Amar'e Stoudemire shows how much he has to learn. (Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports)
When Amar'e Stoudemire made his 2012-13 season debut with the New York Knicks in the team's New Year's Day loss to the Portland Trail Blazers, he didn't exactly look great on defense. This is not surprising; as NBA.com's John Schuhmann (among others) noted, defensive breakdowns have been the rule rather than the exception throughout Stoudemire's NBA career. For all his scoring talents and athletic ability, even at the pre-injury peak of his powers with the Phoenix Suns, Stoudemire has just never been an aware or adept defender, much to the consternation of the fans of the teams for which he has played.
Luckily, there is a very simple explanation for Stoudemire's defensive woes — just teach him how to play defense, dummy! (For your health.)
You see, according to the man himself, as detailed by Al Iannazzone of Newsday, nobody's ever taken the time to do so:
"Just having a defensive coach for the first time in my career is going to help," Stoudemire said. "I've never been taught defense in my whole career. To now have a coach that actually teaches defense and teaches strategies and knows positioning and posture and how to guard different plays is going to be helpful. I'm going to take it as a challenge, accept the challenge and try to improve as a player."
OK, sounds great. Thanks, Amar'e!
Except — and you're not going to BELIEVE this — the spiteful New York media has decided, for some odd reason, that a 30-year-old player in his 11th NBA season shouldn't be blaming coaches (and, specifically, the offense-first coach for whom he has played the bulk of his career) for his defensive shortcomings. From Marc Berman of the New York Post:
Amar'e Stoudemire has yet to blame Mike D'Antoni for his bulging disk, or his microfracture surgery, or his retina operation or his hand injury for punching a fire extinguisher or for his latest ailment — a ruptured cyst in his left knee that caused a surgery to clean out the debris.
But it’s early yet in Stoudemire's excuse-making on why he is not the $100 million player he was supposed to be when the Knicks signed him in July, 2010. [...]
Asked about Stoudemire's remarks, Woodson said, "I'm not going there with you guys. I think Mike D'Antoni is a great coach. He does a number of wonderful things on both ends of the floor. Amar'e is entitled to his opinion but I think every coach in this league is a great coach. It's not an easy job by no means."
One day, Stoudemire will actually accept responsibility for his shortcomings and not knowing the new defensive sets. Not Wednesday.
On its face, that seems like a reasonable (if tabloid-vitriol-heavy) response to the notion that a grown man who has played at the upper echelons of NBA basketball for more then a decade has never received any instruction on how to play defense, especially considering he played as a rookie under Frank Johnson for a team that finished 11th among 29 NBA teams in defensive efficiency, according to Basketball-Reference.com's numbers. Plus, as we've noted before, for all the derision of his defensive acumen as a pace-pushing, offensive-minded coach, the Phoenix teams that D'Antoni coached and on which Stoudemire played routinely ranked around the middle of the NBA pack; it's not like they were eternally bereft on that end or that nobody there, D'Antoni or his assistants included, knew anything about defense, Stoudemire's own well-documented shortcomings aside.
That said: As noted by Seth Rosenthal of Knicks blog Posting and Toasting, Amar'e just kind of seems to say things, like how he uses the adjective "phenomenal" a handful of times in every interview, or how he described his rehab stint as directed toward returning him to his "dominant self." It's not even the first time he's said nobody's ever taught him defense before — he said the same thing back in November 2010, but in that freewheeling comment, he credited Alvin Gentry for finally offering him some defensive instruction, which is kind of funny, because Gentry's Suns teams have performed worse than D'Antoni's did on the defensive end.
It's possible that he was just thinking that a really good way to emphasize how detail-oriented Woodson is in practices, and specifically when it comes to defensive assignments and positioning, would be to say that it is nice to have a defensive-minded coach, and that he forgot to mention that of course at some point over the last 10-plus years someone has suggested that he has to see both the ball and his man because that is something everyone should endeavor to do in a basketball setting, perhaps because his thoughts were bifurcated by something, like maybe the fact that his wife is pregnant, or that someone had a really rad shirt on. You never know with Amar'e, is the point.
What you do know, unfortunately for Knicks fans, is that irrespective of whether anyone has ever taught Amar'e how to play defense — and again, someone at some point totally has — the Knicks themselves have been a bad defensive team for the better part of two months now. They've allowed 103.4 points per 100 possessions since Nov. 4, 2012, good for 18th among 30 NBA teams in defensive efficiency, and as I noted on Tuesday night, they've been even worse since Dec. 1, allowing 105.6 points per 100 possessions, the league's eighth-worst mark.
The issue, specifically, as ESPN.com Insider Tom Haberstroh notes, has been a combination of offensively potent but defensively awful small-ball lineups and (as pointed out by WFAN's John Schmeelk earlier this week) poor early defense, allowing opponents to get hot early and build big leads that even the Knicks' top-flight offense can't reliably overcome — cases in point: the Knicks' loss last week to the Sacramento Kings and the Jan. 1 defeat at Portland's hands. (Weirdly enough, the Knicks — according to Woodson, at least — really miss reserve big man Rasheed Wallace, who's been out for the past nine games with a foot injury. They've lost five of those nine, giving up more than 100 points in each defeat.)
Even if Stoudemire suddenly "learns" how to play defense — and, to hear ESPN New York's Jared Zwerling tell it, Woodson and assistants Herb Williams and LaSalle Thompson were working on it in practice — it's unlikely that the Knicks will suddenly snap their fingers and start locking opponents down given their present personnel, especially considering Thursday night's opponent — the San Antonio Spurs, the league's fourth-best team in offensive efficiency and its most potent in terms of points scored per 100 possessions over the past 10 games, according to NBA.com's stat tool. Maybe they'll get lucky and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich will decide to give his top guns a rest again after another four-games-in-five-nights stretch; if not, the Knicks could be in for a long night defensively, no matter how much Woodson's been able to teach Stoudemire and his teammates over the past couple of days.
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