I've clung to the hope that Stoudemire can help 'Melo and the Knicks contend for quite some time. And I still believe that he can help them.
Watching the Knicks in STAT's absence has also made it clear that New York can win without him, so I understand the trepidation behind his inevitable return. The same return that, according to Amar'e himself, is imminent (via Ian Begley of ESPNNewYork.com):
Injured New York Knicks forward Amar'e Stoudemire believes that if his rehab progresses without a setback, he could return in the second round of the playoffs.
"If everything goes great [with rehabilitation], then I'm willing to play," Stoudemire said. "Sooner than later, hopefully, if everything continues to improve."
Stoudemire hopes to begin running full speed by the end of the week. If his knee responds well, he will progress with his rehab.
Just in case you were hoping that the Knicks wouldn't play Stoudemire if he did return, head coach Mike Woodson put an end to that speculation before it started.
"If he's able to make it back, he will be back in the rotation, ready to play," Woodson said (via Begley). "I'm expecting him to do what he was doing before he left because he played some pretty good, positive minutes for our ball club before he got hurt."
Woodson's assessment of Stoudemire before his latest injury was spot-on. In 29 games, he was averaging 14.2 points on 57.7-percent shooting. He's the only player in the NBA to be averaging at least 14 points in fewer than 24 minutes per game, and his per-36 minute averages of 21.8 points and 7.7 rebounds put him in the company of LeBron James as the only two players (minimum 20 games) to be eclipsing such marks while also shooting 55 percent or better from the field.
There's no doubt Amar'e was regaining his form before being sidelined. His footwork in the post was Hakeem Olajuwon-esque, and he was just moving well in general for someone who was operated on for a set of failing knees.
For those who understand Stoudemire, the Knicks and the situation at hand, the question was never if he would be effective, though. He's a six-time All-Star and a proven scorer. We can hate on his contract all we want, but he's an offensive juggernaut.
But could he stay healthy? And could he play alongside 'Melo? Those were the two questions the Knicks needed to ponder most.
Somehow, the first one has become a bit of a non-issue. New York wants him to stay healthy, but the team has proved they can win without him (38-15 during the regular season).
Amar'e is no longer considered a necessity. Until he can prove otherwise, he's considered a luxury. And as much as I'm inclined to believe he could emerge as a championship-caliber necessity, I'd have to agree.
The Anthony query is the real issue. These two were supposed to lead the Knicks toward a title together, but have instead spent most of their time apart or failing next to each other.
Which makes Stoudemire the hindrance. If this pairing doesn't work, it's Amar'e who will be blamed. 'Melo is on a scoring tear, and prior to the start of the playoffs, he was on an efficiency tear as well.
And the Knicks find themselves in position to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2000 as a result. Better yet, STAT finds himself in a position to return this season. It's less about him as a player then, and more about how he complements the one who brought the Knicks to where they are.
Leading into this season, such an observation didn't bode well for Amar'e. He didn't complement Anthony effectively. The Knicks outscored opponents by an average of just 0.6 points per 100 possessions when the two were on the floor together to finish out the 2010-11 campaign, and they followed that up with a minus-3.3 per 100 possessions last season.
But wait, there's more.
Per NBA.com (subscription required), Anthony went from averaging 27.8 points per 36 minutes on 45-percent shooting (36.6 from deep) without Stoudemire on the floor last season to 20.3 points on 40.9-percent shooting (30.4 from deep) with him.
The drop in scoring was understandable. With two alpha dogs on the court at once, their point totals stood to decline. But the steep decline in efficiency for 'Melo was troubling.
And now, it's still as troubling.
The Knicks are being outscored by an average 4.3 points per 100 possessions when the two are on the floor together, progressively worse compared to last season. A small sample size hasn't helped the case, but the deficit is staggering nonetheless.
Now, we're left to ask: Why bring STAT back at all? He and 'Melo have yet to deliver together, so why potentially jeopardize the team's postseason aspirations?
Because there's hope.
Anthony's numbers with Stoudemire on the floor are significantly better this year than they were last. He's averaging 28.5 points per 36 minutes without Stoudemire, and 24.8 with. Again, the scoring totals decline, like we would expect, but 'Melo is scoring 24.8 points per 36 minutes alongside Amar'e compared to the 20.8 of last season. What stands out to me, though, is his efficiency totals.
Sans Amar'e, 'Melo is shooting 37.6 percent from three. Once Stoudemire steps on the floor, this number climbs to 39.7.
"Big deal, right?" you all say sarcastically.
In this situation, it is.
Coming off the bench, Stoudemire's primary task is confusing the defense. Either it can converge on him and risk leaving one of the Knicks' (usual) four shooters open, or it can attempt to defend him one-on-one. With Anthony hitting a higher percentage of his deep balls, it means Stoudemire's presence is working, even if only slightly.
It's also worth mentioning that the two five-man lineups in which Amar'e has been used most both contain 'Melo. And these two individual units break the trend that we've established previously.
Though the Knicks are being outscored by an average of 4.3 points per 100 possessions when 'Melo and Stoudemire are on the floor together, these two particular five-man lineups combine to outscore opponents by an average of 12.6 points per 100 possessions.
I'll admit, it's a small victory. But a win's a win. I refuse to give up on this pairing until one of them isn't donning orange and blue, or we see enough of them together, in succession, to legitimately conclude otherwise.
And so long as there's hope, and numbers to back it, Stoudemire won't serve as a statistical deterrent. His presence could diminish the number of shots 'Melo takes, but it also opens up the floor for him when Woodson utilizes the two correctly.
How far will the 'Melo and Amar'e carry the Knicks if Stoudemire makes it back to the floor?
Stoudemire has the potential to make it easier on Anthony and everyone involved. And yeah, as he works through the rust, he also has the potential to create some problems.
Will he ruin 'Melo's point-totaling mojo, though? No. Anthony will get his points. He'll find ways to score. He'll remain the superstar that he is with or without Amar'e. That isn't the question. It was never the question.
"[A healthy Stoudemire] just adds one more good piece, great piece, to the puzzle back out on the floor as we continue this journey," Woodson said (via Begley).
Is this very "journey" Woodson speaks of one that will culminate in a title?
That's what has always been the question. With or without Amar'e.
*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports, 82games.com and NBA.com unless otherwise noted.