Sunday afternoon, Carmelo Anthony, the superstar the Knicks traded away their whole roster to acquire, returns from injury to take part in Linsanity for the first time. Knicks fans are worried that Carmelo is going to mess up the beauty of the Jeremy Lin experience; Carmelo boosters (including Lin himself) think this is gonna work out just perfectly. So what is gonna happen? Let’s game it out.
We came up with five scenarios. We’re not going to rank them in order of possibility. We’re just gonna put ‘em out there.
1. Everything’s wobbly for a while. Much like he did in Amar’e Stoudemire’s first game back, Lin tries too hard early on to get Anthony involved, to the detriment of the offense as a whole. Carmelo, rusty from the time off, misses a few shots, and the crowd grows restless. But a couple of games in, it doesn’t click, exactly, but everyone settles into their roles. It’s not inspired, it never quite settles in perfectly, but the Knicks still win more than they lose, even if there’s a nagging sense that this should be working better, that it’s not as perfect as it was during the onset of Linsanity. The offense isn’t as electric as it was before, but the Knicks, thanks to a newfound depth, use the regular season mostly just to tweak some sets and rest, leading to a No. 7 seed in the playoffs and a potentially explosive first-round series with the Miami Heat.
2. The offense works, but the defense is terrible. The dirty secret about the Knicks’ success with Lin, as pointed out by Zach Lowe on SI.com yesterday, is that they’re winning games with defense, not offense. This is in large part thanks to the increased minutes from Jared Jeffries, who will surely lose playing time when Carmelo returns. (He already has with Amar’e here.) Then the Knicks end up with the same problem they had early on: Tyson Chandler desperately trying to make up for the lackadaisical defensive efforts of Stoudemire and Anthony. Lin and Anthony and Stoudemire all mesh the way everyone hopes they will, but it doesn’t matter, because the Knicks can’t stop anybody. The Knicks win, and lose, a ton of 115–113 games, then get swept by the defensively splendid Bulls or Heat in the first round.
3. Carmelo stops the offense cold. This is the nightmare scenario. Lin, so used to having the freedom to penetrate and create in Anthony’s absence, is cowed by the superstar’s return and becomes the guy who takes the ball up court, flips it to Anthony on the wing, and then runs around in circles while Anthony tosses up eighteen-foot contested jumpers. The problem is exacerbated when J.R. Smith, Anthony’s old buddy, joins the team and tries to play the same isolation-heavy game. Anthony goes 8-for-26 in a couple of losses. Fans boo Carmelo, but Lin lacks the alpha dog hunger to forcibly grab the team back from him. The season spirals out of control and the Knicks miss the playoffs. Jim Dolan fires Mike D’Antoni at the end of the year, and Lin, no longer protected by D’Antoni’s offense and exhausted from all the NYC media scrutiny, leaves town for a better offer. The earth crashes into the moon, destroying all life.
4. Somebody gets hurt. The funny thing about the 2011–12 Knicks is there hasn’t really been a 2011–12 Knicks. There have just been different roster permutations stacked next to each other. We’ve had the early season Toney Douglas experiment, the Iman Shumpert point guard fortnight, the new-and-improved-but-still-losing-to-the-Bulls-and-Heat superstar ascendance, Linsanity with Carmelo and Amar’e (just one game), Linsanity with no superstars, Linsanity with Amar’e, Linsanity with Amar’e and Carmelo, Linsanity with Amar’e and Carmelo and J.R. Smith, Linsanity with Amar’e and Carmelo and J.R. Smith and Baron Davis, and so on. This is to say that rosters tend to be constantly in flux, particularly in a shortened season, and this idea that the Knicks are eventually going to have one set rotation, with everyone at the peak of their abilities and health, is probably a specious one. Amar’e and Carmelo have proven fragile; Baron Davis and Josh Harrellson will eventually return; heck, Eddy Curry could hip-swipe Lin on a drive to a lane and dislocate his pelvis and the pelvises of various Lin family members and associates. The Knicks have constantly had to adjust all season up to this point; why would the second half of the season be any different?
5. Everything is beautiful. Everything everyone is saying turns out to be true. As Ian Thomson from SI.com suggested earlier this week, Carmelo recognizes where he’s at in his career, what he can become, and transforms into the Paul Pierce everyone knows he can be. The Mike D’Antoni offense reaches its peak with Amar’e off the pick-and-roll, Fields slashing, Steve Novak and Smith draining threes, and Carmelo as a jack-of-all-trades offensive assassin. (And Baron Davis runs the second unit almost as well as Lin runs the first.) Plus, Carmelo and Amar’e commit on defense, Tyson Chandler is dominant in the paint, and even Jared Jeffries wins over the skeptical Garden fans with his hustle and help defense. And Lin, as it turns out, really is Steve Nash, less reliable with the jumper but more fearless driving the lane. The Knicks remain the best story in the NBA, and they end up smashing the Hawks in the first round of the playoffs, blitzkrieg-ing the Bulls in the Eastern Conference semis, and setting up a Miami–New York Eastern Conference final for the ages. The world reaches a level of altruistic peace that has not been seen since the dawn of man.
It’s gonna be one of these five. Which one? We’ll start to find out Sunday, when Carmelo returns, on national television, with everyone watching.