It's just a matter of time now before Amar'e Stoudemire rejoins the New York Knicks. After practicing with the Erie BayHawks, the team's D-League affiliate, and reportedly looking good and explosive in his scrimmage work, the 30-year-old power forward appears to be nearing the end of his rehabilitation from surgery to remove dead tissue in his surgically repaired left knee.
He's not ready yet, but he's close to once again donning a Knicks uniform ... which, according to Howard Beck at the New York Times, is something that New York's front office worked very hard this offseason (and even before that) to prevent from happening again:
This past summer, the Knicks offered Stoudemire to nearly every team in the league — “available for free,” as one rival executive put it. But they found no takers because of his diminished production, his health and his contract, which has three years and $65 million remaining (counting this season) and which is uninsured against a career-ending knee injury.
In February, the Knicks wanted to send Stoudemire to Toronto in a deal for Andrea Bargnani, a person briefed on the discussion said. But the proposal was vetoed by James L. Dolan, the Garden chairman, before it ever reached the Raptors (who would not have made the deal anyway, team officials there said).
Before that, the Knicks tried to package Stoudemire and Chandler in a bid to land Dwight Howard.
Grantland's Zach Lowe responded to Beck's report by saying he too has heard that Stoudemire is "basically the most available player in the league," which is, of course, pretty easy to understand. After all, the Knicks have raced out to the Eastern Conference's best record without Stoudemire in the lineup, roasting teams with Carmelo Anthony turning in dominant offensive play in place of Amar'e at power forward, Tyson Chandler being perhaps the league's most unassuming MVP candidate, and the point-guard tandem of Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd whipping the ball around the perimeter in an unselfish and deeply fun-to-watch brand of basketball orchestrated by coach Mike Woodson, who seems about 100 million light years away from the "Iso-Joe" days of his Atlanta Hawks.
The fear among Knicks fans is that Stoudemire's return will throw a monkey wrench into what has become the league's most potent offense; New York scored about 6 1/2 fewer points per 100 possessions with Stoudemire on the court last year than when he was off it, according to lineup data available from NBA.com's stat tool. And it's not like a Knicks team that's slid from a top-five defense last year to just below middle-of-the-pack in defensive efficiency this season would figure to benefit much from importing a famously ineffective defender even at his healthy athletic peak; New York allowed about 4 1/2 more points per-100 last year with him playing than with him sitting.
Those on/off-court numbers back up a slew of other data — advanced metrics, video breakdowns, detailed scouting reports, the general eyeball test of watching different incarnations of teams perform — supporting the contention that we (and many others) have written about before plenty of times, including in our Knicks season preview: that a Chandler/Stoudemire/Anthony frontcourt simply does not work on either end of the court, because they just don't fit together to create something greater than the sum of the All-Star parts.
Knowing that Chandler is indispensable and having made the decision to hand the reins of the franchise to a healthy 28-year-old Anthony rather than the injury-prone 30-year-old Stoudemire — a decision that looks wiser by the day, it's worth noting — of course the Knicks would look to move Stoudemire. And of course nobody bit on the gargantuan $64.7 million remaining on his contract, because why would you make that kind of financial gamble if you didn't absolutely have to?
And so, the Knicks now find themselves in a position of having to reintegrate a score-first, defend-almost-never 30-year-old power forward into a lineup that seems, through no fault of his own, to have moved past him. There might be, however, a relatively easy solution — bringing Amar'e off the bench.
When Chandler and Anthony sit, the Knicks offense frequently goes in the tank; according to NBA.com's stat tool, New York scores about 12 fewer points-per-100 without Melo on the floor to create mismatches against opposing fours, and about 14 1/2 fewer per-100 without Chandler on the floor to unleash New York's pick-and-roll game, activate their myriad shooters and crash the offensive glass. Just about every five-man Knicks unit that doesn't feature either Chandler or Anthony has had major difficulty scoring — they've each played very limited minutes (an indication, perhaps, that Woodson knows he hasn't yet found the right reserve groupings and needs to keep searching) but they've largely performed at bottom-third-of-the-league-or-worse levels of offensive efficiency, with the lineup of Rasheed Wallace, Steve Novak, Ronnie Brewer, J.R. Smith and Pablo Prigioni scraping the bottom the barrel by producing 76.9 points per 100 possessions (albeit, again, in just 23 minutes spread over seven games).
Prigioni is a pass-always point guard who loves to orchestrate off high screens, and while Stoudemire's not nearly the terrifying roll man at 30 that he was at 22, he's also a much better pick-and-pop player than he was as a younger man, and that pairing could work well for both players. Playing alongside perimeter-oriented frontcourt players like Novak and Wallace (out with now a left foot injury) could open up space at the elbows — and, if wants to use any of that Dream training, in the low post — for Amar'e to operate without fear of smacking into Chandler on the block or colliding with Anthony 15 feet away from the basket. Sure, those lineups will probably get scored on like nobody's business, but few of them have been anything to write home about defensively anyway, and making them more offensively competitive for a few minutes at a time would represent an improvement.
Plus, there's still nearly three-quarters of a season left to play. Woodson will have plenty of time to explore short-minute experiments in meshing the three frontcourt stars — time he didn't really get last year, after taking over for Mike D'Antoni with just 24 games left in the regular season and promptly losing Stoudemire to injury for the better part of a month — before completely throwing out the idea. For a guy coming off knee surgery and two months of rehab, starting slowly with reserve minutes where you get to take just about any shot you want doesn't sound like such a bad deal. It could work.
But, as Beck notes, "it seems doubtful Stoudemire would be content" with a second-fiddle role; he's said thus far that he'll do whatever needs to be done to help the team, but after he "looked good and showed some of his trademark explosiveness in his second scrimmage" with Erie, Stoudemire sure didn't sound like someone ready to take a backseat. From Newsday's Al Iannazzone:
"I'm on pace to return back to dominance," Stoudemire said Thursday. "It's a matter of becoming 100 percent. When I'm healthy, I feel like I'm back to my dominant self."
We're glad to hear Amar'e is feeling better and appreciate his boundless confidence, but given how smoothly things are running in New York right now, hearing two forms of "dominant" in three sentences in this context might make Knicks fans hope general manager Glen Grunwald is still offering STAT at a deep discount, and that a buyer comes calling sooner rather than later.
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