Knicks 'zzone

Newsday's Al Iannazzone takes you inside the Knicks.

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Carmelo is in best shape he's been 'in a long time'

There was only one player in the gym at MSG Training Center early Friday afternoon. The sound of a single dribble -- the first of the new season -- finally broke a long, agonizing silence and was followed by the sweet sound of swish.

"It's a wonderful feeling," Carmelo Anthony said.

It's also a wonderful statement that Melo was the first Knick in the gym this season. He was practically the last Knick standing in April, as the Boston Celtics finished off a four-game sweep that brought a sudden, unceremonious end to what was a mercurial season at Madison Square Garden. And when he left, Anthony was still getting his bearings as a Knick.

But he walked onto the practice court, he was very much at home, under the banners of Ewing, Reed, Bradley, DeBusschere, Frazier, Monroe and McGuire. Yes, Monroe and McGuire and his old No. 15.

But this is a new Melo, or at least a renewed Melo. No. 7, Melo.

The first evidence of growth in his career came after the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, as a key member of the Redeem Team. Around the likes of Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul, Carmelo's demeanor changed. As he raised his work ethic to match that of Bryant, Paul, LeBron James and Dwayne Wade, Melo's game changed.

And this summer he grew even closer to his fellow stars. James, Wade, Paul and Melo have become the NBA's Beatles, the hoop version of the Rat Pack. The Awesome Foursome were seen several times together all around the country, at charity games and even at a few NBA labor meetings, and recently had put together a barnstorming charity tour that has since been canceled because of the impending end of the lockout.

Though they often congregate like a group of fraternity boys, with Wade acting as the polished, impish ringleader (consider him the Eric "Otter" Stratton, from Animal House), such as when they stood behind Derek Fisher after a failed labor meeting in October and giggled at a joke that carried from one to the other. The source of the comedy was, we later learned, Wade's defiant rebuke of commissioner David Stern, who apparently tried to, as the kids say, "son" him by pointing his finger.

But there is also a tangible sincerity within this group and a genuine camaraderie among them. It was evidenced on Tuesday when, while discussing the value of spending time giving a clinic to the wide-eyed Brooklyn children, some who jumped and danced in the sight of the glowing, grinning stars as if at some religious hoops revival, Paul said, "Seeing the smiles on the kids faces when we show up, because these kids, how many kids can say that they saw LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade at the same place at one time?"

LeBron then interrupted, "And Chris Paul," as if careful to make sure Paul included himself as equally special among the group.

Yes, it's good for Anthony to run in this type of crowd, not for what it does for his image as an NBA superstar, but for what it does for his ambition. Wade and LeBron are tireless workers, Paul is ultra-competitive. And all three, as much as they are revered for their respective talents, have heard criticism, too. They're each passionately adored for their talents and yet ceaselessly reminded of their fallibility. 

And you could argue that of the four, Melo has yet to reach his ultimate potential.

At the end of his exit meeting with the Knicks' hierarchy last spring, all that was asked of Carmelo was to spend the offseason getting himself in the best shape of his life. Let the world see what he can do when he's as finely conditioned as LeBron, Wade and Paul. Just how good would he be?

To achieve this, it would take more than just wind sprints and grilled chicken. It would first take long overdue repairs that had been put off for too long. So Melo showed his commitment to achieving his best-ever status by doing something he'd never done before, something he swore he'd never do: he went under the knife.

First, his right elbow, which had been aching for the bulk of his career, which led to the trademark compression sleeve, finally got the repair it needed.

"Nobody knew, but I was struggling with my elbow for the past six years," he said. "If you go back to games, I was never able to hold my follow-through up, I was always jerking my shot and it just felt weird. But now that I got the surgery, got it to where I can extend my elbow out more, there's no pain."

He repeated the last part as if it were some kind of revelation.

"No pain at all."

With pain, with the hitch that prohibited his ability to extend his shooting arm, Carmelo shot 46.1 percent from the field as a Knick and nailed 42.4 percent from three-point range. So what will he do without pain?

Only the shooting machine, which frustrated him with errant passes during Thursday's workout, knows right now.

But it never really was about shooting with Carmelo. It was about sharing. Before the playoffs, when the Knicks ran off seven straight wins toward the end of the regular season, Melo and Amar'e Stoudemire seemed to finally find a groove in the offense. Perhaps it was in Mike D'Antoni's decision to keep them separated through most of the game -- Melo would play the entire first quarter, Amar'e would take an early exit and then play most of the second quarter -- to allow each to develop a rhythm before putting them on the floor together in the fourth.

But Melo insists they can successfully co-exist. No, he and Amar'e don't jet-set in the same circles, but they kept in touch throughout the summer. 

"We know what we have to do," Carmelo said. "There's nothing major that we have to change, just a matter of games we play with one another. But we're good. I don't understand where that came from, that we can't play together."

The truth is, we have yet to see the two of them together at their best.

The end of last season saw Stoudemire on a slow physical decline. He was worn out after literally carrying the team through the first half of the season, which included his franchise-record streak of nine straight games with 30 or more points. It also saw Melo arrive admittedly overweight with his conditioning nowhere near peak level.

While the elbow had been a chronic issue, Carmelo tweaked his right knee several times down the stretch of the season. It was never enough to keep him out of a game, but it definitely caused enough of a problem to require arthroscopic surgery.

So by the end of May, Anthony had undergone two surgeries after going throughout his career avoiding the scalpel. And when he was cleared to begin working out in July, he went from a spare tire to rolling oversized truck tires. This was no ordinary workout, this was something out of Rocky IV. It was raw, exhausting and exactly what he needed to, as the players say, get back on his grind.

"I'm good, I'm ready, I'm focused," he said as a 66-game sprint of a schedule, with back-to-back-to-backs awaits. "Mentally, I'm focused. I know what I have to do to prepare my team for battle. It's a shortened season, it's a battle, it's a fight. We have to prepare ourselves."

If Amar'e is the Knicks' Renaissance Man, Melo is the Leader of the New School. The two stars are expected to open camp next Friday as the two best conditioned players on the team. It's a standard this franchise hasn't seen set since the days of that man who wore No. 33, which hung above Melo's head Thursday afternoon.

"I feel better this season," he said, "than I've felt in a long, long time."

The work he put in this offseason has a lot to do with that, but perhaps it also has to do with the absence of static that filled his ears throughout last season's Melopalooza, the incessant daily routine of trade rumors and questions that swept him through the season until the trade deadline finally landed him in New York. He is finally home now, secure with his contract extension and finally at peace. Finally ready to begin anew.

Meanwhile, 1,300 miles south, his closest friend, one of his greatest peer influences, just had the volume cranked up. A report that Paul's agent informed the Hornets that he prefers a trade to the Knicks emerged. The rumors have already started. The questions will never stop.

It's going to be a long season for Chris, isn't it.

"I don't want to see him go through that," Melo said, "because I know, personally, how that feels."

The last thing he wants to do is pile on by making public the campaign to get him traded. So Melo politely declined, just like all of his friends did last season. Deep down, everyone knew last year where Melo wanted to be. Just like everyone knows where Chris wants to be this year.

Just like Creative Artists Agency, which worked the machine to get LeBron and Wade together in Miami and succeeded in getting Carmelo to New York, will now look to complete the mission.

The script CAA laid out, the one Melo followed, worked for him. If Chris follows the same, it should work again. Somehow, some way. Even if right now the Knicks have very little to offer in a trade and even if right now Paul would leave millions on the table if he signed as a free agent.

This goes back to a wedding toast. It goes back to a challenge that LeBron made when he made the first bold move by leaving money on the table in Cleveland. But his move and even Carmelo's move weren't nearly as impossible as what getting Paul to New York seems right now. But there's still time to work it out.

And until then, lost in the rumors and the speculation is something that can not be overlooked. Forget who they don't have, forget who some experts say they can't get, what can't be overlooked is that the Knicks appear to already have one critical element that few other NBA teams can boast:

A highly-motivated superstar who, with another star like Amar'e, can carry his team to the next level.

"I'm good, I'm healthy," Melo said. "You see I'm here today, as soon as they opened the doors. I was the first one in here today. My health is good, I'm in shape, ready to go. I'm ready for training camp."

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