EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second installment of a four part examination of what has gone wrong since the Knicks’ 18-5 start—a stretch in which they were beating teams by an average of over seven points a game—and whether or not the Knicks can return [in varying degrees] to their early-season form. You can read part one here and part two here.)
Let’s be happy. Remember that time, a little over two years ago, when it looked like Stoudemire would lead the Knicks to their best season in a decade?
Okay, now let’s be depressed. Think of Stoudemire’s 2011-12 season. Think of a fire extinguisher.
Happy again: What about the post game that Stoudemire added?
And sad once more: Remember that time Stoudemire had two knee surgeries in one season? Oh wait. That’s now.
It’s hard to keep track of how I’m supposed to feel about Amar’e as his time here has included about a decade’s worth of drama. If it turns out that these are the death throes of his career, however, then this article is pointless. Barring a medical retirement. we will be saddled with his contract until 2015, end of story. No sense crying over spilled milk even if that milk cost you $100 million dollars, right? Well, $100 million may deserve a little pouting.
Before pouting though, let’s operate under the assumption that when Stoudemire returns, he will play as he did in the time before this most recent surgery and that he will be able to sustain that play for 25-30 minutes a night across most of an NBA season. Optimistic maybe, but within the realm of possibility.
We’re aiming to build a team that can come close to sustaining the dominance of its top lineup, so let’s start with the same chart we used as a jumping off point in the article on Shumpert:
One of the most interesting things to me about this chart is that, while we attributed much of his decline last year to the lack of a penetrating guard, Stoudemire doesn’t appear dependent on Felton. Weird, huh? Instead, it turns out that Stoudemire plays better with Kidd, the guy who takes almost 80% of his shots from behind the three point line.
Q: Who has assisted on the most Stoudemire field goals this season?
You answered: Raymond Felton
<harsh buzzing sound>
Wanna try again? No, you don’t because unless you’re a particularly astute observer, you will be wrong. It’s not Carmelo Anthony. It’s not Kidd or Pablo. The correct answer is J.R. Smith, who has assisted on 26 Stoudemire field goals this season.
The question was a little disingenuous as Felton hurt his hand just as Stoudemire returned to the floor, missing 10 of the 29 games Stoudemire has played this season. When you adjust for the minutes they’ve been on the floor together, Felton surges ahead, but not by much, and regardless, Smith’s connection with Stoudemire is still brand spanking new. J.R. Smith assisted on a TOTAL of five Stoudemire baskets last year.
Why does this matter? Smith has taken up the slack as a dribble-drive passer when Felton is not on the floor or when the first pick and roll fails, and that has been crucial to Stoudemire’s success. You might think thanks to his improved post game that Stoudemire is being used less often in pick and roll. That’s incorrect. Likely thanks to Smith’s newfound chemistry with STAT, Stoudemire has seen a 5% increase in his usage as a roll man while maintaining his always-stellar pick and roll efficiency.
As far as Stoudemire’s post play goes, on the surface, it appears that it is more of a replacement than an upgrade. No longer able to use his quickness to race past defenders and still shooting almost 10% lower from midrange than in his best season, Stoudemire has used his new post game to get lots of shots near the rim while maintaining a usage percentage and shooting efficiency near those of his best years.
This explains a couple of mysteries in regard to Stoudemire’s play this season:
First, it explains the Kidd connection. Kidd’s timing and court vision allow him to set Stoudemire up deep in the post. Kidd may not directly assist many of Stoudemire’s baskets, but you can bet that he earns a number of hockey assists off Stoudemire’s post play.
Second, it explains why, unlike last year when the two were awful together, Stoudemire’s offense suffers the most when he’s not playing with Tyson Chandler. The primary challenge for pick and roll play is completing a pass into the roll man, and with Chandler off the ball, there is far less space in the middle for that pass to be completed. This was likely the explanation for STAT and Chandler’s struggles last year. However, far more important to getting a player good post position are good screens, something at which Chandler excels.
The best way then to describe Stoudemire’s adaptation is that he has made himself a whole lot more like Anthony, a player who can score without an athletic guard. This sounds pretty good given that this team is built to play off of Mr. Melo. But we don’t necessarily need two Anthonys, especially if they don’t come BOGO. Mr. Melo will be on the floor for 36 minutes a game at least, even more if Mr. Potato Head doesn’t get a hold of himself.
Overall, how you feel about STAT depends on what you’re looking at. If you focus on the Knicks’ other bench players, Stoudemire appears a breath of fresh air in his ability to replace Felton, Anthony and Smith in our best lineup without damaging (and sometimes increasing) its production.
But you also have every right to pout: Amar’e Stoudemire makes about $3.5 million less than J.R. Smith, Jason Kidd, Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton do combined, and yet even after reworking his offensive game, the team performs worse if he replaces any of them. The only time he does help the team significantly is when our other max contract is on the bench. Maybe last year the issue was with Tyson and Amar’e, but like a game of musical chairs, this year its Amar’e/Anthony that are the odd duo out.
Unlike last year, however, when it was the offense that collapsed with Stoudemire and Chandler together, this year with Melo and STAT it’s the defense. Opponents have a TS% of 59% including 40% from three when Anthony and Stoudemire are together. The Synergy numbers add more support to the notion that Melo and Stoudemire are the culprits: Anthony allows his man to score 1.03 PPP, 240th in the league, and Amar’e plays like D’Antoni is still coaching him (jab fully intended) when he has to close out, allowing an even worse 1.08 PPP on spot ups. When one of them replaces a guard in our lineup, he has to guard a perimeter player, and perimeter players do a lot more spotting up.
And don’t even bother with the idea of Stoudemire at center. With our guards lacking the ability to contain penetrators and Stoudemire’s persistent defensive lapses, our defense goes right to the pooper there too. For one example, you can scroll to the chart at the top and look at our defense when STAT replaces Chandler. Want another? The most common Stoudemire-at-center lineup includes Anthony, Novak, Prigioni and Smith. That lineup has a DRtg of 126.2, a number only a dung beetle could love.
To close, I know this statement is completely unoriginal, but it’s hard for me to argue with: The major inhibitor to Stoudemire and Anthony being anything more than competent together, especially now that the Knicks aren’t reliant on the crutch of Anthony as a pick and roll ball handler (another likely cause of their decent play together last year), is the similarities of their weaknesses and strengths. Stoudemire can replace the production of some of the Knicks’ role players, and that’s something the Knicks sorely need, but his potential to be anything approaching a max player in the concept of the post-Anthony-trade Knicks, even after two years, is still very hard to decipher. How management could go two years without accepting this reality is simply dumbfounding, especially given the liability of Stoudemire’s surgically repaired knees, but it is what it is, and maybe it’s enough, if some other things fall their way, for New York to make themselves a dark horse title contender before that 2015 deadline.
Next time: What Can New York Do to Maximize Its Title Chances?