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For whatever reason, several of the league's more entertaining players have fallen off in recent years. Be it due to injury, confidence issues, rotation frustrations, a poor fit, or general ennui in a profession that can get tiresome, these players have disappointed of late. For the next few weeks, we're going to take a look at a list of familiar names that haven't produced familiar games over the last few years. Or, at least players that have produced games that we don't want to be in the habit of familiarizing ourselves with.
Today, we're looking at New York Knicks big man Amar'e Stoudemire.
There are a trillion different ways to write this column, but each of those attempts tend to boil down to the fact that NBA fans enjoy watching tall men perform remarkable feats. It's something that isn't usually dealt with head-on in the NBA's blogosphere, but these fellers are really, really tall. Taller than the average bear, and taller than your typical lineman, first basemen, or defensemen. At to some of us, the ones that prefer a nice drop step or jump hook to a crossover, it's frustrating to see the tallest of them all routinely take a seat due to injury. From Yao Ming to Greg Oden to Andrew Bogut, this hasn't been a fun era to behold for those of us that like watching big men do their thing.
This is why Amar'e Stoudemire's 2011-12 turn was such an absolute downer. Whether his poor play was a function of either Carmelo Anthony or Tyson Chandler's presence, or a delayed reaction to a season that didn't start on time, Stoudemire was a mess defensively and a relative miss offensively. His New York Knicks didn't really miss a beat, sticking with the same first round ouster that the squad experienced a year earlier, but the team and its fans rued the potential that was lost when the NBA's most versatile scoring big decided to decline so suddenly. A year after looking like a savior machine in his prime, Stoudemire may have tailed off into the NBA's worst contract.
Stoudemire's much ballyhooed time spent with Basketball Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon is supposed to change this. Like Olajuwon, Stoudemire made a slight alteration to his first name several years into his career, like Olajuwon Amar'e boasts what at times looks like the NBA's best footwork for a big man, and he's hoping to have career years deep into his 30s like the two-time champion did.
Olajuwon, in a great interview with the New York Times' Howard Beck, is effusive about his summer schoolin':
"It's night and day," Olajuwon said. "What's so nice is he wants it; he likes the post. He's always wanted to play there, but he doesn't have the moves that would give him that option.
"His spin is becoming so sharp and crisp," Olajuwon said. "He could spin all day. He loves it."
Beck reports that Stoudemire's tutelage came in three-hour bursts, starting in the first week of August, and that he spent a fortnight working with the legend. Most players only last for four days. Amar'e wants his game back.
We want it back, too. It's easy to dismiss Stoudemire as injury-plagued, or over reliant on Steve Nash's touch to hand him the easy touches, but statistically his finest season may have come in 2007-08 (two years after undergoing microfracture surgery), and he played brilliant basketball in New York without Nash before Carmelo Anthony joined the Knicks in February of 2011. Anthony's presence is just one tipping point — Chandler's interior work took some of Stoudmire's spacing away and a back injury clearly hampered the former All-Star in 2011-12 — but the two truly haven't clicked in the months since Anthony became a Knick. And it isn't as if Amar'e is looking to hog things — his assist rate of 13 percent (the amount of possessions he used up that ended in assists) in 2010-11 nearly doubled his career rate.
Blame Anthony for a stagnant offense at times, but his presence at power forward spurred New York's most potent regular season run last year. And Stoudemire's shots per minute, while down from 2010-11, weren't that far off from his last season in Phoenix. He's just not knocking down the shots he used to; though it is fair to point out that Stoudemire was often forced into shots that were completely unlike the ones he used to be used to.
(You's still with me?)
This is where the post game could come in. Stoudemire has always been able in the post, but for years he has preferred to either dash towards the rim following a face up move, or hit the jumper from the elbow. Take it from someone who scouted him as a high schooler, Stoudemire's moves just haven't changed much even though injuries have addled the hops of a player Beck called "the Blake Griffin of his generation." They haven't changed because they haven't needed to change — because when you enter 2011-12 coming off a year that saw you top 25 points per game, new wrinkles don't seem all that necessary.
It's necessary, now. Anthony was a quick shot artist during his time with Team USA this summer, but old habits die hard with the veteran, and Stoudemire can't be clouding up Carmelo's space at the elbow or pinch post. Stoudemire needs to find ways to clear room down low, and be quick and deliberate with his moves. Raymond Felton has had fleeting success as a pick and roll point guard in the past, and Jason Kidd can still throw the flat-footed lob, but Stoudemire is going to have to do his work alone. His teammates will talk up wanting to feed the big man, but training camp promises tend to be forgotten by the first third quarter of the season.
The last one or even two years of the five year deal Amar'e signed for nearly $100 million in 2010 were never going to be a bargain, but with that footwork, touch and apparent work ethic, there's no reason why Stoudemire can't earn every penny this season. He'll turn 30 a month into 2012-13, and with the Knicks clearly in win-now mode Amar'e might have to be the difference between another first round flameout and a chance to make it to the third round.
For the rest of us, we just want a big man that seems like a threat to drop 40. There aren't many of them left, and the drop off between Stoudemire's first and second season in New York was as depressing as it was distressing. Please just be a blip in an otherwise marvelous career, 2011-12. We don't want to see much more of you in 2012-13.