The New York Knicks are not getting anywhere near the 2014 NBA Finals without Amar’e Stoudemire’s help, but Mike Woodson and the team are going to have to figure out where to stick him.
For one thing, the Knicks are stuck with Stoudemire. They have to maximize his contributions, because—given Carmelo Anthony's and the usual suspects' play—that is where New York’s greatest potential uptick lies.
There’s nowhere else to look, really.
This salary-capped roster needs more just to get to the Eastern Conference Finals.
It’s not going to come from the draft, almost certainly not from a trade, and free agency on-the-cheap will only nudge New York forward a bit (or simply prevent a backslide in an ever-more competitive East).
Amar’e is the best X-factor the Knicks will have to work with next season. He is their biggest unknown.
It’s not solely about health, although clearly that’s the big issue.
Don’t forget he can’t work himself in with Anthony and Tyson Chandler on the court all too well when he’s feeling good, anyway.
And with those knees as fragile as ever, Stoudemire’s rebounding days are mostly behind him, so forget about the glass.
Bar-raising impacts could come from elsewhere: J.R. Smith could help by upping his shooting accuracy and exhibiting some consistency; Raymond Felton could distinguish himself after a disappointing 2012-13 and bottom-half-of-the-league point guard performance; Iman Shumpert should continue to develop; Tyson Chandler could add an actual offensive play other than a put-back to his game (heaven forbid!); and so on.
But no impact would be as great as a healthy Amar’e Stoudemire playing most of the season, clocking 25-30 minutes in select games, finding his New York niche and getting to a nice 20-plus points per 36 minutes average.
It would almost be as if the Knicks had traded for that impact player.
The evidence of an Amar’e impact, though not obvious, was there in 2012-13.
The Knicks were 16-13 (.552) in games Stoudemire played. That’s not very good, compared to New York’s final record of 54-28 (.659).
However, when Stoudemire scored in double-figures (10 points or more), the Knicks were 16-8 (.667)—better than the regular season, but not by much.
When Stoudemire scored more than 15 points, though, the Knicks were suddenly 8-3 (.727). Now we’re talking.
Can 70 percent of the old Stoudemire consistently score more than 15 points, assuming he can stay on the court?
Mathematically? Yes, based on his non-injured seasons' career points average (about 22 PPG, 70 percent of which is 15.4).
Realistically? In those 11 games, Stoudemire averaged 26 minutes a game. Can he do that in 2013-14?
There are ways.
To begin, huge salary or not, Amar’e must continue to come off the bench, rarely start, barely play in either-way runaways and sacrifice minutes on the second of back-to-back nights. These are the health-protective measures Woodson needs to take.
Where to squeeze him in, though?
Assuming Amar’e can play 25 minutes in close contests, it is impossible not to have him and Anthony (37 MPG) share the court quite a bit.
When this happens, Stoudemire has two things to do: post-up to rescue Anthony and perimeter shooters from double-teams or trouble (he would need some Woodson-enforced Anthony cooperation for this) and set up for the pick-and-roll if the backcourt brings up the ball.
In both cases, Chandler’s role is to work the offensive boards. The Knicks will likely bring in some big-man help this offseason to work the inside and cover defense when Chandler sits.
Stoudemire doesn’t have to play aggressive defense and shouldn’t, as that could possibly shorten his season.
When Anthony is sitting, Stoudemire can play a similar role with J.R. Smith (assuming he returns) taking the scoring reigns. Again, coach-induced discipline, if possible with J.R., requires Smith to look for an open Amar’e when the situation calls for it.
It’s important to note Stoudemire shot 57 percent last season—the second-best mark of his career. So, he still has the touch and is a serious second-scoring option—a more secure one than Smith much of the time.
What if Smith starts alongside Anthony? That’s a reasonable twist.
Even better for the Knicks.
Stoudemire can (2010-11 style) once again be the focus of the offense. He is still capable of scoring 20 a game regularly when he gets the time.
One way or another, on the court or injured again, offensive focus or not, second-option or third, Amar’e Stoudemire has more to do with whether the Knicks can reach the next level in 2013-14 than anyone else on the team.
If he’s out most of the season again, expect a repeat of 2012-13, or worse.