Amar'e Stoudemire has spent the past week and a half on Hakeem Olajuwon's 550-acre ranch in Katy, Texas, working with the Hall of Famer on low-post moves (via Howard Beck of the New York Times).
While a post-up game would be a nice addition to Stoudemire's arsenal, scoring with his back to the basket should not be STAT's first priority this offseason. For Stoudemire to help the Knicks become title contenders, defense must come first.
With his athleticism and leaping ability, Amar'e should be an above-average defender, but the power forward was a defensive liability for the Knicks last season. He has been throughout his career in New York and with the Phoenix Suns before that.
His shortcomings on that end of the floor extend to all aspects of individual and team defense: He has trouble staying with offensive players in isolation situations, does not body up on big men in the post, struggles to contest jump shots, fails to cover for his teammates and is lackadaisical in defending the pick-and-roll.
There are a number of reasons for his defensive deficiencies. At times it is difficult to determine if his improper technique is due to insufficient coaching or poor instincts.
He entered the NBA straight out of high school, months shy of his 20th birthday, and did not learn the fundamentals of the game at the college level. Then he has spent almost his entire professional career playing in a Mike D'Antoni system in which defense took a back seat to offensive production.
His poor technique is never more evident than when he is covering the screener on a pick-and-roll. The Knicks' big man routinely trails his man into the pick, instead of hedging so that the ball-handler can not turn the corner or split the two defenders and get to the basket. The Miami Heat exploited this hole in Amar'e and the Knicks defense when the two teams met in the playoffs.
Stoudemire takes poor angles when he is defending in isolation and is often unable to rotate and help his teammates when they are beaten off the dribble because he is out of position. Back injuries over the past two seasons have sapped some of his mobility, exacerbating his defensive weaknesses.
STAT also does not bring the same intensity to the defensive end of the floor. There are times when he sprints down the floor for a crowd-pleasing block from behind, but that type of effort is not consistent. He also experiences occasional mental lapses.
Far too often, his man cuts to the basket for an uncontested dunk because Amar'e took his eyes off of him. Rarely do you see him bend his knees or slide his feet laterally when the man he's covering makes a move. Even if Mike D'Antoni did not emphasize those basic principles, his successor Mike Woodson certainly did.
When Woodson took over as the Knicks coach with 24 games left in the season, he made it clear that defense would be the top priority. Led by Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler and rookie standout Iman Shumpert, New York improved dramatically on that end of the floor.
In order to contend with the Miami Heat, they need to continue to improve defensively. As great of a defender as Chandler is, Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony need to lead the charge. Woodson told Stoudemire and Carmelo so during their exit interviews at the end of the season.
I don't mean to suggest that Amar'e should not be working on his low-post moves. There's no better teacher than the fleet-footed Olajuwon. Stoudemire never needed to play with his back to the basket in D'Antoni's pick-and-roll-based "seven seconds or less" offense.
A post game would provide Stoudemire with a new scoring option, especially as his quickness and mobility diminish. It would add a new dimension to the Knicks offense and provide the added benefit of taking the ball out of Anthony's hands at times.
It is also commendable that Amar'e is willing put in the time during the summer to improve his game. He worked tirelessly on his jump shot earlier in his career. Now it's his post game.
However, as disappointing as Amar'e's offense was last season—his 17.5 points per game was his lowest average since his rookie season—it was his defense which let the team down. That should be the focus of his workouts with Olajuwon, a two-time Defensive Player of the Year.
Amar'e can do all the spin moves and "Dream Shakes" he wants, but if his defense doesn't improve, the Knicks are headed for another first-round playoff exit.