By Cody Westerlund-
CHICAGO (CBS) – About an hour before the Knicks’ latest nightmare began to play out in front of a national television audience Sunday, the Bulls’ pregame locker room was the oddest sight.
There it was, a media horde waiting 25 minutes in front of the locker of Chicago’s newly signed 13th man. As Jimmer Fredette went through his pregame shooting routine on the United Center floor, injured Bulls star Derrick Rose milled about the locker room, drawing attention not for a second from the outsiders.
When he finally stepped in front of the cameras, Fredette used the word “excited” no fewer than four times in two minutes to describe his feelings of becoming a Bull. That enthusiasm would be reciprocated late in the fourth quarter of Chicago’s 109-90 stomping of New York – its ninth win in the past 10 games – when the United Center faithful went bonkers after Fredette pulled up from 22 feet in transition and drained his first shot attempt as a Bull.
That passion was nowhere to be found Sunday in the New York locker room, a place where dreams have gone to die.
“I can’t explain it, in all honesty,” Knicks center Tyson Chandler said when asked how there could be no urgency after that’s precisely what coach Mike Woodson had stressed pregame. “At this point, I don’t have an answer for it.”
It was 43 minutes after game’s end that star Carmelo Anthony strolled out in front of the cameras. He was the last Knick around, having taken his time in the trainer’s room. One the NBA’s best at getting tough buckets, Anthony also absorbs a beating like few do.
Indirectly, Anthony expressed a great respect for the Bulls, saying, “They are always a team who’s going to be there, who’s going to compete, who’s going to play hard … I don’t know if it’s (coach Tom Thibodeau’s) system, but for whatever reason, they’re always going to be there.”
This is why it must hurt Anthony to see his team, with arguably more talent, mired at 21-39 and 6 1/2 games out of a playoff spot in an abysmal Eastern Conference. He endured as point guard Raymond Felton shot 2-for-10 and J.R. Smith hoisted up long 2-pointers early in the shot clock, and he was a part of a defense that has seemingly quit.
“It’s hard to keep coming up with excuses about why it continues to happen,” said Anthony, who scored 21 points.
“As a team, we got to have some type of sense of pride just to go out there and compete. It seems like we’re not even competing right now.”
This eulogy for the Knicks’ season was just starting.
“It’s embarrassing,” Anthony said. “It’s frustrating, it’s embarrassing, the outcomes of the game. Teams win and lose night in and night out, but just the way we’re not approaching from that standpoint with a winning attitude. The winning mentality is just not happening.
“I’m rambling right now, but it’s frustrating. I don’t like to be embarrassed like that.”
Inevitably, the postgame questions circled back to – or at least referenced – Anthony’s future. His contract with the Knicks runs through the 2014-’15 season, but he has an early termination option that allows him to become a free agent this July.
Anthony will be 30 in late May, and if he chooses to test the open market, he’ll be the most sought-after star, able to command a maximum contract of five years and about $129 million with the Knicks or four years and around $96 million with other suitors.
Whether Anthony can be the man to lead a team to a title, to be the savior who lifts all others in times of adversity, is open to debate. Thing is, in relation to all the Carmelo-to-Chicago speculation — which is still more of a long shot than anything — that’s missing the point.
Anthony remains singular in his offensive talents, in his ability to finish through contact and score in a variety of ways. And the Bulls’ need remains singular as well – they do most everything well except score, ranking last in points per game and 28th in points per possession entering Sunday.
In Chicago, Anthony could rightfully let Joakim Noah be the leader, and the concerns over the high-usage tendencies of both he and a healthy Rose are dumbfounding.
Anthony rates eighth in the league in John Hollinger’s player efficiency rating – an all-encompassing measure – and every shot of his would be one fewer for the likes of less efficient players like Jimmy Butler and the closer-to-replacement-level veterans sure to be around. That would be a good development.
So the Carmelo-and-Chicago argument isn’t a basketball one. It’s a financial one, first on Anthony’s end in regards to whether he’d take less than a max contract to become a Bull, then potentially the team’s end. The Bulls would have to decide if the cost of signing Anthony would be worth it, given the players who the team may have to trade/let leave (Mike Dunleavy? Kirk Hinrich? Taj Gibson? No arrival for Nikola Mirotic?) and the possibility of pushing past the luxury tax in future years.
When Sunday’s nightmare was over and a trip to Detroit awaited, Anthony admitted that he saw a few signs in the stands of the United Center that had a “Melo to Chicago” theme.
Problem is, that’s about all he can see nowadays in this most depressing of seasons, even as salary cap concerns set the Knicks up for another one next year.
“I can’t even see next year,” Anthony said of his future. “I can’t even see tomorrow. At this point, man, it’s hard for me to focus on that (future) while I’m going through this journey right now.”
No one knows where that journey will yet lead Anthony. After watching Sunday’s debacle, you just know this.
If this joylessness is Anthony’s future, it’s a shame.
Cody Westerlund is sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.