Amar'e Stoudemire's impending return to action is the biggest story for the New York Knicks right now, as the forward looks to return to his dominant self after a poor 2011-12 campaign.
A preseason knee injury caused Stoudemire to miss the first third of the season, but after surgery and months of recovery, he is close to hitting the court again. STAT has set New Year's Day as the target for his return, which is only fitting as he looks to make a fresh start and leave a tough year behind him.
Some are worried about whether or not Stoudemire can fit in with this Knicks team—or whether he can still play at a high level at all—but Amar'e has already made it clear exactly what his intentions are:
"I'm on pace to return back to dominance. It's a matter of becoming 100 percent. When I'm healthy, I feel like I'm back to my dominant self." (via Newsday).
With health finally on his side, Stoudemire is perfectly capable of becoming a dominant power forward again; after all, it was only two years ago that he was a genuine MVP candidate in his first season with the Knicks.
First thing's first, though, and the team's No. 1 priority now has to be to find Stoudemire a role on the team. Carmelo Anthony has been playing at an MVP level at STAT's power forward position, and with the Knicks having so much success playing small ball, it's unlikely that he'll be removed from that spot.
What that means is that Stoudemire could be best utilized off the bench, acting as a backup power forward for Melo and a backup center for Tyson Chandler.
Stoudemire has already expressed a willingness to do exactly what his team needs him to do, and this team-first attitude will help both parties out tremendously moving forward. If he can embrace a role off the bench, and not view it as a demotion, that will be the first step to regaining form.
Playing off the bench doesn't have to be a long-term thing. At the moment, the Knicks are planning for that only to be the initial course of action, as a way to ease him back into the team.
Doing so would afford Stoudemire the opportunity to go up against weaker opponents at first, as the majority of his minutes should come against opposing second units. Even without Stoudemire, the Knicks have had one of the league's deepest benches, but they've been lacking a true physical force down low.
With the use of some of his new low-post moves courtesy of Hakeem Olajuwon, Stoudemire already has a place on the second unit as the go-to big man.
Playing alongside Pablo Prigioni—who almost to a fault has proven himself to be a pass-first point guard—Stoudemire finally has someone running the show who can get him involved.
Stoudemire's real problem last season was that the team didn't have a point guard capable of doing so, leaving him to go to work in isolation rather than in the pick-and-roll where he has typically thrived.
Raymond Felton is out injured right now, so our hopes of seeing the pair join forces again as they did in 2010-11 will have to wait, but Prigioni is more than capable of getting the job done.
Expect a heavy dose of pick-and-roll between Prigioni and Stoudemire, as STAT looks to utilize the best pure passer he has played with since Steve Nash. Prigioni is capable of putting the ball in the right spots for Amar'e to succeed, which should result in the powerful finishes at the rim we're used to seeing from him.
With 30 or so minutes per game coming Stoudemire's way, he has the potential to do some serious damage for opposing teams. His field-goal percentage should rise, and once he has found his rhythm he should score at will against other bench units.
Injuries to other players are a problem, and Stoudemire's return has been described as a "fluid situation" by one Knicks source (via ESPN). Ultimately, there is a strong chance that Stoudemire will return to the starting five eventually, at which point another dimension is added to the situation.
Off the bench, Stoudemire has a clear-cut way to dominate as the No. 1 scoring option, but starting he will need to iron out the chemistry issues between himself, Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler.
So far in Mike Woodson's tenure as head coach, the Knicks are 8-2 with all three playing together, which is a good sign. We haven't seen much of them under Woodson, and there's a reasonable chance that the chemistry issues were more down to Mike D'Antoni's coaching than anything else.
Most of the Knicks' other issues have cleared up since D'Antoni resigned, and Woodson has shown a knack of getting players to sacrifice for the greater good this season.
The main thing the Knicks will miss with Stoudemire in the lineup is that extra three-point shooter to spread the floor, but if Stoudemire can find the mid-range jumper that helped him so much in his first season with the Knicks, that should be enough to give himself and Melo space to work with.
The Knicks have been extremely successful with the long-ball, but that doesn't mean it's the only way they can win.
After missing 49 games in 2012, the start of the New Year will give Stoudemire and the Knicks a chance to leave what was a tough season in the past.
New York has genuine championship hopes now and Stoudemire has clearly bought into this with his team-first attitude. Stoudemire will need to sacrifice on the court as well as off it, though, and if he can there's no reason he can't return to dominant form.