It's Melo's time to lead the Knicks

GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- Mike D'Antoni was working his seven players hard Friday, even introducing them to the defensive side of the floor and a new aide, Mike Woodson, who apparently needed Tyson Chandler the way another defensive coordinator, Bill Belichick, once needed LT.

The paperwork on Chandler hadn't been completed, and yet on Day 1 of their deferred training camp, the New York Knicks were acting as if Bill Russell himself was on the way.

"He brings everything," D'Antoni said of Chandler, "that we didn't have." Except Jason Kidd, of course.

Someone close to the Knicks' successful pursuit of Chandler was reminded that the 7-foot-1 center who helped Kidd and Dirk Nowitzki win their long lost rings had established himself as a reliable 10 points, 10 rebounds guy.

"He's a 10-and-10 guy with Jason Kidd in Dallas," the person responded.

And before that, a 10-and-10 guy with Chris Paul in New Orleans.

"But you go back to Chandler's time in Charlotte and Chicago," the person continued, "and he wasn't the same player. I like Tyson Chandler, but I like him a lot better with a very good point guard. He's not a 10-and-10 guy with Toney Douglas."

Or Mike Bibby. Or another leftover guard the Knicks might sign on the cheap.

Don't bother worrying about that, D'Antoni maintained after the first practice of the rest of his coaching life. In one wave of the hand, the very man who built a career around Steve Nash's magic dismissed the need for a true quarterback at the point and started talking about playing basketball the way Larry Bird's Celtics played it.

Remember how the ball went through Bird? Well, just like that, with Chauncey Billups unceremoniously fired and with Paul ordered by an imperious commissioner to stay in New Orleans and like it, Carmelo Anthony became the Knicks' Larry Bird.

"He'll be involved a lot more in running the team," D'Antoni said.

So even on a day when Chandler was the invisible and improbable savior, when Amare Stoudemire had to address reports that he was offered to New Orleans for Paul, and when the entire NBA was still staggering away from a disaster of David Stern's design, it all came back to Carmelo Anthony. It always does.

Anthony is the reason the Knicks had no shot at Paul (or no shot at being stripped of Paul by Stern). Anthony is the former Denver Nugget who told Jim Dolan in a face-to-face last season that the Knicks needed to give the Nuggets the many pieces they demanded or he'd be forced to take his $65 million extension from the New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets.

Anthony is arguably the most explosive offensive player in the NBA. He is the face of the franchise, the man who trumps the previous man, Stoudemire, and the Knick charged to lead the franchise to its first title since Secretariat won the Triple Crown.

"We will compete at the highest level in every game," was all Anthony promised Friday, refusing to play in Rex Ryan's league.

Melo was reminded that he'd won it all in his one-and-done experience in college and that he'd already gone eight long years in the pros without even reaching the Finals.

"There's so many people who went seven or eight years in their career and haven't won a championship," Anthony said. "I take a guy like Kevin Garnett, who'd been in Minnesota for so long and hadn't won, and went to Boston and won later in his career.

"I'm not comparing situations. My goal is to always win a championship, and that's going to continue to be my goal until that happens."

Chandler helped the offensive-minded Nowitzki finally get over the top, and no, it sure didn't hurt to have Kidd and Jason Terry and J.J. Barea -- a recruit the Knicks should chase over Bibby -- dribbling around the perimeter. But Chandler had only one in-his-prime star to work with in Dallas, and in New York, he has two.

If Chandler is everything the Knicks say he is -- a winner, defender, rebounder, athlete and intangible presence -- shouldn't New York be a serious contender to Miami in the East despite its dearth of talent and experience in the backcourt?

"Line 'em up," Anthony said of the opponents on the schedule, sounding a bit more like ol' Rex on that one.

"There would be no reason to bypass this to chase a dream," D'Antoni said of the 2012 salary-cap space that's suddenly gone with the 2011 wind. "This is a dream."

Not quite. Before seizing his title in Dallas, Chandler missed 68 games to injury over the previous two seasons. He wasn't the Knicks' Plan A for a reason.

Assuming Paul is dealt to the Los Angeles Lakers after all -- the smart bet now that Stern realizes how much he's embarrassed himself -- the truth is the Knicks will end up with Dom DiMaggio instead of Joe, Robin instead of Batman, Sonny instead of Cher.

"They weren't getting Cher anyway," one league official said.

Some blind believers had actually banked on Paul either forcing a trade to his preferred Madison Square Garden destination, despite the Knicks' shortage of worthwhile assets, or taking a free-agent hit in the tens of millions to become New York's most exciting guard since Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe.

It was never happening. So the Knicks closed hard on their consolation prize, Chandler, who inspired D'Antoni to start throwing around comparisons to the Celtics of the '80s. (Memo to Mike: Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish are not walking through that door.)

But Chandler will show up instead, and he's earned his reputation as a big-time deterrent in the paint, where the Knicks usually set up an E-ZPass lane for opposing forwards and guards. The new center will liberate Stoudemire by providing a necessary dose of size and grit.

"He showed that on the biggest stage in sports," Anthony said, "winning a championship."

So did Nowitzki, a scorer's scorer in the Melo mold. Coming off knee and elbow surgeries and a first-round loss to Boston that he didn't appear to take too hard, Anthony needs to be the one to elevate the Knicks into legitimate contention.

Chris Paul isn't coming to save him, nor is Deron Williams or Dwight Howard. The Knicks are done chasing the moon and the stars.

For better or for worse, it's Melo's team, his town, his time.

Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." "Sunday Morning With Ian O'Connor" can be heard every Sunday from 9 to 11 a.m. ET on ESPN New York 1050.