This begs the question: Will NBA fans remember the oft-injured big man as an embarrassment or a game-changer?
To a certain degree, it’s a matter of memory. If you were watching Stoudemire during his glory years with the Phoenix Suns, he was one of the league’s elite players, possessed of a remarkable athleticism and skill to finish around the basket. In 2010, Stoudemire parlayed that dominant stretch in Phoenix into a five-year, $100 million free-agent deal with the New York Knicks.
By most accounts, the deal hasn’t really paid off. Still, you wouldn’t know it from a recent article in the New York Post by Mike Vaccaro, in which Knicks owner James Dolan dismissed the notion of redoing the deal if he could do it all over again:
Nope...We would not be where we are today without Amar’e. That summer, the summer of “The Decision,” there were a whole bunch of free agents, and the guys put their thing together in Miami, and Amar’e agreed to come to the Knicks, gave us a launch pad by which we could convince the other guys like Tyson [Chandler] to come, and ultimately Carmelo to come play with us. Do I think Carmelo would have come if we didn’t have Amar’e? No, I don’t think he would’ve.
Stoudemire had one great season with the Knicks—his first one, when he averaged 25.3 points per game and started all 78 games in which he played. And then, things began to go south. He played 47 games the following season and 29 the one after that. He went through three knee surgeries within a one-year period, and there’s also the history of a dreaded microfracture procedure early in his career in 2005.
The Knicks knew what they were getting in Stoudemire; they went in with eyes wide open and accepted the risks. The All-Star was already on a minutes restriction in Phoenix, and his action has become increasingly limited in New York—the center has been coming off the bench this season for just 17.8 minutes per game. He’s averaging 7.9 points and 3.5 boards, a mere shell of his former self.
A guy who once played semifunctional defense now looks like this:
It’s all well and good for Dolan to defend Stoudemire’s contract; it’s a little hard to imagine the Knicks owner actually admitting any mistakes. The plain truth, however, is that it’s one of the worst, most immovable albatrosses in sports.
And, the Knicks are paying the price in more ways than just payroll.
With few good options left for improving its team's season, Knicks management is exploring various trade scenarios, but you can rest assured that Stoudemire won’t be involved. Nobody in his right mind is looking to take on the rest of that contract.
As for the Knicks’ amnesty provision, it was already used on Chauncey Billups in 2011.
Still, with the Knicks in a free fall, Stoudemire has recently been pressed into increased duty, and if the situation seems precarious, it’s because we’ve been down this road before.
I'm pretty surprised Amar'e is playing tonight. The last time he played four games in five nights, he underwent surgery days later. #Knicks— Ian Begley (@IanBegley) December 14, 2013
Having his minutes limit removed could be dangerous, but it has also been liberating for Stoudemire. Per Jonathan Topaz for KnickerBlogger.Net:
But these past four games, particularly last night, he’s looked like a different guy. He was active, springy. His help defense, a major liability his entire career, was phenomenal, particularly in the second quarter. He hit several of his patented elbow-extended jumpers and made the Bulls pay on the low block. In the first half, he finished with 10 points and two rebounds on 5-7 shooting, a +13 in just 13 minutes.
He wants it back so badly. All of it. The explosiveness, the dominance, the athleticism, the love from the fans, the relevance. He’s gone through so much in an effort to get back. And it’s breathtaking and beautiful and heartbreaking to see him try.
Stoudemire has heard his share of boos at Madison Square Garden this season. How he’s ultimately remembered in this game is still an unwritten story. He has certainly been a game-changer during his years in the NBA, and on a good night, he can still make a difference.
With a win against the Atlanta Hawks on Saturday night, Stoudemire has played four games in five nights. It’s way over his minutes limit but not necessarily a lot for a game-changer. You can play devil’s advocate and point out that his minutes restrictions go back to the Suns days, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s simply not the fearless high-flying act who once dominated the paint on a nightly basis.
In his prime, he was a beast, plain and simple. Drafted out of high school, Stoudemire was the 2003 NBA Rookie of the Year. He was a six-time All-Star and teamed up with Steve Nash to lead the Suns to a 62-20 record during the 2004-05 season. As part of Mike D’Antoni’s dizzying “seven seconds or less” offense, Stoudemire redefined how big men played in the NBA.
And then came the injuries.
Nobody can take the halcyon days in Phoenix away from him, but history may well judge him for an entire career, not just highlight reels.
Sometimes you want to give the benefit of the doubt to an athlete who was once so good, so relevant. In the bigger picture, however, Stoudemire is who he is at this stage of his career. His biggest saving grace is probably that the Knicks, on the whole, are so utterly wretched.
Time and the cumulative effect of injuries cannot be denied, of course. For now, Stoudemire is gritting through the pain and willfully contributing to a team that is having a plain lousy season. There are still some diehard fans who want him to succeed, who will watch and hold their breath every time his feet clear the ground, hoping for the best.
Time can erase some of the lesser memories for sports fans—you want to remember athletes when they played like giants. It would be nice to imagine that history will treat Stoudemire well.
The smart money, however, would favor putting all your chips on the square marked “embarrassment.”