Amar'e Stoudemire is back in action for the New York Knicks, and his return has come with some major questions about just what he will be for the team moving forward.
Before his season debut on New Year's Day, it had been eight long months since the last time we saw STAT in competitive action. Considering he had just finished a career-worst, injury-plagued season back then, there had certainly been a lot of scepticism about whether or not he could bounce back in 2012-13.
A lot has changed since then, however, and the Knicks now boast a roster stacked with the pass-first point guards they lacked last year, as well as a head coach in Mike Woodson who has shown he can get the best out of underperforming players.
With the Knicks winning on top of that, Stoudemire is in a situation in which he has a chance to flourish. The external factors are now sorted out, and the question is now simply about how far Amar'e can bounce back on an individual level.
Though they must obviously be taken with a pinch of salt considering how early we are in the comeback process, Stoudemire's first few games back have given us hints about how good he can be moving forward.
In his first nine games back from injury, Stoudemire has been coming off the bench for the Knicks, with his minutes increasing as he gets back into full game shape.
Things were a little shaky at first—which was to be expected having been out for so long—but Stoudemire appears to be coming into his own as of late.
In his first three games, Stoudemire shot only 40 percent from the field, but in his last three his field goal percentage is at 57 percent.
When the Knicks traveled to London to face the Pistons, Stoudemire had his most impressive game. He only hit three field goals, but with some physical play he forced his way to the line and scored a season-high 17 points.
Against Brooklyn on MLK Day, Stoudemire also looked good, scoring 15 and working very well with Carmelo Anthony, who assisted him on multiple occasions.
Overall, the numbers haven't been greatly impressive, but Stoudemire has passed the eye test. His shot wasn't falling at first, but his injury hasn't stopped him from playing physically. He is getting into good positions offensively, and unlike last year, his jump shot has rhythm.
When Raymond Felton eventually returns—and it could be as soon as Saturday in Philadelphia—Stoudemire will likely play much better. As good as Jason Kidd and Pablo Prigioni are, neither is capable of penetrating well at this point in their careers, and Felton will be a much better partner in the pick-and-roll, where Stoudemire has typically dominated.
If Stoudemire does remain on the bench—and frankly even if he starts—his All-Star days are likely behind him. The Eastern Conference boasts much more popular frontcourt players, and his own teammates Melo and Tyson Chandler will likely keep him out no matter how well he plays.
But that's not important. What's important is that STAT can still be a very important player for the Knicks if he continues to improve from game-to-game and avoids major injury trouble.
Though his knees often let him down, Stoudemire clearly has a body capable of playing physical basketball in the NBA. He is very much still a matchup problem for most of the league's big men.
There have been questions about what Stoudemire's role with the Knicks will be, but once he has returned to full health, there is a relatively simple solution.
If the Knicks believe Melo is best suited at the 4, they can keep Stoudemire on the bench, and have him splitting time at PF and C when Anthony and Chandler are off the floor. That three-man rotation should be enough to guarantee him around 30 minutes per game.
At the moment, Stoudemire is averaging 10.9 points and 3.4 rebounds in 21 minutes per game. With some simple math, those numbers increase to 15.6 points and 4.9 rebounds in 30 minutes of action, which sounds realistic to expect. In fact, it's probably likely that he'll average more rebounds.
For his career, Stoudemire is averaging 18.9 points and 7.7 rebounds per 30 minutes, so there is clearly some regression there. Considering he is now playing a lesser role than he did in Phoenix and his first couple of seasons in New York, that's fair enough.
Health will obviously be an issue, and a player with an injury history like his is always going to miss significant time. With reduced minutes and less pressure to carry the team, maybe that won't be so much of a problem.
The main takeaway is that coming off the bench and being only the third or fourth option on the Knicks, Stoudemire won't be able to produce at an MVP or even All-Star level anymore. He will, however, give the Knicks what will probably be the best bench big man in the game, at least offensively.
Frankly, that's all the Knicks really need from him. With Melo playing so well, Stoudemire can be a fantastic second option along with J.R. Smith, giving the Knicks great depth and a lot of options on the offensive end.
Stoudemire is still a major piece of the Knicks' chances of winning a championship, and at this point in his career he's going to be able to give the Knicks great bench production—even if that happens to be less than what we've come to expect from him in the past.
Stats used in this article were accurate as of Jan. 21, 2013.