Amar'e Stoudemire is playing less than half a game for the New York Knicks and is often relegated to the bench in crunch time.
With Mike Woodson's team in need of a reliable second scorer, it is time for the coach to increase Amar'e's playing time.
Stoudemire was sidelined for the first 30 games of the season after surgery on his left knee. Upon his return, the Knicks medical staff capped his playing time at 30 minutes. Through 27 games, he is averaging well below that, at 23 minutes per game.
His health and offensive efficiency suggest that he should be playing much more.
"STAT" (which stands for Standing Tall and Talented) is averaging 13.9 points per game, or 21.7 per 36 minutes, according to basketball-reference.com, on 59 percent shooting. Those numbers undersell his recent contributions to the team, because it took him about a dozen games to get into playing shape.
Over his past 20 games, Amar'e has averaged 15.5 points, on 63 percent shooting, in 23.9 minutes (via NBA.com—login required). In his last five, he has shot a blistering 75 percent, while scoring 16.4 points per game in 23.8 minutes of play.
Furthermore, Stoudemire has fit in nicely with Tyson Chandler and Carmelo Anthony on the front line. In years past, Amar'e was primary a pick-and-roll player. This year, he is operating on the block, where he has used his quickness and new post moves to bully his way to the hoop.
STAT has also transformed from a hindrance to an asset in pick-and-roll plays with Chandler. Instead of spotting up at the elbow, he lingers on the baseline, where his timely cuts have led to several easy dunks.
The Knicks have an offensive rating of 115.5 when Stoudemire, Chandler and Anthony are on the court together, compared to 108.2 overall. Their offensive rebounding rate—a weakness for Mike Woodson's club—jumps from 26.2 percent to 31.6 (via NBA.com) when the three are in the game.
Stoudemire has been coming off the bench since he returned from injury, and Woodson seems inclined to keep him in that role. With Carmelo out for the Knicks game against the Detroit Pistons on March 6, the coach chose to start little-used veteran Kurt Thomas over Amar'e.
There is no need to move STAT into the starting lineup. The six-time All-Star has accepted his role and enters the game midway through the first quarter anyway.
As the expression goes, "It's not so important who starts the game, but who finishes it." But Stoudemire is not getting enough playing time at the end of games.
STAT was on the bench for the final 7:56 of the Knicks' 99-93 loss to the Miami Heat on March 3, despite shooting 5-of-7 from the field for 12 points and having logged just 21 minutes.
There are two main reasons for Woodson's reluctance to play Stoudemire down the stretch: the Knicks' success with a small lineup and Stoudemire's poor defense.
New York played its best basketball this season with a three-guard lineup. That formula carried the Knicks to an 18-5 record.
Carmelo Anthony thrives at the 4 (Stoudemire's position), where he can use his quickness against bigger defenders. When he is double-teamed, he kicks it out to one of the Knicks' shooters for a three.
However, the shots have stopped falling for the Knicks guards. Jason Kidd is in the midst of a dreadful slump. Iman Shumpert is shooting 31 percent from the field, and Raymond Felton has not been the same since returning from a broken finger.
Woodson was also forced to play small for most of the season because of a dearth of big men, due to injuries to Rasheed Wallace and Marcus Camby. With Camby back and Kenyon Martin in the mix, New York can go big.
Defensively, Amar'e has shown some improvement this season, but he will always be a liability on that end of the floor. Teams will continue to attack him in isolation and pick-and-rolls.
However, his offensive prowess outweighs his defensive shortcomings. The Knicks need a second reliable scorer against great defensive teams like the Miami Heat.
Woodson admitted on ESPN Radio 98.7 FM on March 4 that he should have played Stoudemire down the stretch against the Heat. He explained that he opted to go with a small lineup in order to match up with Miami. He did not want STAT to have to guard Shane Battier on the perimeter.
The flip side of Stoudemire defending a smaller player like Battier is that Battier has to contend with him on the low block.
Woodson may be forced to play Stoudemire more minutes in the immediate future because of an injury to Anthony. Melo left the game against the Cleveland Cavaliers on March 4 with stiffness in his right knee.
Stoudemire played 32 minutes against the Cavaliers and 31 minutes in the Knicks' victory over the Detroit Pistons on March 6, without Anthony in the lineup.
Woodson must continue to play Stoudemire close to his 30-minute limit when Anthony returns. The Knicks need his scoring ability in order to make a run in the postseason. By augmenting his minutes now, STAT will be accustomed to playing a larger role come playoff time.