PLAYER: Amar’e Stoudemire
CONTRACT: 2 years, $45,090,881 (!!!) remaining (2013-14: $21,679,893, 2014-15: $23,410,988)
ACQUISITION DETAILS: Stoudemire was acquired in a sign-and-trade with the Phoenix Suns in the summer of 2010, whereupon the Knicks inked the power forward to a 5 year, $99.7M deal. The Suns got a conditional second round pick and a $16.5M trade exemption.
WHAT TO EXPECT OFFENSIVELY: Any conversation about Amar’e Stoudemire starts and ends with his recurring inability to stay healthy. Once the centerpiece of a franchise reborn, his fall from grace has been as depressing for Knicks fans as it has been vexing for the Knicks’ management. Amar’e played in just 29 regular season games last season, capped off by a brief and uneventful cameo in the playoffs versus Indiana. Though last season was ultimately a lost one, Stoudemire was actually quite good when he did suit up, mostly coming off the bench in a reduced role (just 23.5 minutes per game). And, amazingly, Stat’s abbreviated season was actually one of the more efficient of his career. His .637 TS% was his highest since 2007, and he recorded a 22.1 PER and scored 21.8 points per 36 minutes played. Assuming Amar’e is healthy (Congress finishing the year with an approval rating in the teens seems a better bet), fans should expect continued excellence on the offensive end of the floor.
Though it was a limited sample size last season, Stoudemire not only embraced his new role as a 7th man, but he also re-worked his game to create more synergy with his star teammates, Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler. Pre-Chandler, Anthony and Stoudemire demonstrated that they can work well offensively, primarily because there was a defined role for each of them. Anthony worked from the high/mid-post in isolation (and from the perimeter as a secondary ball handler/spot up shooter at times), while Stoudemire was the dominant roll man in pick-and-roll. The problem was that this alignment led to the Knicks giving up more points than they were scoring. (Ironically, the 2010 Knicks scored 110.7 points-per-100-possessions with those two on the floor together, while giving up 110.9.)
So to address their defensive ineptitude, Chandler was signed as a free agent to provide the Knicks with a much needed defensive presence. But in D’Antoni’s offense (now adopted and modified by Woodson), the center plays the primary roll man. Predictably, Chandler became a monster in the pick-and-roll (he led the NBA in FG%). With ‘Melo Anthony firmly entrenched in the mid-post area, Stoudemire’s traditional stomping grounds were now occupied and he badly struggled to fit within the framework of the offense. The trickledown effect was clear, and the 2011-12 Knick lineups featuring Anthony, Stoudemire and Chandler scored a dismal 99.1 points-per-100-possessions.
Locked into all three players from a salary cap perspective, the Knicks had but two options to alleviate the offensive logjam: Either Stoudemire would have to be marginalized or Stoudemire was going to have to seriously adjust his game. Both things actually happened. The marginalization came as a result of Stoudemire’s brittle knees. The adjustment, however, was an important one. Like many of his NBA brethren before him, in the summer of 2012, Amar’e developed a quasi low-post game by soliciting the tutelage of the legendary Hakeem Olajuwon. Those new skills served him well in limited action last season, allowing Amar’e to operate efficiently in the low post. Again, sample size, but for the most part, Stoudemire no longer got in Anthony’s way on the perimeter, nor was he clogging the lane as Ray Felton worked his pick-and-roll magic with Chandler. As a result, the Knicks’ “Big 3″ was dynamic on the offensive end when playing together (222 minutes), and the Knicks scored a whopping 115.5 points-per-100-possessions when deploying all three players.
If healthy this season, Stoudemire is likely to once again come off the bench. (Hi, Bargs!) Amar’e will be on a minutes-limit and probably won’t play on back-to-backs in an attempt by the team to keep him upright through the NBA’s grueling 82 game slate. New York’s offense was very good with Stoudemire parked in the low block on both the left and right sides of the floor, in large part due to the fact that he was very good in those spots (primarily the left block). He doesn’t have a great back to the basket game, rather he prefers to face up his man and use his size and athleticism create a good look for himself. Synergy sports had him scoring 0.92 points-per-possession on plays that ended with him posting up. Posting up has proven to be a largely inefficient practice in NBA offenses because they often result in contested shots a few feet away from the basket. Stoudemire, however, defied conventional statistical wisdom in those situations, mostly because he was continually able to get to the rim (200 of his 267 shots attempted came in the restricted area). Generally, a player of Stoudemire’s skill and athleticism becomes a major asset to a team if that player is able to shoot 75% of his baskets at the rim. In Stat’s case, that’s exactly what happened last season for the Knicks. Amar’e also seemed to improve his mid-range game, shooting just 37.9% from 16-24 feet in 2011-12, but hitting at a 42.3% clip on shots taken from that area in 2012-13 (only 24 attempts, though).
In terms of rebounding, Stoudemire was also improved last year. He grabbed 10% of all available rebounds, his highest mark since 2006 (though his newly-found positioning in the low post probably impacted this). Stat also drew more fouls-per-36 minutes than he did in his previous season, making 80% from the line. Ultimately, Stoudemire, if healthy (I know, I know),was a very efficient offensive player last year, and there is no reason to doubt that the Knicks should get that same level of production from their flawed power forward this season.
WHAT TO EXPECT DEFENSIVELY: Defense and rebounding have never been strong suits for Stoudemire, and obviously a bad back and bad knees aren’t going to help matters. That said, there is this misguided belief among fans that defense is all about effort. “If Stoudemire just tried harder on defense, then he’d be good at it!” But that is not entirely true, Folks. There are certain players who simply do not have good instincts on the defensive end of the floor. Amar’e Stoudemire is one of those guys. To his credit, he has tried to be good at defense. Sometimes, you can actually see Amar’e try to figure out the correct spot to be when defending the pick-and-roll. Unfortunately, his man has usually blown by him already, leaving Stoudemire with an incredulous where-the-hell-did-the-guy-come-from look on his face.
On help-defense, Stoudemire is not much better. Sure, he’s shown flashes in the past, where he’s rotated correctly and played some beautiful defense, but unfortunately for the Knicks, those occasions have been few and far between. Again, it comes down to his lack of defensive instinct. When Amar’e is on the floor, he needs a Tyson or Kenyon type to cover his backside defensively. Playing him at center with a power forward like Bargnani might be lethal on offense to New York’s opponents, but such an alignment would surely be an absolute train-wreck on the defensive end. (For what it’s worth, had the ancient Rasheed Wallace been able to play alongside Stoudemire last season, the former’s floor spacing ability and defensive prowess would have been ideal as compliment to the latter’s game.)
Despite his size and quickness, Stoudemire has always been a below-average defensive rebounder. Sometimes it’s his effort, but his lack of instinct also plays a role here. Amar’e boxes his man out when it’s easy to do so, but he’s susceptible to give up offensive boards to players crashing from the perimeter. Unlike a Kevin Love, Stoudemire doesn’t have a feel for when an opponent not standing directly behind him needs boxing out. His defensive rebound rate last season was just 15.1%, a career low. (Surprisingly, the Knicks were a very good defensive rebounding team when Stat was on the floor, though. They grabbed 77.5% of all available rebounds with him on the floor as opposed to 74.2% with him off.)
Those who derided the Stoudemire acquisition have always pointed to the fact that he is a porous defensive player and marginal rebounder, especially given his price tag. Unfortunately, those criticisms were well-founded then and remain true now. Now older and still as injury prone, it is probably safe to say those warts will only grow larger.
UNREASONABLY OPTIMISTIC SEASON PROJECTION: 50 games played (tee-hee), 22.5 PPG, 8 RPG, 1.2 APG, 0.8 SPG (all per-36-min) 56.5 FG% .620 TS%