I’m a neurotic Jew, so every moment of Knicks-related bliss I feel is accompanied by dread. And with the Knicks the only undefeated team in the league at 4-0, there’s a lot of bliss/dread going on over here. Not only that, but I’m left with a lot of time for reflecting on my bliss/dread because the Knicks seem to play every six days or so (seriously, what is that about? I haven’t felt this way about anything since I was sixteen.)
I can tell I’m not the only one with this particular psychological issue because lately I’ve been having the same conversation with Knicks fans of all shapes, sizes and religious denominations. You know what it is because you’ve been having it too: what are the Knicks going to do when Amar’e Stoudemire returns from The World’s Most Disgusting Injury (ruptured knee cyst)?
The consensus view is that he’s going to have to come off the bench. And I think that’s right. As long as the Knicks are something like 12-8 or better when he returns they’ll have the political capital to do it and it shouldn’t be an issue. Amar’e will have no choice but to accept it. I fully understand that might not be the case. This is the NBA after all. But it should be.
I don’t think it’s a move that should be made simply to avoid screwing with the high-functioning offense and defense (more impressive than being 4-0, the Knicks rank second in offensive efficiency and first in defensive efficiency.) Rather, its a move that can buttress their second unit and make them an even better squad.
First, let’s set the stage. It’s important to remember that putting STAT on the bench doesn’t mean him and Carmelo will never share the court again. But it does mean a lot more minutes for Carmelo at the four, which we’ve all observed is a great thing (and is borne out by the team’s record when he’s at the position and the fact that he’s leading the league in scoring this season at 27.3 while playing the four.) But that’s in the “we can’t let Amar’e screw this up” conversation and that’s not what we’re doing right now.
The thing I’m most concerned about with the Knicks is whether the second unit will be able to execute in situations where the defense really bears down. You know, like in an Eastern Conference Finals-type (yeah, I said it) situation where Melo’s on the bench and the Knicks really need to get a good look out of a called play. There’s no doubt that Camby, Rasheed, Novak, JR Smith and Prigioni are quality backups (not to mention Shump - man are the Knicks deep all of a sudden.) But in a situation where JR Smith isn’t feeling it, I’m not sure whose number you’d call when you need to call a play for a bucket in a tight spot with Carmelo Anthony off the floor. Obviously you don’t play your second unit all at once but it’s easy to imagine a situation where the Knicks have Carmelo on the bench and Rasheed and Prigioni on with Chandler, Brewer and Smith. The Knicks need a low-difficulty, reliable look at the bucket. Are they really going to call a play for Rasheed and Prigioni to run a pick and roll? Are they going to clear it out and give it to Wallace in the post? So far his buckets have come from three and trailing breaks. He’s not posting up like he did in (wait for it) 1999.
They won’t. And although JR’s been excellent this season, he’s never a guarantee. Brewer might be knocking them down now but he isn’t a shooter and although I’d like to forget it I remember how Novak couldn’t get a shot against Miami in the playoffs. Shump is not an offensive juggernaut and anyway he’s not available until sometime around Three Kings Day.
But now replace Wallace with Amar’e. He’s on the court, playing with any of Chandler, Wallace or Camby and Novak. Amar’e can then run the pick and roll with Kidd or Prigioni or Felton, whichever one or two are out there. That’ll be especially effective where Wallace and Novak can fan out to the three point line and spread the floor, opening up the middle. It doesn’t matter, each combo works. The Knicks have three guards capable of playing pick and roll, always a specialty of Amar’e’s. It’s easy to forget that (remember, for example, this and this.) And he can make that the go-to strategy for the Knicks’ second unit.
Which brings me to my next point. Pablo Prigioni has been a little up and down in his first four games but for now he’s firmly entrenched as the team’s backup point guard. And there’s something he’s especially good at. Time and again I’ve seen Prigioni initiate the P&R and find the screener for a pop-out jump shot by starting his drive and contorting his body to deliver the pass back up high. Last year was a down year for Amar’e’s shooting - he shot just 36% on two-pointers outside the paint - but he’s typically been good (he shot 44% the year before.) I could see him and Prigioni really going to work together when Carmelo and Felton come off the court. We already know Jason Kidd is a magician and Felton and Stoudemire have chemistry. I’d like to see if Prigs and STAT can find a rhythm too.
There’s also rebounding. Amar’e had the 35th best rebounding rate for a power forward last season (that’s the percentage of missed shots a player rebounds, adjusted for pace and minutes played) at 13.7. Playing him with Marcus Camby - who led the league in rebounding rate last season at 22.8 - will balance some of STAT’s rebounding deficiencies out. And of course Camby’s ability to protect the rim is on par with Tyson Chandler’s.
Which brings me to my last point. This is a good move for Amar’e Stoudemire long term. Since the Knicks signed Stoudemire I’ve seen a lot of similarities between him and Elton Brand. Not in terms of game but in terms of circumstance. Both guys are 4/5s who battled big injuries and went on to sign contracts that were only offered by teams with nowhere else to turn. Brand was amnestied this offseason by the 76ers. That of course isn’t possible for Amar’e. But Elton Brand is still in the NBA and will earn $2.1 million this season. Less minutes now means more years and NBA dollars later (Brand could likely have gotten more but didn’t need to as he’s also getting his $18 million from Philly.) You know what else will extend Amar’e’s career? Making it clear to front offices across the league that he’s a team player willing to play a lesser role if needed. I realize this is a stretch for a 29 year-old. But it’s something he should consider.
I’m not a big X’s and O’s guy, but I see a real opportunity for Amar’e Stoudemire to make the second unit his and to address one of the Knicks most serious needs, not just avoid messing with a good thing. I have no doubt that by playing fifteen of his twenty five minutes per game without Carmelo Anthony he can come close to his 17.5 per game scoring average last season while limiting wear and tear on his knees and extending his career. It’s something Woodson and the Knicks front office need to bring to bear, especially if their record gives them the leverage to do so.