- Stephen A. Smith, ESPNNewYork.com columnist
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Fresh off an Olympic gold medal, playing with the best players in the world, Carmelo Anthony -- never svelte, but in shape for a change -- was all smiles as he prepped for the 2012-13 season, focused on propelling the New York Knicks beyond the first round.
That was until someone reminded him that he'll probably have to do it without Amar'e Stoudemire. Forced to carry the offensive load yet again, Anthony felt compelled to sigh, put his head down and walk away.
That moment of palpable frustration isn't about to go away, ladies and gentlemen, no matter what the Knicks would have you believe. The moment it was announced that Stoudemire's perpetual knee issues would have him out for at least the first six weeks, Knicks fans might as well have taken their lofty aspirations and thrown them in the trash.
Right now, anyone who thinks the Knicks are getting out of the first round should be examined by a doctor. This team is, arguably, not even the fifth-best team in the Eastern Conference.
It's time to be real, folks: The Miami Heat and Boston Celtics are the top two teams. The Philadelphia 76ers are better with Andrew Bynum, one of only two legitimate centers in the East. The Indiana Pacers are rough, rugged and old-school. The Brooklyn Nets didn't spend $82 million, along with acquiring Joe Johnson, to play second fiddle. And that especially applies to their mentality when it comes to the Knicks, with the Nets being the new boys in town, hell-bent on stealing the hearts of New Yorkers.
"We feel good about ourselves," Knicks coach Mike Woodson told me. "We believe in ourselves. We believe in our personnel and what we can do. And we expect to be better than we were last year. We know what level of success we're in pursuit of."
So be it!
Far be it from me or anyone else to doubt Woodson or the team the Knicks assembled. After all, they were five points better defensively once Woodson took over the helm from Mike D'Antoni.
Anthony is a closer extraordinaire. There's no viable reason to dismiss the acquisition of Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd as point guards, since Anthony desperately needed them. And if nothing else, Kurt Thomas and Rasheed Wallace should be good for six fouls and some quality, albeit minimal, minutes -- even if they add years to the league's oldest roster.
Except it's not about any of that with these Knicks anymore. It's about Stoudemire. The $99 million man who can't stay healthy. The same power forward who always looks svelte and powerful, yet doesn't hesitate to disguise whatever ailments pop up during the season. And because of it, the Knicks are on a fast track to nowhere, primarily because the opposition isn't waiting around for them to get better, stronger and healthier.
"We're coming for everybody," Nets coach Avery Johnson said. "We're trying to improve and get better every day. We recognize the commitment that's been made to this team. Our job is to get better, to improve and try to win as many basketball games as possible. No matter who we're up against. And, obviously, one of those teams is the Knicks. We're in the same backyard. So we're not about to start apologizing that we're coming to compete with everybody."
Johnson has his own set of problems to deal with, since his Nets have been ranked 21st and 29th, respectively, on defense the past two seasons. But at least in Joe Johnson and Deron Williams, he has a duo that's dynamic and healthy.
Let it be said here that Anthony and Stoudemire could be dynamic. Particularly if Stoudemire were healthy. But he isn't, again. It's a problem, again. The Stoudemire who had 187 dunks in the 2009-10 season (second in the league) had 68 fewer dunks the following season and 36 fewer than that last season. So the decline is nothing new.
With that, it begs the question: How much more can Anthony take?
Bounced out in the first round eight of his nine years in the league, Anthony continues to face questions about his production, or lack thereof. Is that fair?
Is it fair, considering that he has limited help offensively? Carrying this franchise on his back. Forced to hope that Felton re-emerges as the point guard he once was, or that Kidd can fight off Father Time, or that Tyson Chandler can display prowess in some category other than defense.
Chances are, it's not happening.
Gone is Jeremy Lin. (Good riddance!) Inserted is an experienced bunch that could beat most of the teams in this league if it were healthy. But age and attrition are inevitable. So is another injury to Stoudemire.
If it's frustrating to me, the same can probably be said for others who are closer to the situation. And if that's the case, one can only imagine what Anthony is thinking.
Probably something like: "I wish I had pushed to end up in New Jersey, after all."
Because then he'd be in Brooklyn right now.
Without a healthy Amar'e, Melo may as well be -- I'll say it -- in Brooklyn!