Consider for a moment what Carmelo Anthony said in October 2014:
"What I like so far is, throughout the game you don't have to really focus on getting me the ball or me trying to score. ... Everybody will be part of the game; everybody will feel like they have something to do with the game."
That was a few weeks into his first season in Phil Jackson's triangle offense. The 2014-15 season, of course, was a mess. The Knicks finished with a franchise-worst 17 wins and Anthony played in just 40 games, before his season ended in late February after major knee surgery.
Essentially this season is Anthony's first in the triangle. And things thus far seem to be trending in the right direction for the franchise and its star forward.
New York (18-19) already has surpassed last season's win total. The club is on pace for 40 wins -- a 23-game improvement over the disaster that was last season.
There are many factors behind the Knicks' improvement. But among them perhaps the most important -- and surprising -- is Anthony's trust in his new teammates.
Expanding his game?
One of the first hints of Anthony's apparent shift in philosophy came in mid-December. He had a team-high nine assists and 15 rebounds in a win over Minnesota. After the game he offered a glimpse into his new approach.
"There comes [a] time when you got to do something different to figure the game out, not be narrow-minded coming into the game," he said. "I just try to make a concerted effort at doing that and expanding that part of my game."
That's a meaningful statement from a player who's been labeled fairly or not as a me-first ball stopper throughout his career. Since that night (and really all season), Anthony's numbers prior to Wednesday's win over the Heat indicate he's getting his teammates involved at a higher rate than at any other point in his career.
He's taking 18.1 shots per game, his lowest total since 2004-05. Some might argue his shots are down because his minutes are down, but measure his shots on a per-minute basis and he's still shooting at his lowest frequency since 2004-05, Anthony's second season in the league. Similarly, Anthony's attempting the lowest percentage of his teams overall shots since his second season in the league.
When analysts called Anthony a "shot creator," they meant he was creating them for himself. But that seems to have changed thus far this season, as discussed here. Anthony's assists per 36 minutes (3.9) are a career high. And his points created off of assists (8.9) are at their highest since 2013-14, when SportVU began to track the data.
Anthony's usage, or the percentage of possessions that end in a shot, free throw attempt or turnover, is at its lowest since 2004-05. And his rebound rate -- or the number of available rebounds he grabs while on the floor -- is 0.02 shy of his career high.
Is Melo maturing?
This all raises the question: Is it real? Or are the numbers an anomaly for Anthony?
"I think it's just a natural progression of a person who is maturing. He really wants to win," teammate Arron Afflalo said after Anthony took just 10 shots in 35 minutes in a win over Atlanta on Sunday. "Everything that he puts into the game is about winning, even when it's about himself; it's to help the team win. Days like [Sunday] just kind of gave some clarity to how he is as a player and person."
"I probably wouldn't have been at ease because I was the guy that always had to go out there and score 30, score 40 points to even have a chance to win the basketball game. Now, with the makeup of this team, I don't really have to do that."Carmelo Anthony
Afflalo first shared the floor with Anthony in 2009 in Denver. Anthony was 25 at the time, well established as one of the top scorers in the NBA.
On Sunday, the now-31-year-old Anthony had the ball in his hands on the left baseline early in the third quarter. He had a good look at the basket, but instead of taking what might have ended up as a contested jump shot, he pump-faked and found Afflalo across the court, open for a 3-pointer from the wing.
Would he have made the same pass to Afflalo when they were in Denver?
Comfortable giving the ball up
There's no metric to measure on-court maturation, of course. And there's no guarantee Anthony will continue to share the ball and take fewer shots as the season progresses.
Thirty-six games isn't enough evidence to make any hard and fast judgments about Anthony -- or anything else about the Knicks.
There is, however, enough to suggest that he is at the very least open to a new approach.
Even Anthony conceded that earlier in his career he might not have been comfortable taking just 10 shots in 35 minutes, as he did on Sunday against Atlanta.
"I probably wouldn't have been at ease because I was the guy who always had to go out there and score 30, score 40 points to even have a chance to win the basketball game," Anthony said. "Now, with the makeup of this team, I don't really have to do that."
That new mindset was evident early in the second half on Tuesday when Anthony received a pass from Jose Calderon at the top of the key and found himself open at the free-throw line. Maybe earlier in his Knicks career -- or in his years with the Nuggets - Anthony would have been content to take the shot. It was a good open look and, for someone with Anthony's touch, it would have gone in more often than not. But on Tuesday, Anthony saw Afflalo open on the wing as Paul Millsap closed in on him. Instead of shooting, he fed Affalo for an open 3-pointer.
"I feel a lot more comfortable now with ... letting somebody else have a breakout game and letting other guys get involved [to] get their confidence up," he said. "I feel more comfortable with that now."
Indeed, trust is earned. And Anthony's teammates are giving him every reason to trust them.