One day after Independence Day, Amar'e Stoudemire signed a massive contract with the New York Knicks. Since that fateful day, and largely since everyone started to pay attention to him, Amar'e Stoudemire has been sold short. The reason is a talented Canadian man who has been throwing basketballs to Stoudemire from every possible angle and allowing him excellent opportunities to score. For this reason, the quintessential argument for all Amar'e Stoudemire (and now, Knicks) detractors has been that he will be nothing without Steve Nash. Despite the fact that Stoudemire was an excellent player, albeit a more athletic one, before he shook hands with and did the dance with Nash, pause, every media outlet and sour-grapes basketball fan has grasped desperately to the impossible-to-prove-or-disprove notion that Amar'e Stoudemire will be incapable of scoring without receiving magical passes from the best passer in the NBA. Raymond Felton, as every sports-writer of all time has grown fond of reminding Knicks fans, is no Nash, and consequently he will not be able to provide the easy opportunities for the new power forward to score an efficient 20-25 points per game.
Well, I admit I have no idea what to expect from Stoudemire's box scores, as there is no legitimate way to predict how he will mesh with his new point guard, and I admit that Raymond Felton is no Steve Nash in terms of talent as well as basketball IQ. However, one aspect of Stoudemire's game I fully expect to improve based on his new personnel is his defense.
In Chris Ballard's "The Art of a Beautiful Game," there is a chapter focusing on Steve Nash and his meteoric rise from a young soccer-loving Canadian boy to a two-time NBA MVP. In that chapter, it explains how Steve Nash is very good around the basket because he learned his lay-ups jumping off the wrong leg due to ankle issues, which allows him to throw the defense off enough to get himself some buckets. Ballard also covers interviews with various people throughout Nash's career who say he is the best shooter of all time.
Ballard also titles a section within the Nash chapter with a quote from the man who recruited him to Santa Clara, head coach Dick Davey. The section is titled: "I'll offer you a full ride, but I've got to tell you that you're the worst defensive player I've ever seen."
What does this have to do with Amar'e Stoudemire? Well, because Stoudemire is an inside defender who exclusively guards power forwards and centers save for switches, his defensive opportunities come on guarding the post and guarding drives from the outside. The ways to stop a competent driver from scoring are numerous: blocking him from getting to the paint, force him to pick up his dribble, provide defensive help to grab a steal or offensive foul, and lastly to block his shot. Motivation for an offensive player to drive into the lane is often to provide himself with an opportunity to score from much closer to the basket, as well as to collapse the defense. Collapsed defenses cannot properly guard floor-stretchers, allowing dangerous opportunities for opponents with competent shooters.
So you see, in the most direct possible way(s), defense starts at the perimeter. More specifically, defense starts with whoever guards the opponent's primary ball-handler/passer. And, because Steve Nash was that guy in Phoenix, it would be unrealistic to expect Amar'e Stoudemire to thrive defensively in the desert. With Nash allowing quicker guards to beat him off the dribble so badly, it oftentimes forced Stoudemire to make bad, desperate decisions in terms of ball-stopping. For this reason, his defensive potential has been skewed for nearly his whole career.
Let me ask everyone a question: Do you think Shawn Kemp would have been half the defender he was if Gary Payton and Nate McMillan weren't around? Do you think Kevin Garnett, in his mid-30s, could pull off a Defensive Player of the Year award without Rajon Rondo?
Let's line up Stoudemire, Boozer, Lee and Bosh with their respective point guards from last year.
Stoudemire - Nash/Dragic
Boozer - Williams/Brewer
Lee - Duhon/Douglas
Bosh - Calderon/Jack
So, it would be reasonable to admit the power forward with the best defensive partner was Carlos Boozer by a whole lot.
Third best would probably go to Bosh's help, despite Calderon being a horrible defender. Jarret Jack is a plus defender who actually played far more than Calderon this past year, and he was probably their best defender overall down the stretch.
Coming in last is Stoudemire. Defensively, Steve Nash makes Jose Calderon look like Chris Paul and Goran Dragic is still a green, rookie-esque defender who is far too caught up in offense to give serious consideration to the other end of the floor.
What does this mean?
Well, simply put, it means Stoudemire had the most difficult defensive assignment on most nights because he was going to a duel without a bulletproof vest. His defense may not be world class, but I hypothesize it was due in large part to his buddies Nash and Dragic, who allowed guards to frolic into the paint and create opportunities for themselves and others with ease. Can I back this up with advanced stats and charts? Probably, but I don't know how.
What's the good news?
The good news is the same thing as the bad news: defense begins with the primary on-ball defender. Barring injury, Stoudemire's first defensive stand as a Knick will begin with Raymond Felton guarding Jose Calderon rather than Steve Nash guarding the Raptors' point guard. Felton spent last season as the first line of defense for the stingiest defense in the NBA. At shooting guard, instead of relying on an aging Jason Richardson, Stoudemire will have the luxury of Azubuike, Chandler and a few others. Does this mean he'll be an all-defense candidate? Almost certainly not. However, if you were to ask him whether he'd like his defense evaluated this year or last year, I think I know what he might say.