Amar'e Stoudemire was long thought to be the biggest detriment to the New York Knicks success.
His 2012-13 season was delayed by preseason knee surgery. While their $100 million project watched from the sidelines, the Knicks appeared more than capable of putting together the kind of sustained playoff run unseen by the franchise is more than a decade.
Could they find a way to reintegrate Stoudemire into the mix? And if so, could they do it without sacrificing Carmelo Anthony's refined post offense or coach Mike Woodson's inspired smothering defense?
Somehow, the Knicks have not only maintained their winning ways with Stoudemire, they might be a better team because of him.
But what has made his journey from potential disaster to season-saving contributor possible?
Well, there are several different credits for his resurgence.
Given Stoudemire's injury history and specific past ailments with his surgically-repaired knee, it was imperative that the former All-Star did everything in his power to properly see his rehabilitation process through.
Just ask the Chicago Bulls (Derrick Rose), Minnesota Timberwolves (Ricky Rubio, Kevin Love) and Los Angeles Lakers (Dwight Howard) about the importance of waiting until an injury is properly healed before returning to action.
While doctors and trainers are responsible for prescribing the best regimen for a player's full recovery, there's also a personal responsibility for the player to ensure his body is in the best shape possible to maximize the rehab efforts. To that end, credit the big man for cutting out all non-essentials in his vegan diet (via Marc Berman of the New York Post).
It purifies the red blood cells and eliminates toxins. It fortifies the blood. It helped me recover and persevere through injuries...I wanted to really give myself the best opportunity to remain healthy.
For someone who appreciates the finer offerings of fast food more than he should, I can appreciate the challenges of dedicating oneself to a strict diet. And, no, those challenges have not been easy for Stoudemire to overcome.
“It was tough,’’ Stoudemire said. “I love chicken, and I love Chilean sea bass. I missed it. But I wanted to stay strong.’’
A lot has changed since Stoudemire first burst onto the New York scene in 2010-11.
The roster has been completely retooled (with players like Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith, Tyson Chandler and Jason Kidd), and there's a new coach running the show (Mike Woodson).
But there has been one constant presence during times of success for Stoudemire: Raymond Felton.
The eighth-year point guard wasn't around for all of Stoudemire's debut season (he was one of the players needed to acquire Anthony), but spent 54 games in the Big Apple before being dealt to the Denver Nuggets.
Stoudemire was sensational in that season (25.3 points and 8.2 rebounds per game), then struggled mightily with a host of Knicks' floor generals last year (17.5 points per game).
Felton's fractured finger postponed their reunion, but the duo needed all of two games to rediscover their past chemistry. When pressed for comment on a beautifully executed drive-and-dish between the two, Stoudemire hinted to Knicks fans about more connections to come (via Al Iannazzone of Newsday).
There's going to be more of that. We're just getting started. This was only his second game back. I'm sure there's going to be more exciting plays between Raymond and myself.
Jason Kidd and Pablo Prigioni both have value in Woodson's rotation, but none means more to Stoudemire's success than Felton. Felton's a threat to score when he puts the ball on the floor (14.7 points per game), and his relentless drives open up space for Stoudemire to cut to the basket.
Fans can bemoan Stoudemire's contract all they want. (Considering his injury history and the team's $100 million commitment, there's clearly reasons to gripe.)
But no one can deny the challenges that Stoudemire has faced in his new reserve role nor the maturity he's shown through his acceptance of it.
I get it; fans don't want to hear the "woe is me" takes from multimillionaires. But anyone who thinks a six-time All-Star will readily accept a demotion is completely misguided. (Look no further than how four-time All-Star Pau Gasol has handled his benching for the Los Angeles Lakers).
No one knows exactly what scenario was presented to Stoudemire in selling him on this idea, but Woodson had long said that he thought the big man would buy into the role.
So far, Woodson's looking like a genius (and coach of the year candidate), and Stoudemire's maturity has impressed teammate Carmelo Anthony (via Frank Isola of the New York Daily News).
For him to accept a role like that, a player of his caliber, everyone knows his resume; it is very professional of him. We support him. We are having fun and it seems like he is having a lot of fun as well.
According to Stoudemire, the reasons for the adjustment has made the transition easier than it could have been.
It’s in my DNA. I’m willing to do whatever it takes to win. I’ve accomplished a lot in my career so far. So the next thing to accomplish is to win a championship and whatever it takes, whatever role I need to step into I’m totally open to it.
With Anthony's post offense and the limited offensive ability of Tyson Chandler outside of the restricted area, fans and analysts alike openly questioned where Woodson would work Stoudemire back into the fold.
Outside of the simple problems with floor spacing, there was the larger issue of finding enough touches to pacify the ball-dominant duo of Anthony and Stoudemire.
But Woodson had his own, simple approach: split the pair's minutes.
While the two have shared some court time this season, Stoudemire has grabbed the lion's share of his minutes working with Woodson's reserves. This has allowed him to remain the focal point of the offense, a role impossible when playing alongside Anthony.
It's part of the reason Stoudemire's been so incredibly efficient this season. With so many plays called specifically for him, there's been no need him to force the issue. Rather, he can pick and chose his spots, letting the best shots find him.
In his four 20-plus point outings this season, he's never needed more than 14 shots to reach that mark. Twice, he's found his way to at least 21 points on just 10 field-goal attempts—scoring 21 on 10-of-10 shooting on against the Sacramento Kings on Feb. 2, then pouring in 22 on 9-of-10 shooting against the Philadelphia 76ers on Feb. 26.
There are two crucial elements to making a minutes restriction work: team success and a player's willingness to accept his workload.
For the Knicks and Stoudemire, they've clearly got both covered.
Even after the team's recent stretch of five losses in six games, New York still holds the third-best record in the Eastern Conference (33-20). The Knicks have some daunting dates left on their schedule, but with each step taken in the recovery process for Stoudemire and Iman Shumpert, there's nothing to suggest that the Knicks will soon bottom out.
As for the second ingredient, Stoudemire sounds more than accepting of his 30-minute limit (via Zach Schonbrun of The New York Times).
“I feel strong in every aspect,” Stoudemire said. “I think the limited minutes of 30 is great for me so far. It’s really keeping me fresh, and I feel great.”
Even with an improved post game courtesy of offseason training sessions with Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon, explosiveness remains a large part of Stoudemire's offense.
While that might not seem a quality suited for great lasting power for a 30-year-old with a pair of surgically repaired knees, this limited exposure suggests that it's one that should remain in his repertoire for the near future.
With each impressive showing he puts forth, it becomes increasingly likely that Woodson might need more than 30 minutes of Stoudemire come playoff time. But instituting the minutes restriction at this point puts Stoudemire in the best position to be able to increase his workload when it's most needed.