In recent weeks, both past and coming, much has been said about Amar’e Stoudemire’s return to the court after surgery in his left knee to remove a rupture cyst. Stoudemire played just one preseason game this season, and before that, he hasn’t played since the playoffs where his hand was busted-up because of an incident with a fire extinguisher. Prior to the playoffs, Stoudemire was in and out of the Knicks lineup, first with a bulging disk in his back, and before that, he missed two weeks as he mourned the death of his older brother in Orland, Florida.
Sprinkled in between those stretches, however, was some solid basketball, particularly in March after Mike Woodson took over, where Stoudemire averaged 18 points per game on 56% FG, with 8 rebounds per game. The Knicks went 8-2 during that period as Stoudemire played his most productive basketball in an otherwise disappointing season, and blended with Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler, and Jeremy Lin. As Stoudemire prepares to return to the court, the Knicks’ staff and fans are clinging to that stretch, hoping Stoudemire can play at a similar level and coincide with this highly successful Knicks team.
As Stoudemire himself, Mike Woodson, and teammates have sounded optimistic about his return, Howard Beck’s recent piece about Stoudemire was contradictory to the positive rhetoric spinning around the Knicks of late. Beck reported that this past summer Stoudemire was offered to nearly every team “for free”, and was nearly traded to Toronto for Andrea Bargnani before James Dolan vetoed the trade. Beck further comments that Stoudemire may be reluctant to accept a diminished role on the Knicks, and an offensive-minded, defensively-lacking, past-his-prime power forward may not fit on this Knicks team.
The concerns about Stoudemire’s fit when he returns is natural. But Beck’s revealing that Stoudemire was offered to any takers this summer does suggest that he’s not viewed as a necessary piece going forward. The Knicks have turned to a small-ball team, with Carmelo Anthony thriving as the centerpiece at power forward; Tyson Chandler has sufficiently gobbled up every scoring opportunity in the paint, slamming down lobs on the pick-and-roll; the defensive-minded nature (though the team’s stats don’t quite reveal the same mentality) is ill-fitting of Stoudemire’s game – all these things suggest that Stoudemire doesn’t have a place anymore on this Knicks team.
However, there’s no doubting that Beck opts for the pessimistic side of things. Though he claims that sources say Stoudemire is a “prideful” man and wouldn’t be thrilled with accepting a role off the bench – if Woodson does in fact put him there – Stoudemire has said he’s willing to do whatever it takes to win. It just depends on who you choose to believe.
Furthermore, there’s no denying that the Knicks could use a second consistent scorer on the team. Though the Knicks haven’t had much trouble scoring the ball, when Carmelo Anthony hasn’t played, the offense has looked disordered. Even the game in Miami where the Knicks poured three-pointers on the Heat in a 20-point win, that type of shooting is not sustainable. Against better defensive teams (the following game in Chicago, for instance), the Knicks couldn’t get clean looks from beyond the arc, and lacked a scorer who could produce without using an excess amount of dribbles (Raymond Felton and J.R. Smith), or without needing a set-up first (Steve Novak, Jason Kidd, Chandler).
Stoudemire has reportedly worked very hard on the post moves he learned with Hakeem Olajuwon this summer, and if he can hit his mid-range jumpers with greater consistency, then he adds a real scoring threat to this Knicks team. A guy who can create for himself, using minimal space on the floor and without needing a play to set him up every time would be beneficial for the team when Anthony is not in.
There’s also the fact that the Knicks possess far greater playmakers on this team than last season. Raymond Felton has historically been an effective partner with Stoudemire; Jason Kidd, one of the all-time great point guards will make it work; Pablo Prigioni has lacked a good pick-and-roll partner to utilize in the second unit, and could do wonders with Stoudemire, especially given the floor spacing with Steve Novak and J.R. Smith.
All of this, of course, is taking the optimistic side of things. Arguments could be made in favor of either point of view, and neither can truly be answered until Stoudemire actually returns in the coming weeks. What’s evident, though, is that Stoudemire’s time to prove himself is this season. The Knicks are committed to Anthony and this current surrounding cast; Stoudemire may be the odd man out. If he’s not willing to play into a team role, it could prove costly to Stoudemire’s future as Knick. Likewise, if Stoudemire plays well, but at the expense of the Knicks’ success, it could be enough to offer him up to other takers, and ship him out for pieces that better fit this current ensemble.
Stoudemire was once considered the savior of the Knicks. Just two Decembers ago, as Tommy Beer points out, Stoudemire was leading the Knicks, dropping 29 points and 9 rebounds per game. Now it’s up to the man called STAT to regain the trust of the organization and prove he’s a critical part of a championship-contending team.
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