In a season chock full of controversy and corrosive Catch-22s, one conundrum in particular has left the New York Knicks and their fans grasping for answers: What to do with Amar’e Stoudemire?
Following a summer in which the 31-year-old underwent yet another knee procedure, Stoudemire’s early production has been a constant source of concern for the reeling Knicks. Through 12 games, STAT’s numbers have cratered to career-lows on just about every front, including minutes (14.5 per game), points (five), rebounds (2.9), field goal percentage (44 percent) and player efficiency (a woeful 8.5), just to name a few. (Stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com.)
It’s a far cry from where Stoudemire found himself just two short years ago: coming off one of his best all-around statistical seasons and with his team—buttressed down low by fellow perennial All-Star Carmelo Anthony and certified Heat-beater Tyson Chandler—looking suddenly, excitingly relevant again.
But the pieces never quite fit, and with the future of all three suddenly in flux, it’s safe to wonder whether the current instantiation of the Knicks is doomed to live, and lose, on borrowed time.
Chandler’s broken right leg—sustained early in a 102-97 home loss to the Charlotte Bobcats on November 5—certainly hasn’t helped STAT's cause, as the Knicks have failed to find anything resembling a stopgap facsimile for the one-time Defensive Player of the Year.
All the while, and despite Stoudemire himself making cases to the contrary, Mike Woodson’s minutes restrictions have been wielded according to a twofold premise: A rusty Amar'e hurts the team defensively, and holding him back will pay dividends down the road, should the Knicks right the ship and sail into the postseason.
A quick glance at some of his more incendiary offensive displays from this season's early going—however few and far between—certainly helps one appreciate where STAT is coming from in this respect.
These are not the movements of a player who’s completely washed up—at least offensively. The gazelle-like open court gait, the spry movements, the quick leaping ability: All of Stoudemire’s physical superlatives are there, albeit in teasing miniature.
But the chief contention with STAT’s game has always been about what goes on at the other end of the floor. Or, rather, what doesn’t go on. To be sure, there are enough of these to fill a weekend film festival, a fact that gives Mike Woodson all the philosophical cover necessary to continue burying him on the bench.
Still, a quick look at the Knicks’ most oft-used lineups from just a season ago shows that, with the right pieces around him, Stoudemire’s defensive limitations can be rendered almost benign. Of the 10 Knick lineups that logged 50 minutes or more, two included STAT. Of those two, the unit of Raymond Felton, JR Smith, Anthony, Chandler and Stoudemire registered a net rating (the difference between a unit or team’s offensive and defensive efficiency) of plus-0.2 in 120 minutes—as close to a statistical wash as you can get.
The second lineup, however, reveals a much different picture of productivity: Jason Kidd, Smith, Anthony, Stoudemire and Chandler tallied a plus-20.6 in 57 minutes, the second most prolific five-man, 50-plus minute unit the Knicks trotted out last year.
|Felton, Smith, Anthony, Stoudemire, Chandler||116.7||96.2||+20.5|
|Kidd, Smith, Anthony, Stoudemire, Chandler||112||111.8||+0.2|
Beyond the point guards, both lineups are essentially the same, personnel-wise. Why, then, the stark difference in productivity? The disparate defensive efficiencies between the two point guards provide an instructive point of departure: Jason Kidd tallied a 103 defensive efficiency last season (decent, though by no means great), while Raymond Felton registered a worrisome 108 (he’s currently at 109 so far this season).
When the Knicks lost Jason Kidd to retirement (and, eventually, a rival call-up) following last season, they weren’t simply bidding adieu to a locker room leader and wily basketball mind; they were losing of the league’s most deceptively effective two-way perimeter cogs—the kind that can help stabilize Mike Woodson’s much-criticized switch-on-just-about-everything defensive philosophy and, as a result, help ease the burden of double-teams and switches down low.
With Kidd gone and the team’s chemistry quickly buckling, it stands to reason that Stoudemire would suffer much more than most, particularly on the defensive end.
But Woodson’s decision to limit Amare’s playing time carries with it another, more ancillary risk: The deeper he gets buried, the more unlikely that STAT—owed more than $45 million over the next two seasons—gets moved ahead of his impending 2015 free agency.
Indeed, Stoudemire’s sudden decline makes for a fascinating case study of NBA trade philosophies. Playing STAT for longer stretches could entice a potential trade suitor to roll the dice on one year of decent (if one-sided) productivity, meaning the Knicks could minimize the impact of Amare’s onerous contract sooner than later. On the other hand, more minutes means more of Stoudemire’s certifiably putrid defense and, potentially, awkward offensive lineups as well.
Which invites the questions: Can the Knicks afford such experimentation—and the defensive collapses and losses that might well mount as a result—for the sake of long-term flexibility? Or are they better off stashing STAT in hopes of cobbling together more consistent basketball chemistry? Will either strategy work?
When it comes to the two’s quiet war of words—Amare’s insistence that forging a consistent flow in five spot minutes is all but impossible and Woodson’s make-the-most-of-it refrain—both are right. But being right and winning games are two very, very different things.
Fair or not, Woodson's coaching seat is starting to simmer. And while the Knicks must correct a slew of issues on both sides of the ball if they hope to start rattling off wins, Woodson simply can't afford to lose a locker room so imbued with star power. Suiting Stoudemire up for extended minutes, though risky in terms of defensive effectiveness, could go a long way in helping instill some much-needed confidence not only in STAT himself but in his teammates as well.
It’s better than the alternative: Standing stubbornly by while STAT racks up DNPs and the Knicks’ Big Three gamble draws closer to going out not with a banner, but a whimper.