Plenty of factors have contributed to the seven-game winning streak that has kept the New York Knicks' faintly flickering playoff hopes alive. Foremost among them, of course, is the fact that the first six victories came against teams with a combined .324 winning percentage, and the seventh came Wednesday against an Indiana Pacers side that has "been playing mediocre basketball since Martin Luther King Jr. Day passed." Still, you can only play the teams on your schedule, and the Knicks themselves have been a protest-sparking brand of bad this season against even bad teams, so let's not look a gift season-long winning streak in the mouth; some stuff's been going right for New York over the past couple of weeks, including Mike Woodson's decision to move Amar'e Stoudemire back into the starting lineup.
After operating as a reserve for the first four months of the season while operating under a minutes restriction enforced following yet another knee surgery, Stoudemire slid back into the first five for the Knicks' March 5 matchup with the Minnesota Timberwolves and provided some punch, scoring 18 points and grabbing eight rebounds in a somewhat surprising road win. He's continued to produce when given opportunities, averaging 17.3 points on 53.9 percent shooting to go with 6.2 rebounds in 27.1 minutes per game over his last six appearances (he got the night off during a win over the Boston Celtics last Wednesday).
The reshuffled starting lineup — Stoudemire alongside Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler in a big front line, alongside J.R. Smith and Raymond Felton — has been dynamite, outscoring the opposition by 44 points in 78 total minutes during the streak. The Anthony-Stoudemire-Chandler trio — much maligned in the past as a troika that wouldn't work due to overlapping areas of offensive effectiveness and the difficulties of Melo and STAT — has been even better, besting opponents by an average of 28.1 points per 100 possessions during the streak, according to NBA.com's stat tool. The ball's been moving, open shots have been created and taken, and settling/stagnation's been at a minimum; after a year where hardly anything's looked like what Knicks fans envisioned coming off an Atlantic Division-winning 2012-13 campaign, this has been a bit more like what might have been in New York's mind's eye when the stars first aligned.
Even so, this surely isn't what Stoudemire envisioned when he decided to jump from Arizona to the Big Apple in the summer of 2010, inking a five-year, $99.7 million contract that insurance wouldn't cover (those damned knees) and proudly proclaiming that the Knicks were "back." He was supposed to be the signature star, the one hearing M-V-P chants, and for a second there, he was. Then, the Melo trade and the attendant awkwardness as the two All-Stars began figuring out how to work together. Then, the back spasms that scuttled his Knicks postseason debut, jacked him up throughout the summer of 2011 and left him looking like a shell of himself for most of the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season. Then, his brother's death, and more back problems, and the fire extinguisher. Then, three more knee surgeries, more time lost to an ankle sprain, and on, and on.
Through it all, though, Stoudemire's worked, accepting a move to the bench for the betterment of the team, putting in the hours with Hakeem Olajuwon to revamp his post game, and changing up his diet to give himself the best possible chance of maximizing whatever minutes he'd get. The result has been a player who's mostly offered instant offense when called upon (20 points on 56.2 percent shooting and just under six free throws per 36 minutes over the past two years), albeit one who gives up nearly as much (if not more) on the other end, often in spectacular fashion. When available, he's filled a role, and he's never stopped trying to make himself available.
What's kept the fire burning even amid all these setbacks? As Stoudemire told Bleacher Report's Jared Zwerling during an in-depth dinnertime chat, he's still got his eyes on enshrinement in Springfield:
I think every great player has a goal, a vision, of what they want to be. And when hiccups happen from an injury standpoint, you can't let that take you off track. It may reduce the time of you getting there, but you just can't say, "I can't achieve that any more." My goal is to become a Hall of Famer. I want to keep working and keep training and focus on getting better and being a great teammate and winning, so I can eventually get to that goal. That's what fueled me to keep fighting and keep achieving.
On its face, it's difficult to picture Stoudemire as a Hall of Famer, because we've spent the bulk of the last three years talking about what a hollowed husk of a player he's become, how sad it is that he's been so snakebitten, and how depressing it is that stuff like 12-point STAT performances get social media shoutouts. As Stoudemire said to Zwerling, "When I was hurt, I think people kind of forgot about my talents and what I have accomplished."
When you think about those talents and those accomplishments, though ... it's not really all that crazy.
Stoudemire's a six-time All-Star (five as a member of the Phoenix Suns, one in his first year in New York), including five straight selections from 2007 through 2011. He's made five All-NBA teams, including a first-team selection in 2006-07. He was the 2002-03 Rookie of the Year, has finished in the top 10 in the league in scoring four times, ranks 44th in NBA history in points per game, and currently sits in the top 30 all-time in field-goal percentage, Player Efficiency Rating and true shooting percentage (which takes into account a player's accuracy on field goals, 3-pointers and free throws). His teams have made the playoffs in eight of his 12 years, with Stoudemire turning in monster performances in '04-'05 and '06-'07.
And while it's hard to remember now, there was absolutely a time where Stoudemire's combination of explosive athleticism, increasing range and advancing understanding of how to attack defenses designed to stop him made him one of the league's most dangerous offensive players. He might never have been the unquestioned best player at his position during an era where Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett also lined up at the four, but he was certainly in the conversation for a few years in the mid-to-late 2000s, and he had the numbers and accolades to prove it.
The problem, though, is that he probably doesn't have enough of the numbers and accolades to prove it. The "Seven Seconds or Less" Suns teams never broke through the Western Conference Finals and into the championship round, so there's no rings to be referenced here. Stoudemire finished in the top 10 in MVP voting four times, but never finished in the top five in a single season, topping out at sixth in 2007-08, when Kobe Bryant took home the Podoloff. His career-long inability to do much on defense besides block shots matters; while Amar'e might have been equal (or even, at times, superior) to Duncan and Garnett on the offensive end during his prime, he was always a defensive sieve, which (paired with the defensive shortcomings of run-and-gun running buddy Steve Nash) made it exceedingly difficult for Mike D'Antoni and his staff to build anything more than a middling defense in Phoenix.
Plus, the injuries that cost him large swaths of five separate seasons between ages 21 and 29 have depressed his scoring numbers. He's currently 130th on the all-time NBA scoring list, 25th among active players, and unlikely to reach the kind of career scoring benchmark that make you all but a shoo-in. Twenty-six of the 39 players with 20,000 NBA points are in the Hall, and nine who aren't yet — Kobe, Shaquille O'Neal, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Tim Duncan, Ray Allen, Allen Iverson, LeBron James — are just about sure things when their numbers come up. (And then there's Vince Carter, Mitch Richmond, Tom Chambers and Antawn Jamison.) Barring a shocking late-career run of health and unanticipated longevity, Amar'e — sitting at 14,819 — likely won't get anywhere close to that mark, which matters when your primary contributions have always come as a scorer.
For what it's worth, Basketball-Reference.com's handy Hall of Fame Probability Index has Stoudemire's chances of enshrinement in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame at just under 46 percent, nestled between former teammate and a end-of-the-line-reacher Nash and the (hopefully) still-rising Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Just south of a coin-flip feels about right for a player who was undoubtedly one of the league's most dominant offensive forces for about six years or so, but whose impact was limited by forces both in his control (his defense) and outside it (his injuries).
Regardless of the likelihood that he'll one day have a bust in Springfield, Stoudemire's commitment to single-minded preparation aimed at reaching that goal — "My job is to stay healthy and dominate whenever I'm on the basketball court, period" — has once again made him a valuable piece of the puzzle for a New York team fighting for its postseason life, trailing the Atlanta Hawks by four games for the No. 8 seed with 14 games left. But like the rest of the Knicks organization these days, Stoudemire also has one eye on what might come after this season, too. More from Zwerling:
I want to be a Knick for life and win multiple championships here. I don't want to go anywhere else, especially with [Phil] Jackson coming in. He has an incredible legacy; it's probably unmatched. With a leader like that, it can only become a positive output with that type of leadership. He's been around great organizations, from Chicago to L.A., so now joining us with the Knicks, it's great to see. Regarding the Triangle offense, it's funny because I've been hearing that it would be great for me for the past six years. It could be possible that we implement the Triangle offense, and I just can't wait to perfect whatever system we're going to be in. I'm ready to get to work now.
I want to play until I can't walk any more, to be honest with you. I'm only 31 and I just love the game that much. I feel like now I have a good grasp on how to go into the season, and how to manage my time and manage my body a lot better than I have in the past. [...]
I think the near future is very bright because we have a great nucleus with Tyson and Carmelo and myself, and now Phil Jackson [...] That's why I don't want to leave. I want to be here for the long haul and do whatever it takes to win, so whatever sacrifices I have to make, I will be willing to make them.
He's certainly proven himself willing to do so during a four-year stretch that's seen him go from MVP chants to monitored minutes, with an awful lot of pitfalls in between. Here's hoping that Stoudemire's recent run of form, and good health, continues for the foreseeable future; not only would I love to see him stave off immobility as long as possible after all these setbacks and false starts, but it'd be great to see him make up for lost time, buckets-wise, and maybe help bolster that more-curious-than-you-might-think Hall case.
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