Remember the heady days of early November - when the Knicks were straight-up crushing teams and life was perfect? Even in during that glorious stretch of games, beat writers and sports pundits were doing their best to remind you of the storm clouds looming on the horizon:
Sure, everything is great now, but wait until Amar'e comes back! That's right: your pristine, delicate flower of a basketball team is going to be invaded...by the player who scored the sixth-most points in franchise history two years ago. The end is nigh!
I, for one, did my best to prepare myself and my family for Amar'mageddon: hoarding canned goods and toilet paper, digging a makeshift Amar'e bunker under the hedgerow behind my apartment building. Then, one day, as I sat crouched in my bunker, fending off legions of hungry stray cats with my trusty can opener, I had an epiphany: many of these "When Amar'e Returns" worries make no fucking sense!
That isn't to say there are no legitimate concerns regarding his return. We don't know the extent of the damage caused by his knee goiter...or whatever that was. And Amar'e did have a down season, by his standards, in '11-'12. But now is the time for us to take a deep breath, reexamine the facts at hand, and separate the STAT-truths from the STAT-myths.
Myth 1: Amar'e's return will disrupt the Knicks' team chemistry
Ah, team chemistry - what a sweet, nebulous mistress you are! I do believe team chemistry exists - unlike Sasquatch or Finland - but it's hard to see Amar'e causing a problem here. He is the longest-tenured Knick, after all, which means that every other player assumed upon coming here that they would be playing with him. Jason Kidd, Tyson Chandler, J.R. Smith - these guys signed with the Knicks to play with Amar'e. Melo forced a trade to play with Amar'e.
Sure, if this Knicks team was still playing like the '96 Bulls, the players might be a little wary of messing with the formula. But the blowout wins of early November are coming fewer and fewer as opponents make adjustments on both sides of the ball, and the Knicks look to be in need of reinforcements. Like Amar'e.
Myth 2: Amar'e's return will hurt the defense.
I will not waste your time by arguing that Amar'e Stoudemire is a good defender. He isn't. If you added Amar'e to another team's lineup, their defense very well might suffer for it. But adding Amar'e to this Knicks' defense? Sorry, I just don't see the problem. This defense is already bad, much worse than last year's defense.
With the help of the good people over at 82games.com, let's take a look at look at the two most-used lineups from last year, both featuring Amar'e:
and compare it to this year's two most-used lineups:
Wow, I don't think we appreciate J.R. Smith enough. There's a reason Mike Woodson uses that second pairing to close out games. The Knicks are a better team this year, but it has very little to do with defense, and everything to do with offense. The Stoudemire lineups were as good or better defensively than most anything the Knicks usually put out there, even without Iman Shumpert. The Lin-Fields back-court doesn't strike me as that much better defensively than the Felton-Kidd back-court...maybe a little better, but not enough to make up that kind of deficit. Part of the defensive improvement can no doubt be attributed to Melo playing his natural defensive position, but it would be disingenuous not to give Amar'e some credit. For all the man's faults he does have a few useful defensive skills the Knicks currently lack. They are 28th in the league in blocks, and Amar'e has been known to block a shot or two - isn't that right, Lebron?
Myth 3: Amar'e is no longer the explosive, rim-rattling player of old.
Amar'e shot .485 from the field last season - a far cry from his glory days in Phoenix. Since everybody knows Amar'e is a one-dimensional dunking machine, that must mean he is no longer attacking the rim like he used to, right?
To the numbers!
- In 2010-11, Amar'e made 310 of 487 shots at the rim (.637 FG%) in 78 games - that's 3.97 made field goals at the rim per game.
- Last year, Amar'e made 197 of 278 shots at the rim (.709 FG%) in 47 games - that's 4.19 made field goals at the rim per game.
Amar'e's 2011-12 campaign fell apart not because he wasn't getting to the rim, but because he could no longer hit consistently from mid-range. Amar'e's field goal percentage on jump shots fell from .413 in '10-'11 to .319 last season.
What does this mean for Amar'e in 2013? Well I, for one, feel better about Amare's chances of recovering his jump shot than I would if he had truly lost the ability to power his way to the basket. The latter skill, once lost, is probably gone for good; but the ability to hit the mid-range jumper can be recovered regardless of a drop in athleticism. You don't need to be a freakish athlete to shoot (see: Novak, Steve).
Myth 4: An Amar'e - Tyson Chandler front-court will never work on offense
Great googily-moogily, were these two bad together on offense last year. It's difficult to purge the memory of the two of them waltzing through the painted area with all the awkwardness of me at the junior high dance. (Oh God, another junior high dance flashback! Don't look at me!) Surely this couple is forever doomed to fail, just as it was with me and every lady who ever saw me dance.
But must it always be this way? Last week I stumbled across this article from the capo di tutti capi of NBA writers, Zach Lowe, on the subject of, "...whether NBA teams can survive — and even thrive — offensively without the beloved stretch power forward with a shooting range to 20 feet and beyond."
In particular, he talked about the hard-earned offensive success this season of the Tim Duncan-Tiago Splitter front-court:
"It has taken three years of very gradual development, but the Spurs are finally scoring when their two center types share the floor together; San Antonio this season has scored a mammoth 111.9 points per 100 possessions in 127 Splitter-Duncan minutes, a mark that would lead the league by a long shot. A year ago, San Antonio's league-best offense scored at a bottom-five rate in just 129 Splitter-Duncan minutes, per NBA.com."
Tim Duncan is the greatest power forward of all-time, and even he has struggled to find his offensive game when paired with a talented, lane-clogging big like Splitter. Maybe, in light of this evidence, we should give Tyson and Amar'e a little leeway - especially considering they've only played bits and pieces of one lockout-shortened season together. If Duncan and Splitter can work through their earlier difficulties to form an effective offensive unit, then surely a couple of old pros like Amar'e and Tyson can do likewise. Even if they will probably never match the Spurs' bigs in terms of passing acumen, they can work out some of their spacing problems. It helps to remember that Amar'e has been proactive in this regard - working with Hakeem in the off-season to vary his offensive game. Heck, all Amar'e has to do is recapture his ability to consistently hit from mid-range and this front-court will start making strides offensively. This will probably be a long and ugly process, but it's far from hopeless.
Even if Amar'e weren't coming back soon, the Knicks would be a roster in flux. Felton will out out for the foreseeable future, and the Knicks have so many older contributors that it's hard to know who will be in and out of the lineup from week to week. Only three players - Chandler, J.R., and Ronnie Brewer - have played in every game this season, and Brewer is fighting through knee problems. A healthy Amar'e - and I pray he really is healthy - would bring consistent minutes, and the team could use that. He doesn't have to start (or finish) games for the time being - though the Felton injury does give them a chance to experiment with a Kidd / J.R. / Melo / Amar'e / Chandler lineup that has me giddy with expectation.
As they were constructed through their first 30 games, the Knicks were a very good team with a very glaring weakness: the tendency to get bullied by bigger front-courts. It remains to be seen if Amar'e can help fill the weak point, but he'll certainly be their best chance to do so this season. The team can either work Amar'e into the lineup successfully, or they can cross their fingers come playoff time and hope for the right match-ups. I don't know about y'all, but I've watched enough Knick postseasons that the old "hoping for the right match-up" plan scares the crap out of me...let's just become a more complete team instead.