STAT-caddy: Why the Knicks need a defensive big to help Amar'e

USA TODAY Sports

There is a good chance Amar'e will play before Kenyon Martin. That could be a problem.

With a little over a week left until the season opener, it looks increasingly likely that Kenyon Martin will miss the start of the 2012-13 season. While this isn't terribly surprising -- Martin hasn't played more than 50 games in an NBA season since 2009-2010 -- it does put the team in a bit of a bind. Martin came to the Knicks as an injury replacement, a stopgap, but he was invited back for the full season this time due to his stellar play down the stretch. The Knicks went 13-5 in the regular season with Martin in the rotation, and four of those five losses came during the infamous "Everyone is Injured West Coast Trip of Death." He gave the Knicks exactly what they needed: defense and toughness from the center position.

In a way, Martin's late-season addition was merely Act Two of a season-long drama -- call it "The quest to find a backup center" -- albeit with a change of cast. In Act One, (November-December), Rasheed Wallace played the role to a T, and the Knicks went 16-4 in the 20 games of pure Sheed action.

Now, Sheed is obviously gone, and if Martin stays on the shelf for an extended period, the Knicks will be short of options. One such candidate is Andrea Bargnani, and setting aside any concerns about playing him at the 5 for just a moment, he can't very well play much backup center when he is already slated to be the starting power forward, can he? Which leaves but one candidate who is guaranteed to make the roster. Unfortunately, not only is this player hurt himself, he was far and away the team's worst center in 2012-13.

Yes, I'm referring to Amar'e Stoudemire.

Before you start sharpening your castrating knives, let me clarify: Amar'e played very well last season. His individual numbers were better than anything we had a right to hope for, given all the time he lost to injury, and the team generally played better with him in the lineup.

...just not at the center position.

Last season, Amar'e's time was split pretty much evenly between the 4 and 5 -- he played eight percent of the team's total minutes at power forward (nearly all of it with Tyson Chandler at center) and he played eight percent at center (usually playing with some combination of Carmelo Anthony, Steve Novak, Chris Copeland and Iman Shumpert at the forward positions). The contrast in results is stark (courtesy of 82games.com):

% of team's

minutes at

center

ORtg

Opp.

ORtg

Total Net

Points

at PF 8% 102.7 92.9 +69
at C 8% 93.0 99.4 -45

And last season was not an aberration: the Knicks were outscored by 55 points when Amar'e played center in 2011-12, but managed an overall plus-nine in the minutes he played at power forward. Amar'e hasn't made a positive overall contribution at center since that glorious first season in New York.

It's not that STAT is now useless as a player -- he proved last year he can still play basketball at the highest level, but only when you put him in the proper lineup. As well all know, the Knicks' roster is loaded with weak defenders. Last season, they showed they play their best basketball when they have a defensive anchor in the middle. In the absence of said defensive anchor, they still play well when going super-small and load up entirely with shooters. Remember those wacky lineups with Novak at the center, or those Novak-Copeland frontcourts? As much as they made us fans clench our butt-cheeks in abject terror, they were usually effective for one reason: they scored more than their opponents. Check out the breakdown of backup centers who played at least five percent of the team's total minutes.

% of team's

minutes at

center

ORtg

Opp.

ORtg

Total Net

Points

Amar'e Stoudemire 8% 93.0 99.4 -45
Steve Novak 5% 108.0 99.2 +35
Kenyon Martin 8% 99.6 89.6 +71
Rasheed Wallace 5% 93.3 89.7 +16

As much as I fear the prospect of Bargnani at center, numbers like these give me hope. If he can regain his shooting touch and click with Melo offensively, the Knicks can simply outscore their opponents for short stretches. The early preseason returns (to be taken with a grain of salt) look encouraging:

Not exactly optimal, but beggars can't be choosers. At least for now, Woodson's going to keep experimenting with that frontcourt.

Could Amar'e still be effective at center in the kind of up-tempo style he played in his younger days? Not with this roster, he can't. Though this year's Knicks aren't quite as geriatric as last year's squad, they still only have three regulars under the age of 29 (Bargnani, Iman Shumpert and Tim Hardaway Jr.). This is the same slow-paced, jump-shooting team as last year. Anyway, would it even be fair to ask a 30-year-old Amar'e to try to run like he did in his Suns days? At any given moment his knees are 70-percent fluid, 25-percent cyst, and five-percent cartilage. He has spoken quite candidly this preseason about his injury limitations, about wanting to do everything he can to prolong his career, so by all means, let's have him play out of position and run wind sprints down the court for 20 minutes a night.

Since he came to New York, Amar'e has sacrificed a great deal for the good of the team. Mike D'Antoni played him far too many minutes in a cynical attempt to keep his job, and Amar'e never complained. The front office asked him to bulk up to play center in the 2011 offseason, then signed Tyson Chandler, and Amar'e played the good soldier. Now he's trying to remain a quality NBA player, and he's only suited to do that at the 4. Perhaps it's time for the Knicks to stop trying to put a square peg in a round hole ... it'll better for Amar'e, and it'll be better for the team. The man needs a defensive caddy at center.

... who that caddy will be is a question for another time. Could it be one of the Knicks' training camp invites?

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