Last season, Amar'e Stoudemire treated Suns fans and general basketball observers to a stretch of play lasting approximately three months that was hard to explain. In the months of February, March, April and May Stoudemire averaged 25, 27, 24, and 23 points per game respectively. He shot less than 50% from the floor only twelve times in that span while exceeding 60% fifteen times (this was done in a total of 49 games including the postseason and, in case you were curious, he surpassed 75% from the floor thrice).
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Now, the direction most observers would go from here is along the sidewalk of "It'sBecauseOfSteveNash Lane." Although that's a beautiful road, Knicks fans have driven to and from work every single day on It'sBecauseOfSteveNash Lane, and it's not exactly the most scenic route anymore. I don't want to pick a side in that argument because I try to stay away from strongly agreeing with and/or heatedly debating completely speculative topics (that's a boldfaced lie, but still). So, I'll try a different angle on this one; the minutes angle.
Steve Nash has a whack back, and as a result he plays fewer minutes than he is probably capable of (it's plainly much more complicated than that, but roll with it). On any given night over the past couple of years, Steve Nash is probably playing around 33 minutes a night, Stoudemire playing about 34. Last year, neither of the two (widely considered "superstar" players) cracked the top 45 in minutes per game. The reasons of which may be, and almost certainly are varied; Nash's back, Stoudemire's knees, pace of the offensive, strength of the bench, etc. But I don't want to focus on them, I just want to focus on the numbers.
Inherent in the logic that I employ within this post is the assumption that Stoudemire is not going to turn the ball over five times per game and shoot 45% from the floor all season. He's Amar'e Stoudemire. So, when you consider his prowess with putting the ball in the cup, it becomes obvious that he is the best player on the Knicks. As such, the onus is on him to do what he do and for him to do it well (yup!). Now, Raymond Felton's problem of "not being Steve Nash" is well-chronicled, Danilo Gallinari seems to be getting his sea legs and Wilson Chandler is coming back down to earth. The younglings (Randolph due to age and Fields due to his rookie status; Mozgov for obvious reasons) are in an adjustment period. Kelenna Azubuike isn't ripe yet and it's becoming increasingly and painfully obvious that Roger Mason is simply not the same basketball player he once was. Bill Walker seems to have done something wrong. So, after all that, Mike D'Antoni's corpse is left with three players who I consider to be tied for second (bound together only metaphorically, not physically!) on the "most important cogs" list.
As I mentioned before, Amar'e Stoudemire is going to play well this season; it's simply the law of averages. But at the end of games and, just as importantly (particularly given his recent stint of foul trouble), when he is not on the floor at the beginnings and ends of quarters, his two most valuable traits must be replaced; scoring and "presence."
Whenever Amar'e Stoudemire and Steve Nash would go to the bench last year, these two qualities were replaced with gusto. Goran Dragic, Jared Dudley and Channing Frye would take over the scoring load. Each of those guys is a threat to hit four three-pointers in a quarter, providing the scoring that was so badly needed when the teams best scorer, Stoudemire, was getting some rest. In terms of presence, Phoenix bench players shot a combined 40% from the three last year(!) via Dragic's ridiculous speed and creativity around the basket and Louis Amundson's offensive rebounding. In terms of presence of an offensive game plan, you really can't do much better than that.
The Nash/Stoudemire connection was obviously the reason the Suns were a very good and incredibly efficient unit last year, but it was their bench play that put them over-the-top. If you don't have scoring and an offensive identity from your bench, you're not playing the game the right way; just ask Gregg Popovich and Manu Ginobili.
I think, in terms of presence and scoring when Stoudemire is not in the game, Ronny Turiaf, Landry Fields and Toney Douglas are the three crucial pieces of the puzzle. Fields and Douglas are proven college scorers who probably fell too far in their respective drafts. They both graduated and joined the Knicks at a relatively late age, which explains why neither player truly looks like a rookie out there. Douglas is arguably the best defensive player on the squad (save for a couple memorable mishaps and occasionally overzealous hands) and Fields play analytical basketball the same way Shane Battier seems to (the comparison is way off, but he emanates a similar aura of maturity). The best part of the Douglas/Fields marriage (pause) is that each one is competent off-the-ball as well as creating for themselves.
Turiaf provides the energy (literally and figuratively), hustle and overall presence of which I spoke. Whether it's his shot-blocking, running the floor, goofy-ass faces or slept-on-to-the-point-of-criminal passing (seriously, between the extra shovel-passes down low for dunks and the high-post creativity, I really don't know why more people don't talk about this). Plus, he's shown the ability to finish on the pick and roll (65% shooting, anyone?).
The Knicks are not a team of surprises: Amar'e Stoudemire is going to shoot a ton and score a lot. Gallinari will shoot the three ball. Wilson Chandler is starting to look regular with a beard to me. But whatever the level of press the Knicks are predictably (and deservedly) about to receive for the following things: Mike D'Antoni, Shooting too many threes, Stoudemire's not a leader, etc., just keep thinking about what thieves we are for the acquisitions of Turiaf, Fields and Douglas; my "three most important Knicks not named Amar'e Stoudemire."
Until, that is, Anthony Randolph snaps out of it and starts breaking backboards.