Partway through the 2005-06 season, with the Phoenix Suns riding high with a surprising 45-21 record in his absence, All-Star forward Amar'e Stoudemire returned to his team and immediately announced his presence with a 20-point, nine-rebound performance in only 19 minutes of work in a win over Portland. Replacing a “power forward” in James Jones who was known more for his outside shooting than typical big man play, Stoudemire was seen as a missing piece of an offensive-heavy but defensively solid Suns outfit that was in the midst of what they thought was a championship run. Though Amar'e struggled a few nights later in his second game, the Suns still won and ran their record to 47-21. Fully healthy, it was seemingly all coming together.
Except that the big man's play was unfortunately just a mirage, and Stoudemire (coming off of a microfracture surgery performed just five months before) was far from playing at full-strength. By the time he missed all six of his shot attempts in a disturbing performance against New Jersey two days later, it was obvious that Amar'e had returned too early. The Suns, disheartened, split their remaining 14 regular-season games and lost in the conference finals a few months later.
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It hasn't yet been a few months since Stoudemire's most recent surgery, performed on Halloween, but his new team in New York is taking no chances with the man they still owe $64 million to between now and 2015 in one of the NBA's few uninsured contracts. Rather than tossing Stoudemire back onto the court to force him to play his way back up to speed in games that count, the team is going to shuffle Amar'e to and from the franchise's D-League team in Erie, Pa., as Amar'e practices with the Erie BayHawks. On Monday John Schuhmann of NBA.com broke the news – Stoudemire may not play in any games with the BayHawks, but he will be practicing with the team due to the hectic nature of the NBA's schedule, and lack of clear practice dates for rehabilitating players.
Knicks coach Mike Woodson described his hopes for the outcome of the decision:
“The practices have got to go kind of in his favor,” Woodson said. “I don’t want him coming to me after tomorrow’s practice and saying, ‘Well coach, I’m hurt and sore.’ Then we’ve got to evaluate it and still take it a day at a time. I’m not going to rush him back. He’s got to be ready. And we’ll lean on him to tell me when he’s ready to go.”
And GoErie.com outlined its D-League team's upcoming schedule:
It was not immediately clear whether Stoudemire would just practice with the team or whether he would play in any of the BayHawks' upcoming games. Erie visits Springfield Friday and Maine Saturday before returning home against Austin Dec. 28.
Were Stoudemire to suit up for the BayHawks, the move could be viewed as a demotion of sorts. That's far from the case, though, unless you consider an All-Star level pitcher working on a pitch count in Triple-A as he returns from injury to be a “demotion.” The Knicks aren't sending him to Erie because they don't think Stoudemire is good enough to make the Knicks' roster, they're sending him to the practice courts away from New York because they want to make sure Stoudemire's possible last great attempt at a comeback to that All-Star level is a successful one.
Seven years removed from that first microfracture surgery, and one season removed from a 2011-12 campaign that saw the Knicks play significantly better with Stoudemire either off the court or on the shelf, this is about as touch and go as these situations get. The Knicks are 18-5 currently, even after a pair of games worked without starting power forward Carmelo Anthony, and tops in the East. Though he may not prefer the position, there is considerable evidence stretched out over two seasons that suggests that Anthony is better suited for the power forward position, one that Stoudemire prefers to play. With center Tyson Chandler making up for the team's shortcomings defensively at center, there's not a whole lot of room in the inn for New York's prize 2010 free-agent acquisition.
The Knicks don't utilize the D-League BayHawks much because, frankly, the team is old as hell. They're on their way to a third straight playoff appearance, so the team isn't exactly bursting with high-profile lottery talent in need of some seasoning; but that doesn't mean this move isn't novel. Or correct.
NBA teams just don't get all that many significant in-season practices, and Stoudemire (sadly) needs to find his way in activities that need to go beyond individual work behind the scenes. That wasn't happening with the Knicks, a team that has been dealing with myriad injuries all season despite the squad's superior record. A record the team is showing no signs of harming while continuing to be patient with Stoudemire's return to live action.
Though the D-League has been around since 2001 and fielded farm teams unique to specific NBA clubs for the last few years, there hasn't been a lot of precedent for moves like this. There have been a fair amount of gems culled from the league, former Knick Jeremy Lin being the most notable example, but outside of former Spurs guard T.J. Ford (who retired last summer) teams haven't been quick to let veterans round back into shape with their respective D-League teams. Why should they, with those major-league training facilities and staff already on hand?
Stoudemire's worked through that part of his rehabilitation already. He needs to bang a bit, and because three of his prime bangable buddies (stop it) on the Knick roster in Rasheed Wallace, Marcus Camby and Kurt Thomas are all incredibly long in the tooth, and Chandler is needed to stay fresh for May and hopefully June, the BayHawks' practice courts seem like the ideal location for Amar'e at this point. And we wouldn't mind seeing, say, the Philadelphia 76ers send Andrew Bynum to their D-League affiliate in Sioux Falls should he be cleared to practice again following an MRI on Thursday. I'm sure they've got a Dave & Buster's in Sioux Falls.
This isn't a demotion. As with all things related to the NBA's developmental league, this is an opportunity. One that, we hope, helps Stoudemire work his way back toward his Suns-era style of prominence.
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