To nail down a few facts: In the 2012-2013 NBA regular season, Amar’e Stoudemire played 29 of 82 games (35%) and started none of them. When active, he played 23.5 minutes per game. In the playoffs, Stoudemire played four games, averaging just over eight minutes a game and posting a 9.9 PER.
Stoudemire also had the 3rd highest salary in the NBA this year at $19,948,799.
Despite appearances, my goal is not to drive the readers of this site to rage-induced violence. Rather, it is to posit that the success of the 2012-2013 Knicks was a minor miracle.
The NBA features 30 teams competing over scarce resources. The NBA salary cap is stringent and restrictive, ensuring a (fairly) level playing field. In this cap system, there are two main ways to get a leg up towards building an elite team.
1) Enjoy an elite player on a rookie deal (i.e. Kyrie Irving, Paul George)
2) Get an honest-to-goodness bargain contract from a guy who outperforms his deal (i.e. Rajon Rondo, Danny Green, Jared Dudley.)
(There is a third way, the LeBron-Heat way, which is to have a special superstar player who exceeds max value. LeBron James’s services might be worth more than $75 million in an open market system, but the salary cap precludes that kind of payday. End digression.)
By that same token, of course, the surest way for a team to put itself at a competitive disadvantage is to overpay for a player. Put simply, due to Amar’e’s awful contract, the Knicks found themselves as perhaps the most structurally disadvantaged team this year before the season even started. (Sidenote: the best competing candidate is the Chicago Bulls, another remarkable success story, who paid Derrick Rose $16.4 million not to play a single game.)
And the Knicks — unlike the Cavaliers (Irving), Pacers (George), Nuggets (Ty Lawson), Warriors (Steph Curry), and others — did not have a player who fits the 1st criteria, either. That the Knicks won 54 games and were the second-best team in the Eastern Conference while effectively throwing away $20 million in precious cap money isn’t just surprising. It’s virtually inconceivable.
So what were the front office and personnel developments that made up for Amar’e’s albatross?
— J.R. Smith, $2.8 million: For all their gaudy regular-season offensive totals, the Knicks had 3 players who could consistently create their own offense this year – Carmelo Anthony, Raymond Felton, and J.R. Smith. In an offense heavily predicated on floor spacing, driving-and-dishing, and 3-point shots, Smith’s importance was paramount. Sure, J.R. drove Knicks fans up a collective wall since elbowing Jason Terry. But paying less than $3 million for the 6th Man of the Year who puts up 18 a game and is perhaps the best bad-shot maker in the league is an unquestionable bargain. By way of contrast, Smith’s PER and minutes played this season were most comparable to Josh Smith, a player who earned $13 million this year and is angling for a max contract.
— Raymond Felton, $3.5 million: The team’s aggressive floor general perhaps best proved his value when the team floundered in his absence. Felton greatly improved his 3-point shooting this year and has a remarkable ability to finish at the rim. But he was also a crucial engine to the Knicks’ small-ball offense, feeding 3-point shooters on drives-and-dishes and teaming up with Tyson Chandler to become a major pick-and-roll threat.
— Iman Shumpert, $1.6 million: Iman Shumpert is the closest thing the Knicks had to a player in the 1st criteria, as Shumpert is on a team-friendly rookie contract. Shumpert, though, is no star (yet) and only averaged 22 minutes per game in just 45 regular-season games. But, as he particularly showed in the playoffs, Shumpert’s active hands, phenomenal footwork, and great anticipation on defense, and his emerging ability to shoot the corner 3 at a tremendous clip, made him worth more than his paltry earnings.
— Pablo Prigioni and Chris Copeland, rookie minimum: I’d say more, but I don’t think I need to. If the Knicks had beaten the Pacers, fans on this site might have gone so far as to create a Super PAC to get Mike Woodson to play these two guys more.
— The development of Carmelo Anthony, efficient superstar: Carmelo improved 3.7 PER points from last season (4th best PER in the NBA this season and his career-high by 2.6 points), bumped his true shooting percentage from 52.5% to 56%, scored 6 more points per game, increased his 3-point shooting percentage by 4.4 percentage points, and became an unstoppable offensive force at the power forward position. People can debate whether Carmelo’s improvements were a result of his growth as a player or good personnel around him. What cannot be disputed is that, while getting paid a very similar salary to last year, Anthony emerged as brutally efficient force and had the best season of his career.
The above developments amounted to great work by the Knicks front office and coaches, and are the major reasons why the team was arguably the biggest surprise in the league. But ultimately, the team had glaring holes, the type of holes that derail good-but-not-great teams and teams that have made a front office blunder too big to recover from.
Listen, I’m not trying to say that this series against the Pacers wasn’t winnable. J.R. Smith inexplicably reverted into a 32 percent shooter in the playoffs. Tyson Chandler was obviously not 100 percent at any point during the Celtics or Pacers series. The active, physical, and floor-spacing Jason Kidd died sometime in March. Mike Woodson had an unspeakably awful series — refusing to go small and make the Pacers come out of their comfort zone; failing to find the floor-spacing offense that made the Knicks unique; rewarding inefficient performances from Smith and Kidd while sitting Prigioni (39.6% from 3), Steve Novak (42.5% from 3), and Chris Copeland (42.1% from 3); over-helping and over-doubling in the post, etc. It is likely that the Pacers series would have been quite different had the Knicks improved in any one of these areas.
But building an elite NBA team is very, very hard, and the Knicks have made it harder on themselves than basically any other team in the league. Sports are by nature unpredictable, but it would be a statistical anomaly for the Knicks to be a truly elite team until Amar’e’s contract expires or he gets dealt. It’s just too steep of a mountain to climb with too much dead weight.
An NBA roster is an extremely delicate machine with very little margin for error. Before a game was even played this season, the Knicks effectively blew a $20 million dollar hole in their machine. We should just be thankful that, in May, they were still operating.