Amar'e Stoudemire was expected, upon his return from knee surgery, to cause problems for a New York Knicks team that got off to a torrid start without him. On the contrary, STAT is thriving in his new role off the bench and has become a dominant weapon for Coach Mike Woodson.
Stoudemire is averaging 14.1 points per game in just 23 minutes while shooting 59 percent from the field. Those numbers have increased over the past few weeks as he has regained his explosiveness. According to NBA.com, over his last 10 games, Amar'e is averaging 17 points on 66 percent shooting.
Perhaps most importantly, he, Tyson Chandler and Carmelo Anthony are playing well together. The Knicks have an offensive rating of 118.5 and a net rating of 13.1 when the three are on the floor at the same time, per NBA.com.
If Stoudemire continues to thrive in his new role, New York will be very difficult to beat in the playoffs.
Over the past couple years, there has been a ton of speculation as to whether Stoudemire could coexist offensively with Tyson Chandler and Carmelo Anthony. When STAT plays with the second unit, he is the No. 1 option, free to play his game without worrying about fitting in.
Coach Woodson has been inserting him into the game midway through the first quarter, when his fresh legs can provide the Knicks with a spark just as their opponents' starters begin to tire.
Coming off the bench, Amar'e also enjoys the advantage of playing against the opposing team's backup power forward or center. Few teams have a big man on their bench mobile enough to cover Stoudemire or with the skills necessary to exploit him on the defensive end.
Amar'e has benefited from playing with one of the top second units in the league. The Knicks bench averages 39.3 points per game, the fourth-most in the league.
J.R. Smith and Steve Novak's ability to knock down three-pointers spreads the floor, providing Amar'e plenty of room to operate. Teams are reluctant to double-team STAT and leave them open.
Novak is shooting 44 percent from behind the arc, and though J.R. Smith is only connecting on 34 percent of his attempts, he is capable getting hot at any moment.
Backup point guard Pablo Prigioni has gotten in on the act recently as well. According to NBA.com, the rookie from Argentina is shooting 41 percent from downtown on the season and has nailed a staggering 60 percent of his three-point attempts over the past 10 games.
During his first 10 years in the league, Stoudemire was primary a pick-and-roll player. He scored the remainder of his points off of pick-and-pops, spot-up jumpers, timely cuts and in transition.
STAT spent two weeks over the summer working on post moves with Hakeem Olajuwon and has been a different offensive player this season. According to Synergy Sports, 31.9 percent of Amar'e's offensive plays have come on post-ups this season—compared to 17.4 percent on pick-and-rolls—and his 1.03 points per possession on those plays ranks fifth in the league.
Amar'e's new post game is leading to many more easy looks around the basket. According to NBA.com, 81.9 percent of his shots have come from the paint this season, up from 56.3 percent last season, and he is shooting a remarkable 63.8 percent on those attempts.
Amar'e injured his back in each of the past two seasons and missed the first 29 games of this year due to knee surgery. His body appeared to breaking down.
To the surprise of most Knicks fans, the 30-year-old forward has had more spring in his step this season than he did last year. STAT can no longer elevate like he did earlier in his career, but he still one of the more athletic big men in the game and is lightning quick in the post after shedding some weight in the offseason.
Coach Woodson is keeping Amar'e fresh by limiting him to 23 minutes per game. While that number will creep up to the high 20s as the season progresses, Woodson will continue to monitor his minutes.
Athletes routinely say that they are willing to do whatever it takes to help the team win, but how many of them mean it?
Stoudemire is a six-time All-Star, earning a maximum-salary contract. Not many players in his position would acquiesce to coming off the bench. Consider Pau Gasol's objection to playing a similar role for the Los Angeles Lakers.
Amar'e has gone beyond simply accepting his role. "I think he's embraced it big time," Coach Woodson said on ESPN New York 98.7 FM's Stephen A. Smith & Ryan Ruocco show on Thursday.
The transition has been more palatable for STAT because he remains on the court in crunch time. "I think the media, everybody, is so interested in who starts the game," Woodson said. "To me, it's who finishes the game, and that's where it all counts."