GREENBURGH, N.Y. — After the New York Knicks' practice on Tuesday—the last one before their first preseason game on Wednesday night against the Boston Celtics—Amar'e Stoudemire spent about 30 minutes working on post-up and off-the-dribble moves with a team trainer.
Afterward, Stoudemire stepped into the Knicks press room and sat down to address reporters for the first time since media day. But he needed a second more to catch his breath.
"Give me a sec," he said to the first journalist who asked him a question. He put his head down, wiped his forehead and massive arms glistening with sweat, and then finished off a fruit punch-flavored Powerade. Then, just a minute or two later, the Knicks brought him a post-recovery shake.
A visibly winded Stoudemire said Tuesday's combination of cardio and basketball drills was the "hardest day for sure, by far."
"The running part was probably about the same," he said, "but more basketball work, more explosiveness today for a longer amount of time. I couldn't be more pleased with the progress right now. I'm still getting my legs (and quads) stronger to withstand the pressure playing, but progress has been great so far."
In addition to increasing his workload with the team, Stoudemire has been training privately one-on-one with Idan Ravin post-practice inside the team facility, according to a source close to the team. Ravin, who's a trainer to the stars such as Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and Dwight Howard, has also worked with Knicks players Carmelo Anthony and brothers J.R. and Chris Smith. Ravin specializes in unorthodox and spontaneous court exercises for skills and conditioning development (some drills take a rapid-fire approach utilizing tennis balls) and providing humbling psychological advice.
According to a source close to Stoudemire, the Knicks power forward didn't do as much running this summer to preserve his two surgically repaired knees, including his right one that had a minor clean-out operation in July. Now, Stoudemire is ramping up his on-court work to try and get ready for the season.
"He’s listening to (Knicks Director of Player Care) Dr. (Lisa) Callahan on (precautionary measures), and whatever she wants him to do, he does it," the source said. "He did a lot of track last summer to strengthen his legs. He did a lot more swimming this summer and stayed off his legs a lot more, and I think that will help a lot. He was doing a lot of laps and pool exercises.
"If this season means fewer minutes or no back-to-backs, he’s open to all of that. He’ll do whatever it takes to bring a championship to New York.”
The biggest question is: When will Amar'e Stoudemire make his season debut? Coach Mike Woodson doesn't have an answer yet, as Stoudemire will be missing the Knicks' first three preseason games—and likely more.
"I don't know the timetable with STAT, but he hasn't had any setbacks so far, which is kind of nice," Woodson said. "We're still trying to get his legs back up under him, so he's doing the AlterG (Anti-Gravity Treadmill) and doing a little bit of running, but not much. He's doing some shooting, but the timetable I don't know."
Even many within the Knicks organization apparently don't have a clue.
"He's looking good, but (the Knicks) don't tell anyone about his timetable," the source close to the team said. "They keep it very secretive. There's a lot of hush-hush over Amar'e."
A source close to Knicks management believes the team is quiet about Stoudemire's return so they're careful not to create a "false sense of hope," as they've already been down the injury road with him before. Make that three times now in the past year.
The source also said Stoudemire's ongoing injury situation, along with J.R. Smith's controversial signing this summer while he was hurt, created some uneasiness within the organization, which carried over to the public's eye. The source said that might have led to Steve Mills' hiring as GM and Mike Woodson getting his contract option picked up—both before the season—to create somewhat of a fresh start.
Still, though, even while Stoudemire is in recovery mode, there is a cloud of doubt over his playing future in New York.
"(Former GM Glen) Grunwald should have never had been demoted—the Knicks had one of their most exciting seasons in a long time last year—but it was a combination of Amar'e and signing J.R. when he was hurt, too," the source stated. "When you go out and you come out short, it’s going to fall on somebody’s shoulders. They amnestied the wrong guy (Chauncey Billups in 2011), knowing that (Stoudemire) was already hurt."
Looking ahead for the next two years, the Knicks will very likely still be managing a healthy or injured Stoudemire. Under collective bargaining agreement (CBA) rules, the team can't restructure his contract, and if they ever decide to waive him—if he gets significantly hurt again, let's say—they would still have to sign him a check for his $21.7 million salary this season. Keep in mind that they would also owe him money for 2014-15.
Therefore, using the CBA's stretch provision after a waive is made, they would have to pay Stoudemire about $15 million in 2014-15 and then about $8 million in 2015-16 (all equaling his 2014-15 salary). That $15 million—along with Anthony's $23.5 million in 2014-15 (if he decides to opt in next year)—would still put the Knicks over the salary cap and, therefore, in a financial conundrum.
Stoudemire does have an early termination clause in his contract next year, but why would he ever forgo $23.4 million in 2014-15, especially when any interested team would likely want to sign him for cheap? The only way his contract would be cleared from team salary is if an NBA-appointed physician diagnosed him with a career-ending injury. But even then, if that happened this season, the Knicks couldn't apply for a salary exclusion until 2014-15.
In a nutshell, as salary cap expert Larry Coon told Bleacher Report, "The Knicks are a team not planning to have cap room before 2014-15," which is when Stoudemire, Anthony, Tyson Chandler and Andrea Bargnani all come off the books.
All four of them need to be pain-free for the Knicks to make a run at the Eastern Conference Finals—at least—but Anthony wonders if Stoudemire will ever be 100 percent healthy again.
"Yeah, I think about it. I think about it sometimes," Melo conceded. "He was one of the reasons why I wanted to come to New York. So for me not to have that chance, the opportunity to get a full season in and get a rhythm going with him, it's not something I thought would happen."
"To see him go forward and then take some steps back every time, it's just sad."
But there is still optimism surrounding the 6'11" big man. For starters, the source close to STAT said the 30-year-old (turns 31 mid-November) has set aside his off-the-court entertainment, fashion and other business ventures, which usually takes up a good chunk of his time.
“His main focus is basketball right now," the source said.
Second, Stoudemire said the Knicks aren't pushing him to return to actual games, and the man himself said he can "absolutely" find his groove as the All-Star player he once was—but just in limited minutes. That's to regulate his knees, while he can still produce.
"Both are very important to get back to the top of my game and also prolong my career," Stoudemire stated. "The goal is to be very efficient as I always have been in my career. And if I play 20, 25 minutes a night, I look forward to being a high-caliber player and being very efficient and bringing a lot to the table."
Another positive development is that Stoudemire hasn't been experiencing soreness in his knees. The key, though, is how he'll feel once he takes contact and participates in routine scrimmages. He said that could happen next week, a sign that STAT, one of the hardest workers in the league, is progressing well.
Stoudemire also said he's added new post-up moves to his repertoire, which will be key for the Knicks to shake up their jump shooting-centric offense and give them more of a scoring punch inside against the bigger teams in the Eastern Conference. What will also be a boost is if he can provide consistent interior defense and rebounding, with Chandler really being the team's only true center.
If you recall, Amar'e Stoudemire started in the middle in his first season in New York (2010-11) and played well on both sides of the ball, taking advantage of slower mismatches. Perhaps Stoudemire eventually becomes Chandler's backup, especially if Bargnani starts alongside Anthony. Woodson has preferred that pairing in recent practices.
Do you think Stoudemire can come back to form this season, even if in limited minutes?
Reflecting on his injuries, Stoudemire said "hopefully this time will be the last time." He's ready to build on the playing relationship everyone wanted to see blossom with Anthony, but which is now fading away. While one player (Anthony) continues to evolve, and the other (Stoudemire) has shown some erosion, perhaps there are some highlight-worthy pick-and-roll connections still left between the two of them.
Stoudemire believes more success is on its way.
"Since I've been in New York, we've made great progress for the organization," he said. "We are a team to watch, we have more TV games now than we had before. But on top of that, we've been to the postseason every single year, and that was the part of my goal of coming here—to build something that would allow us to improve.
"Unfortunately, injuries played a factor since I've been here after my first year, but I do envision myself getting healthy and being able to dominate as I once did before."