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Carmelo Anthony is stuck at a crossroads, in the midst of his toughest season yet

On Sunday, on a nationally televised stage no less, the New York Knicks were handed a miserable defeat by the Chicago Bulls. Chicago raced out to an early advantage, topping the Knicks by 25 points just two minutes into the second quarter, utilizing excellent execution, heady play, and incessant activity to easily down the Knicks despite (say it with me) playing without Derrick Rose and the traded Luol Deng. Bulls center Joakim Noah, who could have been a New York Knick had it not been for the 2005 Eddy Curry deal, dismantled the Knicks with his pinpoint passing, on his way to a triple double with 14 assists, 12 rebounds, and 13 points.

Chicago also limited Knicks All-Star Carmelo Anthony to a relatively pedestrian 21 points. It was the second straight downer of a game for Carmelo, who missed 19 of 26 shots in a loss on Friday against Golden State, following a good month and a half of MVP-level play in the face of his team’s woes. Because all the storylines were in place – the overachieving Bulls downing the glazed-over Knicks featuring a center and coach that could have been New York’s, taking on a player in Anthony that could leave money on the table to join a winner in Chicago this summer – the press was allowed to glom onto several chewy talking points.

Anthony, more than anyone, is used to this. This is why he called the loss “embarrassing” following the game, while continually (and genuinely) pointing out that he has absolutely no clue as to how his likely 2014 free agent turn will play out.

 

What he probably didn’t know, in the hours before the early game, was that his former Denver Nuggets coach George Karl had decided to go on record in Anthony’s hometown paper of record about how Carmelo doesn’t stack up to some of the NBA’s great all-time chest beaters. Karl, in talking with the New York Times’ Harvey Araton, dropped this about his former star:

“There’s no question that he wants to win and his I.Q. for the game is actually very good,” Karl said. “He always wants to think like a coach, but he always doesn’t want to sign the contract with the coach.”

Asked what he meant by that, Karl said: “I think Melo respected me and I think he respects Mike Woodson. But I don’t think Melo understands that coming to work with the best attitude every single day is a precious commodity when you’re the best player. That’s not the same thing as playing hard. That’s bringing the total package, 100 percent focused on all the little things. Those are rare breeds. Kevin Garnett. Michael Jordan. LeBron didn’t always have it, but he has it now.

“Melo doesn’t get an A in that department — maybe not much more than a B-minus. It is, in a sense, the A.A.U. mind-set: We worked hard yesterday, maybe we can take a day off today. That’s why he really needs that player — the point guard or someone who takes on that role — to be the bridge from the coach to him.”

It’s important to remember that Carmelo Anthony last played for George Karl some 37 months ago. There’s a very good possibility that Anthony loafed his way through Karl’s practices in Denver, a very anti-Jordan thing to do in a league that has been about 99 percent free of Jordan- types for the last six or so decades, but for the last two seasons Carmelo Anthony has absolutely brought it.

In many ways, the Anthony that forced his way to New York in 2011 was an overrated star, a guy who scored quite a bit and did little else, leading to consistent Player Efficiency Ratings in the “nice, but no LeBron” 20 or 21-range. That number has shot way up over the last two seasons, he carried the Knicks to 54 wins this season, and he’s done all he can this season for a Knicks roster and franchise that has failed him.

It’s not Anthony’s fault that Tyson Chandler doesn’t come close to resembling the 2011-12 NBA Defensive Player of the Year. It’s not his fault Amar’e Stoudemire can barely do anything but hit flat-footed jumpers, that Raymond Felton’s brain and gut are out of shape, and that ancient types like the waived Metta World Peace and the injured Kenyon Martin are just about done. It’s partially his fault that the Knicks dealt Denver a massive collection of assets and draft picks for his services in 2011, even knowing that they could sign him outright as a free agent the next offseason, but that’s on owner James Dolan.

Piling on Carmelo Anthony at his lowest ebb is a pretty weak move by Karl, a coach who clashed often with Anthony through the years in Denver, with musings probably partially in reaction to Anthony forcing his way out of Karl’s team with a non-demand trade demand in 2010-11. Sadly, as we’ve seen dating back to the 1980s, this isn’t exactly out of step with Karl’s character, either. The man hasn’t had many kind things to say about any of his previous stops – his ongoing feuds with several players, owners, and general managers puts just about any coach in league history to shame.

Carmelo Anthony will not be worth the massive contract New York will offer him this summer. I think he’s been an overrated disappointment for most of his career, prior to 2012-13, and as a Chicago Bulls fan, I don’t know if I’d want him on my favorite team.

Here’s the problem, though. Some guys are just Dominique Wilkins. Some guys are just great scorers and good rebounders. That doesn’t mean Dominique wasn’t thrashing around in every practice, going all out every time the coach rolled the balls out, it just means that not everyone has the all-around gifts that a Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, or LeBron James has. Those guys could pass, with ease, and there is a difference between an unwilling passer (your typical, selfish chucker) and a passer without confidence in his passes. Some guys just don’t see the court like top-tier stars do.

Anthony isn’t a top-tier star, despite that maximum contract, and despite that lone MVP vote from last season. He’s a step below LeBron and Kevin Durant, and at some point we have to stop chalking that up to some fault of Carmelo Anthony. At some point, can’t we just let Carmelo Anthony be this really good player, full stop?

He’s a really good player on a bad team, in what will probably be his best season at age 29, and he’ll probably be talked into returning to that bad team after the Knicks offer a ridiculous contract this summer, when James Dolan points out that they may have cap space to waste in the summer of 2015. And for the next five seasons after this one Carmelo Anthony will decline, he will probably play for more bad teams under the leadership of James Dolan, he will probably attempt to force a trade, and he will no doubt be raked over the coals endlessly by the media, fans, and ex-coaches while making more money than anyone else in this league.

That’s his choice, and it’s an understandable one: Anthony would have to leave an ungodly amount of money on the table in order to finagle a move to a team like Chicago this summer, and Anthony can talk himself into the idea that even a dolt like Dolan can potentially leave well enough alone to possibly let the Basketball Guys do their work and create a good New York Knick team in 2015.

From now until that decision, Anthony will just have to deal with the slings and arrows, while missing the playoffs for the first time in his career. No, he’s not Michael Jordan, or Kevin Garnett – but few are, and even all-around MVP-types like MJ and KG would have a devil of a time trying to do something with this roster. It’s true that Jordan and Garnett would have probably stuffed J.R. Smith in a locker by now, but even that wouldn’t have helped toward The Crusade For .500 all that much.

It takes quite a bit to force us into a defense of the merits of Carmelo Anthony, but here we are. The guy may not have taken advantage of his gifts as an all-around player and team leader over the first chunk of his career, but it’s hard to find fault in his most recent approach, with this most embarrassing of teams.

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Kelly Dwyer is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at KDonhoops@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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