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The Inbounds: Saint Anthony and America’s war on isolation

Aug 3, 2012, 10:00 AM EDT

Anthony of the U.S. smiles from the bench during his game against Nigeria at their men's preliminary round Group A basketball match at the Basketball Arena during the London 2012 Olympic Games Reuters

Welcome to The Inbounds, touching on a big idea of the day. It could be news, it could be history, it could be a tangent, it could be love. OK, it’s probably not love. Enjoy. Today, a bonus segment.

So Carmelo Anthony scored 37 points in an Olympic basketball game Thursday, and based on probability, you reacted in one of four ways ways as a God-fearing NBA fan.

1. You were excited and thrilled that Anthony put on such an amazing performance for your country and in awe of his ability to put the ball in the basketball with that kind of frequency.

2. You noted how despite the amount of criticism Anthony withstands and his relative stature in the NBA superstar tapestry that he’s still truly one of the best players in the world and you cannot understand why people forget that so often.

3. You are left in polite admiration but simultaneous outrage that he doesn’t play that way all the time.

4. Some combination of the two depending on if you’re a Knicks, Celtics, Heat fan or none of the above.

It’s a terrific wormhole to go down. Melo was able to do what he did because he was facing Nigeria. Anthony only put himself in that position because he’s surrounded by that much talent. It takes that kind of talent to put his ego in a place where he can play catch-and-shoot. Melo just had a hot night (that’s an understatement). What he did wasn’t all that different from what he does with the Knicks. You can literally interpret Anthony’s performance in the 156-73 win in group play however you would like. You have to say he played well and that you were impressed. From there, you can go any route you want.

But it’s the structure of how Anthony scored that intrigues. Catch-and-shoot. It makes sense, right? You have one of the world’s best shooters, an elite scorer, with a significant size advantage over his defender. Why on Earth would you not use him as a catch-and-shoot player when you have LeBron James and Chris Paul throwing the ball to him after collapsing the defense each time? On the Knicks, he’ll never have the luxury of anyone else drawing that kind of attention. So comparing his exploits with Team USA to anything he does with the Knicks is futile.

Except, it’s not. Not really.

Part of what has made the Knicks’ approach so confusing is that they’ve essentially gone against the overriding principle in so many superstar teams’ design. Take Boston, for example. Paul Pierce no longer has to run point, dribbling at the timeline, directing traffic before trying to slice past four guys. Ray Allen isn’t jab-stepping defenders back so he can rise and fire over them. Kevin Garnett isn’t running point forward. In Miami, Chris Bosh is an outlet scorer and offensive rebound tip-in machine. That’s his job. In L.A., Pau Gasol‘s not having the ball go through him every time (though that one can be argued is a bad thing). The point is that one of the luxuries of having multiple superstars it the ability to put an elite player in a role player’s position and watch him destroy because he’s so much better at that singular talent than the average replacement player.

And for Anthony, his VORP as a spot-up shooter is through the roof.

But of course, the Knicks not only can’t use him that way, but they eliminated any situation where he could be.

When Anthony returned after Linsanity (yep, we’re back to him again), there was a possibility for this all to work out. Anthony needed to adopt the role of a superior, obscenely-rich-man’s Shawn Marion in Mike D’Antoni’s Suns. By being the outlet shooter off the drive and kick on the baseline, by being the weakside off-ball cutter, but being the spot-up guy in transition, Anthony could not only keep but raise his scoring production while not having to run isolation sets every single time. With Amar’e Stoudemire running the pick and roll or Chandler doing the same, there would be lanes and opportunities. Instead, be it Melo’s preference or D’Antoni’s design, Anthony wound up drifting on the perimeter. He wasn’t just a spot-up shooter, he was scenery.

That dream of him working in an offensive set to move, catch, and score, is dead, replaced by the dystopian Woodson Isolation nightmare that awaits Knicks fans next year. But Team USA provides an alternative, not just for Anthony, but for Kobe Bryant, for LeBron James, for Kevin Durant, for Russell Westbrook. The shame is that the quality of the surrounding talent convinces them that the only reason this works is because they’re surrounded by that much talent. They can’t comprehend the same style working for them within the constructs of their teams. Whether that’s overconfidence in their abilities or a lack of confidence in the ability of others is inconsequential. The fact remains that these players will embrace roles where they do role player functions with superstar ability, and dominate the greatest players in the world. And instead of drawing on that experience and trying to replicate it, they will instead abandon it for some sort of 82-game “Quick and the Dead” impression where they duel one on one with everything like this is Teen Wolf.

For a day, for these few weeks, really, Anthony’s a saint. He’s a basketball icon teaching the world about how to play for it. Wait for your open shot, be ready, move without the ball, catch, rise, fire. And Team USA is showing one another and the world that there’s a better way than getting the ball at the perimeter, dribbling for fifteen seconds, and then hoisting up a jumper.

In twelve weeks, they’ll return to doing the same things, but for now, they play, maybe not the right way, but the best way, and they work hard to make things easy for one another. What’s amazing isn’t that someone as talented as Anthony did what he did on Thursday. It’s that Anthony and the rest of Team USA will forget the lesson learned by the star players who played as role players and made things easy for themselves.

You can be all things among your friends, but in the end, you cannot get away from who you are, for better or worse. It’s neither good nor bad. It simply is.

  1. EvanZ - Aug 3, 2012 at 10:12 AM

    I hope Harrison Barnes was watching.

  2. alildusty - Aug 3, 2012 at 11:18 AM

    Good read. Hope ‘melo reads this and decides to prove you wrong in 12 weeks. (doubt it though…lol)

  3. dysraw1 - Aug 3, 2012 at 11:49 AM

    barring injury this will be Melo’s year,he will have the point man needed so i really don’t expect iso plays as much as last year. ive said this before last year from game 1 Carmelo felt he had to carry the team. this year all the pressure is gone. the guys should be able to have fun. i believe that the spot up jumper will be a big part of his game

  4. protectthishouse54 - Aug 3, 2012 at 1:48 PM

    What a game by Melo. 37 points in 14 minutes!!!!

    10-12 from deep. I don’t care if you’re playing cripples, that’s some ridiculous scoring.

  5. diehardcard - Aug 3, 2012 at 7:34 PM

    You should edit your articles before you post them.

    “…in awe of his ability to put the ball in the basketball with that kind of frequency.” What?

    Then you list 3 things with the 4th saying “Some combination of the two…” There were 3 things!

    I stopped reading after that.

  6. knightrider1755 - Aug 4, 2012 at 9:07 AM

    Great Melo! 37 points against who? Nigeria? I didn’t know that had a basketball team.

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