New York jumped out to a 19-6 start with Stoudemire on the sideline recovering from knee surgery.
However, the Knicks' offense has sputtered as of late. According to NBA.com, the Knicks' shooting percentage from the field, long-distance shooting and scoring averages all dropped off from November to December and December to January, as seen below.
Teams started running the Knicks off the three-point line, forcing them to take the ball to the basket or settle for long-range two-point shots. New York has particularly struggled against aggressive defensive teams that have the size to push them around down low, like the Memphis Grizzlies, Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls, the last of whom have beaten the Knicks three times this year.
No longer able to bury teams from behind the arc, the Knicks need to find ways to score easy baskets in their half-court offense. That is something Stoudemire has excelled at throughout his career. His ability to score and draw fouls around the rim will minimize the size advantage that the Pacers and Bulls, two teams the Knicks could face in the playoffs, have used to exploit them.
Unfortunately, Mike Woodson cannot simply reinsert Stoudemire into the lineup and watch the six-time All-Star take off. STAT has moved gingerly in the eight games since his return and lacked the explosiveness that made him such a dynamic scorer in the past.
Stoudemire also must adapt to his new role as a reserve. The Knicks have played their best basketball with Anthony at the 4, so he will likely continue to come off the bench, something he has not done since the beginning of his rookie season.
Since STAT and Melo first joined forces in February 2010, there have been questions as to whether the two prolific scorers with overlapping skills can co-exist. The early returns were not very encouraging.
Last season, the Knicks were statistically worse on offense and defense when the two forwards were on the floor together. New York averaged 97.2 and allowed 94.1 points per game as a team last season, according to NBA.com. With Stoudemire and Melo on the floor together, the Knicks scored 96.2 points and surrendered 98.6 points per 48 minutes.
Two years ago, Stoudemire was an early-season MVP candidate and deemed the savior of the Knicks. Since then, he has lost his explosiveness, his starting job and his alpha dog status on the team to Anthony. That is a lot to handle for a very proud man.
So far, Stoudemir has said and done all the right things. He kept himself in top shape while recovering from surgery and has accepted his role off the bench. Following his first game back, Stoudemire tweeted,
— Amar'e Stoudemire (@Amareisreal) January 2, 2013Thank you so much for the standing ovation, 😥I wanted to cry. I love you guys so much (Fans). I willing to do what ever I can to help us win
Now Melo must play his part. As the man who supplanted Stoudemire as the team's best player, Anthony must make him feel like he is an important part of this team during this transitional point in his career.
Injuries to several key players will hinder Stoudemire's ability to carve out his role on the team. It is difficult for him to develop a rhythm offensively without the benefit of starting point guard Raymond Felton.
The lineup and individual player's roles will continue to shuffle as Felton, Iman Shumpert, Rasheed Wallace and Marcus Camby return from injuries.
Still, Melo must begin to build Stoudemire's confidence now. If Stoudemire is left to feel like a forgotten man, he may grow bitter toward his coaches and teammates, especially Anthony, and disrupt the team's chemistry on and off the court.
It is also important for Stoudemire and the rest of the Knicks to have their roles defined before they head into the stretch run. Offensive sets must feel like second nature against stingy defensive teams in the playoffs.
It will be a tricky balancing act for Anthony and the Knicks. Stoudemire is not quite himself physically, and the team does not want to sacrifice wins in order to build his confidence, but Melo needs to get STAT on board now, if he wants him to pay dividends later.