Carmelo Anthony can travel all he wants, it hardly matters to the new-look Knicks

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Kelly Dwyer
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Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Prozingis cheer away. (Getty Images)
Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Prozingis cheer away. (Getty Images)

Thanksgiving hits in America on Thursday, and in spite of the glory-be that is the Golden State Warriors, you’ll be forced into a conversation with a family member that will tell you that nobody in the NBA plays defense, passes the ball, or shoots well.

He’ll then end the harangue by telling you that he’ll only watch the NBA once again (as if he ever did) once “the refs learn to call a travel.”

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You have ample evidence to charge back with. Shooting and ball movement are as good as they have ever been in the NBA, and in spite of rising scoring averages the defense is as smart and dogged as ever.

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After that, don’t let him watch what Carmelo Anthony did against the Heat on Monday. Never let anyone see this:

New York, because the basketball gods work through karma and because Carmelo Anthony took 22 steps, lost on Monday. The Heat’s top-two limited the Knicks to 34 percent shooting, as New York’s bench missed 23 of 27 shots. Still, the loss came after a strong four-game winning streak, and New York is currently working with an 8-7 record.

That’s decidedly mediocre, as are the team’s offensive (15th in the NBA thus far) and defensive (17th) numbers, but Knick fans will certainly take that over last year’s performance. New York was 4-11 at this spot last season, a record that would turn into a 5-36 mark less than two months later, working in a lost season that didn’t even afford them the top overall pick in the draft.

That eventual pick, Karl-Anthony Towns, is having a Rookie of the Year-level season in Minnesota. New York’s consolation prize at four, however, is making Knick fans giddy about a youngster in ways unseen since Patrick Ewing eased his way inside No. 33.

Kristaps Porzingis played in a second-tier Spanish league last year, and yet in 2015-16 he’s managed to stay on the floor for 27 minutes a night as a starter for New York even though he only turned 20 three months before the season began. Porzingis is at 13.7 points on 42 percent shooting and 9.1 rebounds, with a block and a half and, surprisingly, only 1.7 turnovers and 3.1 fouls a night. Those last two marks are fantastic numbers for a 7-3 big man still finding his way around this league – consider that he’s halved veteran center Robin Lopez’s turnover rate, and far outpaced him in rebound percentage.

This is why, following a win over Oklahoma City on Saturday, Carmelo Anthony reportedly gushed over Kristaps. From Marc Berman at the New York Post:

Anthony, who has four years left on his contract, recently told confidants about Porzingis: “He’s gonna lead this organization long after I’m retired. Hopefully we can hoist one or two [championship trophies] before that happens.’’

And on record:

“We’re just building it,’’ Anthony said of their relationship. “I’m here to help him and use my experience and help him get his feet wet, and he’s doing a pretty good job. I don’t want any credit for that. He’s doing a good job on his own. Learning the game and getting a feel for the game. You can see each game he’s getting better.’’

This was coming off of the rookie’s best game of the season, one that saw him offer 24 points on 8-12 shooting, 14 rebounds and seven blocks. Miami, even with two days to listen to endless Porzingis hype and with lengthy types like Chris Bosh and Hassan Whiteside (who smothered KP for two of his five blocks) around, held the 20-year old to 7-18 shooting, but KP still managed 20 points, 14 rebounds and two blocks in 37 minutes.

That’s a hefty chunk of playing time, especially as the contest was more or less decided as the Knicks entered the fourth quarter. Berman took issue:

Coach Derek Fisher found an odd time to give Porzingis his career-high in minutes as the Knicks trailed by double digits the entire second half. In fact, Fisher kept Porzingis on the court during the final minutes of garbage time. It was an odd departure since the Knicks are trying to protect the rookie from injury and hitting the rookie wall as he goes through his first extended NBA road trip.

“I don’t know what garbage time is,” a defensive Fisher said. “You play 48 minutes. I didn’t think it was the night to rest him.’’

Porzingis said, “I don’t have a problem playing more. I’m getting better physically playing more minutes and keeping the intensity.’’

We respectfully disagree with Berman’s criticism.

The rookie wall rarely has anything to do with actual playing time. Charlotte’s Frank Kaminsky, who entered the NBA as a sturdy four-year senior and who has been pulled in and out of Charlotte’s lineup, will hit the rookie wall this year. So will Myles Turner, even though he’ll possibly be on the shelf for the rest of 2015 with a thumb injury. So will 18-year old Devin Booker and 22-year old Larry Nance Jr.

The wall hits because of travel, lifestyle change, professional demands and the fact that by the first few days of January these rookies will have been asked to be ready to play in more games than they played from November until April while working for the NCAA a season ago. Nine minutes of garbage time against Miami in November, which Kristaps Porzingis no doubt did play on Monday, is not going to be the problem.

(Now, we don’t understand why veteran guard Arron Afflalo was on the court late instead of rookie Jerian Grant (who went scoreless in 12 minutes) with the game decided, but that’s on Knick coach Derek Fisher to answer.)

Porzingis, following a 29-point outing against Charlotte. (Getty Images)
Porzingis, following a 29-point outing against Charlotte. (Getty Images)

These Knicks were supposed to act as professionals this year, not a playoff lock, and New York needs to remember this. Yes, the 8-6 start (before Monday) and Porzingis’ thrilling play is a bonus, but the real motivation behind 2015-16 was to establish the team’s principles on both sides of the ball, give the home crowd something (anything!) that didn’t remind of 2014-15, while inching up the standings with the team’s top first round pick in Toronto’s hands. If the team makes the playoffs, great! And if Kristaps Porzingis is clutching his shorts midway through the first quarter in a home game against the Jazz in January, so what? He’s getting needed reps in the toughest basketball league in the world.

It wasn’t Derek Fisher, whom Amar’e Stoudemire played just 36 games for last season, that the new Miami big man took issue with when talking to New York media on Monday. Former coaches Mike D’Antoni and Mike Woodson, rather, were the source of the former Knick free agent prize’s ire, as he looked back on an injury plagued, up and down 4.5-year tenure with New York. From the Post:

“I don’t think we had enough opportunities to play together,’’ Stoudemire said in the Heat locker room Monday. “I moved to the bench and [became the] sixth, seventh man. When I was in the game, Melo, he was out of the game and vice versa. When we did play together, we showed some flashes of what we could do on the pick-and-roll.

“I don’t think that pick-and-roll offense between Melo and I was ever taken advantage of, which we could have. The way he shoots the ball, handles the ball from the outside and the way I attack the rim, it could’ve been a pretty good combination. I don’t think the coaching staff at the time really bought into that.’’

[…]

“At times we could’ve taken advantage of our opportunity a lot more,’’ said Stoudemire, who missed 110 games in his time with the Knicks. “It wasn’t up to Melo and I. It was up to the coaching staff to figure that part out. We could never get the right system to figure that part out.’’

Stoudemire went on to say that the Knicks “absolutely” did not buy into Fisher and Knick president Phil Jackson’s system last season, lamenting the idea that the “great talent” and “athletic, physical, defensive-minded, offensive-minded” Knicks just couldn’t get on the same page with the rookie coach and personnel boss.

Sure.

Amar’e knows his stuff, but a series of screen and rolls between him and Carmelo was not the reason that he and Anthony played terribly together on both ends starting immediately after the Knicks dealt for Anthony partway through Stoudemire’s last great season in 2010-11. The two just didn’t mesh, and the combination of Anthony’s emergence as a power forward and Stoudemire’s declining athleticism due to injury made the pairing a toxic one.

Anthony and Porzingis have no such issues thus far with Anthony at small forward, at least not as deep and as troubling as the ones that he and Stoudemire shared. Perhaps that’s due to Kristaps’ off-ball skill set, or the presence of Robin Lopez, or the idea that Anthony (who played nearly all of 2014-15 with knee pain prior to shutting it down after smiling brightly at the New York-held All-Star Game) stared NBA mortality in the face last year after over a decade in the league.

Carmelo has been solid enough this year with 22 points on 19 shots and over seven rebounds a night, but even with four years and nearly $100 million left on his deal, the 31-year old can see what direction this franchise is heading in.

Whatever the outcome, 2015-16 is always going to be the honeymoon year. Kristaps thrilling the punters with putbacks, Anthony still working at nearly an All-Star level, not far removed from his prime, competency in other areas, a few other young prospects to wonder good things about, and the league’s 19th-highest payroll. Possibly a postseason berth, who knows?

The tough stuff will hit when New York starts showing off its cap space in the face of leery free agents. It will hit as Carmelo declines, and it will really hit if the big rookie fails to build upon this promise. For now, however, 8-7 seems like a wonderful dream.

Any bit of good news is an improvement, for this franchise.

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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!