No lost art is artless
I don’t think there’s any question that the Wade/Bron meta-duel was one of the most astounding displays of basketball acceleration this side of Atlantis. In perhaps the greatest measure of regular season eventfulness, my watching of ranks up there with Christmas 2003, when I eagerly witnessed James and T-Mac gun the fuck out the ball in an OT floor show. For anyone keeping track of things, those type of tingles obviously edge out the “post-season can touch sludge and make tinsel” variety, since you get that “playoff-type atmosphere” and stars willing to take all sorts of chances in the eternal defense of basketball magical innards.
Over the weeks since, though, something altogether more bountiful has begun to dawn over me as a result of this stupefying occurrence. I am not sure if any of our readers are regularly kept under wraps by large quantities of medication. But if any of you are familiar with the experience of forgetting to get yourself fixed up, you know the feeling of which I speak, that interminably vague yet sweepingly definite sense that something is amiss in the realm of the senses. I said on McSweeney’s a few weeks back that this season’s bout of scoring has been akin to the Steroids Era, perhaps the awful end of time that some coaches yowled about when first the rule changes came down.
It’s not, though, simply the accumulation of points that makes me lurch out loud, but how they’re gotten. And after that fateful contest, in which truly gaudy numbers and breathtaking creativity were forced into a holy union for all the world to see, there’s no denying it: this new NBA of skill and competence is directly responsible for the outlandish individual offense. With so so many defensive specialists, and so many freakish dissectors of positional order, prowling the Association, it’s never been a tougher place for a name-in-lights go-to-guy to get off an easy basket. If scoring is up, it’s because we’re seeing more and more plays like those that wrote the script of 4/1/06; it’s not just that LeBron and Wade are unstoppable, facile killing machines (Amare, anyone?), but that they are capable of rising to heights above impossible.
The above might seem frightfully obvious to anyone who hasn’t spent the last six months mourning the loss of ’04-’05, but there is an even prouder message I have taken from my end-sum evaluation of this season, one that resulted from the viewing of another game that happened around the same time. Seeing Melo’s oddly misproportioned Nuggets knock off the Kobe and Odom show did, as usual, remind why the league needs Kobe (and Kobe needs the league). The real revelation, though, was coming to terms with the fact that everything I said about Melo’s game in November is now completely and totally obsolete. At this point, Anthony is not only a thing of pure beauty to watch—he’s the Association’s Most Improved Player, a borderline MVP candidate, and every bit as much of a franchise cornerstone as Wade or James.
I don’t want this to turn into a lively discovery of the 2003’s draft’s retaliatory promise, since you can trust you’ll be hearing more on that from me in a few days. On the subject of basketball finest competitor of remotely Latin American extraction, though, this season has found him rounding into shape and becoming nearly twice the player that, coming out of Syracuse, we’d thought he’d be. The hallmarks of Anthony’s NCAA run were his maturity and composure—admirable traits, but hardly the stuff iconic performers are made of. And while one of the least forgivable lines in my aforementioned post called Melo “the spare parts left over from the Frankenstein experiment that gave rise to Garnett, Odom, and Kirilenko,” it’s safe to say that his “quietly excellent at everything” was a powerful counterpoint to this era-defining “fits and starts of dramatic behavior in anything you can imagine” archetype. You all know what happened once he hit the Association—ROY aside, dude never appeared to have the balance that defined his glory at the previous level, and what he did achieve felt for all the world like the sound of a very finite natural talent bumping up against his own glass ceiling.
There was noise as he headed into camp this fall that Melo was in the best shape of his life; DLIC laughed, and while there was a visible difference, it was more cosmetic than anything else. And while most of his first half was typically blotchy, that baseline fitness set the stage for him to improve—physically, mentally, and spiritually—so that by the All-Star break, Anthony had become an altogether different player. The clunky, chunky kid of yore was now a stallion, unafraid to put it on the floor, charge the basket for the facial, throw up circus shots, and be the kind of legit inside/double-inside/outside/double-outside threat that, with his size, attitude, and newfound agility, defined “scoring machine” before it was pejorative and dehumanizing.
Most Improved? Without a doubt. Of course I want to see Gerald Wallace, who went from propulsive enigma to occasional dominator, take home the hardware (sidenote: every single year of my life, I have the MIP on my fantasy team). But Anthony went from borderline All-Star to elite, game-changing titan. What’s more, it’s not like his development was a simple matter of truth coming to fruition. Like the player Wallace has become, the final destination of Melo’s evolution could hardly have been predicted. For a flawed, apparently limited, malcontent to burst through the heavens and clutch the basketball sublime is, to my mind, a more dramatic reversal of fortune than raw potential’s finding its form.
I would never dream of giving Melo the MVP, but that’s only because he’s had but one half of sustained adventure. Let’s not think for a second, though, that he’s any less crucial to the Nuggets than Nash to the Suns, Bron to the Cavs, Kobe to the Lakers, Billups to the Pistons, Wade to the Heat, etc. There’s a tendency in basketball commentary to downplay the importance of the lead scorer, especially when, as with Anthony, he doesn’t also pitch in with 3x2 mortar. Kobe has practically forced the issue this season; Anthony, though, has a far less sexy case; he’s a constant threat to put the ball in the basket, no more and no less, and he does so without playing a Rip-esque brand of team ball. Yet try and imagine the Nuggets, essentially a motley bunch of energy guys, finishers, and dizzy combo guards, without Anthony’s brash reliability. Last time I checked, you can’t win without putting points up on the board, and having a weapon who can smartly and unobtrusively get you those without inflicting chaos or jeopardizing the game’s flow is a perfectly good place to start a roster. In a way, it’s more logical square one than a player who, by virtue of his own singularity, throws the usual blueprint into disarray and makes the entire project of personal assemblage into an experiment. Melo may never be a one-man wrecking machine, but don't pretend for a second like it's been easy for the Cavs or Heat to figure out how to work around their young stars' prismatic omnipotence.
Hell, according to sources who get NYC radio, Melo himself is now all about opening up that debate. And while he'll lose, he's earned the right to go down swinging.