in your career?

A: This was an unbelievable experience. My previous two Olympics, Sydney and Beijing, (were) unsuccessful. So I was really looking forward to this one. It might be my last Olympics, so I'm very happy that we got a bronze medal.

Q: A lot of people out there think that the year in Russia made you a more complete player than you were when we last saw you. Do you agree with that? Are you a better player now, at 31, than you were in Utah?

A: It's not my call. I can't really say. When I was younger I was probably faster and reacting better, but not ... I don't want to say (I was) less intelligent but less experienced. I would say that I'm looking at the game differently now.

Q: How good is this team when you get everybody healthy?

A: I really don't know. Our goal is the playoffs. I hope we can make it.

Q: What do you think about the changes FIBA is making to the international calendar? Think we'll ever get to the point where the NBA takes breaks during the season like they do in soccer so players can join up with their national teams and play qualifying games during the (NBA's) regular season?

A: To be honest, I don't know. Unfortunately I'm not going to make it (long enough) for when these changes get in. You want me to play until I'm 40 years old? I don't think so.

4. D-League Preview

A dozen things you need to know about Season No. 12 of the NBA D-League, which opens Friday in what is universally recognized as the most athletic (and most scouted) league outside of the NBA itself:

1. The D-League has reached the point where all but five of its franchises have a direct one-to-one affiliation with an NBA franchise. Five D-League franchises are NBA-owned: Austin (San Antonio Spurs), Canton (Cleveland Cavaliers), Los Angeles (L.A. Lakers), Tulsa (Oklahoma City Thunder) and Santa Cruz (Golden State Warriors). Five more are so-called "hybrid" franchises, where the NBA club splits the operating cost with the local D-League owners: Erie (New York Knicks), Idaho (Portland Trail Blazers), Maine (Boston Celtics), Rio Grande Valley (Houston Rockets) and Springfield (Brooklyn Nets). The Texas Legends, meanwhile, are owned and operated by a group Mavericks personnel chief Donnie Nelson heads separately from the Mavs themselves. And then there are five independent franchises that serve as affiliates for multiple NBA teams: Bakersfield, Fort Wayne, Iowa, Reno and Sioux Falls.

2. D-League rosters feature eight players on assignment from their NBA teams: Sacramento's Tyler Honeycutt (Reno Bighorns), Boston's Kris Joseph (Maine Red Claws), Houston's Scott Machado (Rio Grande Valley Vipers), Oklahoma City's DeAndre Liggins (Tulsa), Boston's Fab Melo (Maine), Denver's Quincy Miller (Iowa Energy), Houston's Donatas Motiejunas (Rio Grande) and Oklahoma City's Daniel Orton (Tulsa). No. 16 overall pick Royce White thus far has resisted Houston's attempts to send him to the D-League to get more playing time -- one of the factors contributing to White's impasse with the Rockets -- but the new labor agreement that ended last season's lockout allows players in the first three years of their NBA careers to be sent to the D-League an unlimited number of times. The previous labor deal only allowed players to be assigned to the D-League three times in their first two NBA seasons.

3. There already have been two NBA call-ups for D-League players not on assignment. Orton is indeed on assignment in Tulsa now, but he initially got cut in training camp by the Thunder and didn't actually make their roster until he was promoted from the 66ers after the James Harden trade opened up a roster spot. Then San Antonio called up swingman James Anderson from Rio Grande Valley after Spurs regulars Kawhi Leonard (quad) and Stephen Jackson (finger) suffered injuries. Last season saw a record 43 D-League players combine to earn 60 call-ups and earn more than $11 million in NBA salaries.

4. Other D-League players with some NBA name recognition include Chris Douglas-Roberts (Texas Legends), Melvin Ely (Texas), Christian Eyenga (Texas), Luther Head (Austin Toros), JaJuan Johnson (Fort Wayne Mad Ants), Andrew Goudelock (Sioux Falls Skyforce), Coby Karl (Idaho Stampede), Jamario Moon (Los Angeles D-Fenders), Demetris Nichols (Sioux Falls), Andy Rautins (Tulsa), Garrett Temple (Reno Bighorns) and Kyle Weaver (Austin).

5. One of the better stories in the league this season is 11-year NBA veteran Troy Hudson, who is trying to reignite his career after battling various injuries for the past few seasons and will do so as the starting point guard in Sioux Falls. Chances are there will be other NBA vets who surface as the season progresses, as seen in 2011-12 with the likes of Antoine Walker, Ricky Davis and Greg Ostertag trying to launch comebacks in the D-League, now that the D-League draft process is complete and they might be able to exert a bit more control in terms of where they wind up.

6. Reggie Theus (Los Angeles) and Paul Mokeski (Reno) are former NBA players you know who hold D-League coaching jobs. Another is Texas' Eduardo Najera, who ranks as the first Mexican-born head coach in the NBA family. Yet another pioneer is Tulsa's Darko Rajakovic, with the Serbian named as the first European-born head coach under the NBA's umbrella. Among returning coaches, Nick Nurse is back in charge of Rio Grande Valley after spending the summer as an assistant with Great Britain at the London Olympics.

7. Salaries remain flat: $25,500, $19,000 and $13,000 for the league's three player classifications. Which means D-League players are virtually playing for free -- and a modest per diem on the road of $40 compared to $120 in the NBA -- although they do receive housing and insurance benefits. It was also brought to my attention this week that the D-League quietly does have a per-team salary cap of $178,000 ... with a dollar-for-dollar luxury tax, just like in the NBA, for teams that go over that amount.

8. Foreign teams that want to pull players out of the D-League must pay $40,000, $45,000 or $50,000, depending on the player's classification, to buy out their D-League deals.

9. Something to look forward to: Perhaps this will be the first season that an NBA team sends a top-shelf veteran down to its D-League affiliate for a Major League Baseball-style rehab assignment. Imagine, for example, Minnesota sending Ricky Rubio to Sioux Falls for a game or two to test his knee in game conditions. That option wasn't available to NBA teams in the previous labor agreement and will be seized upon one of these days.

10. The D-League will continue to employ international goaltending rules that allow players to knock the ball away immediately after it touches the rim. Another one of last season's innovations -- three-minute overtime periods -- also remains in place. Yet there is one notable on-court change: D-League franchises are now permitted to sell jersey sponsorships. And four of the league's 16 teams have taken advantage of the new provision: Erie (LECOM), Rio Grande Valley (Lone Star National Bank), Springfield (MGM Springfield) and Texas (Chocotow Casino Resorts).

11. The league has been divided into three conferences, with the champions and the teams with the next five best records advancing to the playoffs. Canton, Erie, Fort Wayne, Maine and Springfield comprise the Eastern Conference. Austin, Iowa, Rio Grande Valley, Sioux Falls, Texas and Tulsa form the Central Conference. And Bakersfield, Los Angeles, Idaho, Reno and Santa Cruz are in the West. Also still in effect is the pick-your-opponent format for the first round of the postseason, which allows the three conference winners (in record order) to choose their first-round foe from the teams ranked Nos. 4-8. The two remaining teams meet in the other first-round series.

12. The annual NBA D-League Showcase returns to Reno in January for 16 games in four days in front of executives and scouts from NBA teams. Every team will play two games at the Showcase in addition to its standard 24 home games and 24 road games. The D-League All-Star Game, meanwhile, will be played in Houston in mid-February as part of the NBA's All-Star Weekend. Increased broadcast exposure also has been secured through a deal with CBS Sports Network to broadcast 12 regular-season games and the D-League playoffs, as well as a partnership announced this week with YouTube to broadcast every D-League live over the Internet.


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