Posted Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2011, at 10:39 PM
This past weekend, while people were still busy anticipating the long-anticipated trade that would send
from the Denver Nuggets to the New York Knicks, the
was among this year's finalists for induction.
? The TV
, the guy with the hairdos? Didn't he sew himself into a wedding dress along with Madonna once, or something like that?
But Rodman, before and even while he was becoming best known for the sort of behavior people can't think of any better word for than "antics"—Dennis Rodman was
at what he did on the basketball court. He was a 5-foot-11 guy who suddenly, after high school,
, a little player set free in a big player's body, all sinew and fury. He provoked Alonzo Mourning into panic, and outwrestled the young Shaquille O'Neal in the low post, despite giving away half a foot of height and at least 75 pounds. He was tireless, crafty, possessed of superior court vision—
First, however, Carmelo Anthony. The Knicks trade was so very, very long anticipated, people had started
before it even happened. Especially once Yahoo News had reported that
, the disgraced former president of the Knicks, was working behind the scenes, counseling ownership to drive up the offering price—so that New York fans would apparently be acquiring the superstar they'd been yearning for and reacquiring the incompetent executive they'd been trying to forget, all in one package deal.
That the trade also somehow included former Knick Renaldo Balkman, one of the Thomas administration's mystifying draft choices, only makes it all seem certain: the Knicks had their savior, and the Knicks were doomed.
What does a winning basketball team need? If it weren't for the madness of Isiah hovering over the deal—and for the substantial risk that the league's next collective bargaining agreement will change the payroll rules, ending the Knicks' ability to paper over their thin spots with extra money—the objections to Anthony joining the Knicks would probably be overstated. ESPN's
called Anthony only "a borderline franchise player," which is wrong: anyone who takes the
to the playoffs seven years in a row is, by definition, a franchise player.
The Knicks did give away three full-time starters and what Hill calls the "raw (but promising) 24-year-old 7-footer" Timofey Mozgov, but age 24 is awfully close to the line between "raw" and "stiff," and it's hard to imagine the transplanted-Knicks edition of the Nuggets being anything but a much worse team than the Carmelo Anthony edition. The Knicks, pre-trade, were not winning any championships.
Now? The brief against Anthony is that he loves scoring and
, which is not untrue but is mainly code for a larger—and much less supportable—set of beliefs: that he doesn't work hard enough, that he doesn't care about the details, that he lacks the mental focus and the heart of the players who truly understand Winning Basketball. This is an easy sort of thing to say, but it's not so easy to square with the NCAA championship Anthony won in his freshman and only season at
, or with (to repeat) seven straight trips to the playoffs with the Denver Nuggets.
That said, it made for a funny contrast with the Rodman news. The Knicks' pursuit of Anthony, like the New Jersey Nets' pursuit of Anthony, like the Knicks' pursuit of Amar'e Stoudemire, like the Knicks' and Nets' and Bulls' and Heat's pursuit of LeBron James and/or Dwyane Wade—all of this was based on the same theory: to be a real title contender in the NBA, what you need is to get a pair of superduperstars.
Then, once you have those basketball heroes lined up—Jordan and Pippen, Bird and McHale, Magic and Worthy—it's merely a matter of finding the supporting talent. Get some guy who will play ferocious defense and dominate the glass, and you're all set.
Yet that's the player nobody seems to know where to find. Witness Kobe Bryant complaining that Pau Gasol needed to discover his "
." The scoring superstars are supposed to be irreplaceable, but the Knicks just kept shopping till they finally got theirs. Where are they going to get their rebounder?
Dennis Rodman got five championship rings by being something much more unusual than a scoring champion. It wasn't just that he won the league rebounding title over and over—he did it by ridiculously large margins. In 1996-1997, Rodman grabbed 16.1 rebounds per game, nearly 40 percent more than the runner-up, Dikembe Mutombo, with 11.6. If Michael Jordan had been as dominant a scorer as Rodman was a rebounder, he would have had to score 42 points per game.
Or if Karl Malone had been as good at playing offense as Rodman was at playing defense, the
would have won a championship. Instead, Malone went drifting away from the basket, shooting fadeaways, trying to put some distance between himself and his unrelenting defender. So Malone and John Stockton ended up as one more two-star team with nothing to show for it.