Nearing the middle of the season, NBA fans find that the main stories of the month have been controversies: (1) LeBron James complaining about management (2) Charles Barkley complaining about LeBron’s complaints, (3) LeBron’s complaints about Barkley’s complaints about LeBron’s complaints, and, of course, (4) Phil Jackson passive aggressive one-sided feud with Carmelo Anthony. Each of these stories has elements of ridiculousness. But lost in the silliness are there any legitimately serious issues to consider? Let’s breakdown each case and render a verdict on each:
- LeBron v. Cavs Management: James’ beef with management came from a revelation that ownership would not greenlight spending to fill up the entire roster. This might have been a mere annoyance to James ordinarily but the Cavs suffered through a bad January (7-8) and he wanted help. Ownership at first bristled at this complaint but then attempted to placate James by calling in a bunch of older free agent backup point guards to audition for a slot. It’s not clear that signing a veteran backup point guard would fix this lull (as Kevin Pelton noted, the Cavs are probably better off developing Kay Felder).
Despite some bad losses, the Cavs’ January doesn’t demonstrate any serious problems. Rather, the only major drop off was from three-point land where the Cavs’ shot .348% versus .386% overall for the season. Perhaps it isn’t coincidence that the Cavs are 3-0 in February and have shot .435% from three in that time. The moral of the story is that James’ wields quite a bit of influence and will use it whenever he wants, even if his concern probably won’t really help the team.
How important was this mini-scandal? James has already made clear time-and-again that LBJ, Inc. is an independent entity from the Cavs. The Cavs understand this and have dealt with James calmly for the most part. Still, the little spat does show that, in the back of most of our minds, James would Cleveland in a heartbeat if he was really unhappy.
- LeBron v. Barkley: Barkley was quick to comment on James’ complaints and found them to be meritless, noting that the Cavs already had the highest payroll in league history. James had no patience for this observation and called Barkley a “hater” and pointed out several dumb choices Barkley had made in his life. Barkley, surprisingly, didn’t take the bait. He acknowledged his dumb moves but didn’t back off his substantive point Cleveland’s payroll.
How important was this mini-scandal? This was just dumb. James is correct that Barkley has said dumb things in the past as a player and analyst (he has consistently tweaked the Knicks since the early 1990s). The fact is, though, that Barkley’s point here is good. The Cavs have really invested in payroll and James’ complaints look more like venting than anything of substance. If the Cavs really refused to get a very good player because of money James might have a complaint but Mario Chalmers probably isn’t that player.
- Jax v. Melo: This is a truly bewildering case. Phil Jackson has worked very hard to alienate Carmelo and it’s not clear his strategy. Let’s review the facts briefly:
-Jackson gives Carmelo a big contract extension with a no-trade clause after a terrible 2014-15 season.
-The Knicks played poorly last year and Jackson was mostly quiet about Carmelo.
-Jackson brought in Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah with eyes to competing this year.
-The Knick have struggled this year and things have gotten ugly. First, on January 12, Jackson’s old coaching buddy writes an article decrying Carmelo as a one-dimensional scorer, who plays little defense, and will only agree to a trade to the Clippers or Cavs. Rosen noted that “[t]he only sure thing is that Carmelo Anthony has outlived his usefulness in New York.”
-The media naturally assumed Jackson fed Rosen info for the story, which Rosen denied. Melo and Jackson met to smooth things out and Jackson told Melo that Rosen didn’t reflect Jax’s views.
-Today on Bleacher Report, Kevin Ding (who is also supposed to be a friend of Jackson’s), wrote that Carmelo was the problem with the Knicks. Ding wrote that Carmelo was a good person but that he “just happens to be nothing near Jordan or Bryant in will to win.” Ding further wrote that Anthony “is avoiding anything outside his comfort zone” and that he is “addicted to his individual success no matter the experience or insight put around him to teach him something more.” As evidence of these facts, Ding points to Anthony’s drop in assists from 4.2 last year to 2.9 this year and his refusal to go to the “potentially title-ready Chicago Bulls” as a free agent in 2015.
-Jackson responded to the Ding story with a cryptic tweet: “Ding almost rings the bell, but I learned you don’t change the spot on a leopard with Michael Graham in my CBA daze.” This tweet apparently refers to Jackson when he coached Michael Graham (former Georgetown star) in the 1980s in Continental Basketball Association (he played with Jackson’s Albany Patroons in 1986-87). While this tweet can be read many different ways, it seems most likely to state that selfish scorers don’t change even for the betterment of the team.
There is a lot to unwrap here. The notion that Melo wants to win less than Jordan or Bryant is just dumb. Melo’s problem isn’t effort, it is ability. He was/is a great player but he just isn’t as good as two of the best players ever. There is no shame in this and to make a personal judgment based on this fact is also just dumb. Hell, neither Bryant nor Jordan were willing to cede any shots even in their decline phases—perhaps they lost their wills to win at that point? Also, the Bulls don’t/didn’t exactly really look title ready back in 2014-15 either (just better than the Knicks).
Turning to Anthony’s performance, Ding misses some points as well. Melo is not killing the offense. In fact, the offense has improved from 24th in 2015-16 to 12th this season. On offense, Melo leads the team in OBPM and OWS, as well as VORP. In addition, Melo is shooting less and has his lowest usage rate in years.
The real problem is actually on defense, where the team has fallen from 18th to 23rd in one year. In that regard, Melo’s numbers are mixed. He is the worst player on the team in DPM but is positive in DWS. Melo’s year-to-year stats are also showing some decline across the board. Ding noted the assists decline but Anthony is also rebounding a lot less and his usage is near career lows (his lowest since 2004-05). Melo’s shot chart shows he isn’t getting to the basket as much (career low 13.9% layups) but he is hitting those longshots solidly.
Melo is turning 33 and he is slowly declining into an effective second or third guy. This doesn’t mean he is an albatross (Paul Pierce was a very valuable second/third banana for years) and the stats show he hasn’t really fought the transition.
The Knicks have a few choices with Anthony: (1) ride out the contract and let Anthony enjoy Knick Emeritus status and try to make the eighth seed, (2) try to trade him and rebuild, or (3) just get frustrated and take potshots at Anthony through the press and hope he yields to any trade to shut Jackson up.
Either of the first two options makes is defensible. Unfortunately, it seems like Jackson has taken the third option (which isn’t really an option anyway). The best route would be to quietly talk to Anthony and tell him the team would try to trade him but only if the return was good and Anthony liked the destination. Perhaps, Jackson tried that and Anthony rebuffed him. Whether or not Jackson did try talking with Melo first, though, is beside the point.
Public fighting with Anthony accomplishes nothing except lowering his market value in a trade and creating those really annoying “Melo Drama” headlines in the tabloids. It’s fair to conclude at this point that Jackson’s main goal is self-preservation. Blaming Anthony for the underachieving season gets the heat off of Jackson for his own very mixed record (at least in the short term). I’m not crying for Anthony. He has a big contract and has dictated his career path but the main story here is management. Jackson isn’t making decisions for the best of the organization and that is a big problem.
How important was this mini-scandal? Very important but the inevitable headlines and hysteria will be astoundingly stupid.