The Amar’e Conundrum

With the Knicks star’s return just weeks away, what the hell is the team going to do?

With the Knicks star’s return just weeks away, what the hell is the team going to do?

Photo: Jesse D. Garrabrant / NBAE / Getty Images | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2013

At 12-4, the New York Knicks are off to their best start in two decades, just a half-game behind the World Champion Heat for the best record in the Eastern Conference. They’ve done this with good defense, ball distribution, and surprisingly deep (albeit ancient) bench. But things aren’t all sunny in Knickland, not with the impending return of star power forward Amar’e Stoudemire set for Christmas Day. Whether that turns out to be a nice present, gift-wrapped under the tree, or a lump of coal in New York’s collective stocking, remains to be seen.

It’s tough to recall, but just two years ago Stoudemire was the prince of the city. A player who had initially seemed like a poor consolation prize in the Lebron sweepstakes came out firing on all cylinders, putting the team on his back, and exciting the long-suffering MSG faithful, who showered their new star with chants of “MVP.” Then came Carmelo, injuries, Linsanity, fire-extinguishers. . . and confusion. The arrival of Carmelo Anthony on the Knicks’ roster knocked Stoudemire off his alpha-dog pedestal, as it quickly became clear that the two players – both elite scorers but poor defenders – frankly sucked donkeys when sharing the hardwood, and the Knicks preformed far better when only one of them was dominating the team’s offensive attack.

New York’s hot start this season has only highlighted what fans already knew: with Carmelo taking Stoudemire’s power forward role, and center Tyson Chandler picking up his pick-and-roll duties, the Knicks’ offense sings, and their defense stifles. It’s fun to be a Knicks fan again. ‘Melo’s playing better defense than ever, he’s playing less selfishly while still ranking second in the league in scoring, and he’s the one getting the MVP chants. So what happens when Amar’e comes back? 

The obviously answer, which fans and pundits alike have been campaigning for, is to play Stoudemire off the bench as the league’s best-compensated sixth man. It would mean swallowing some pride, but it would also mean preserving STAT’s oft-injured body, and would give the Knicks a truly exciting second unit, and one of the deeper squads in the league. The model that the Knicks should look to is the Celtics, who in John Havliceck and Kevin McHale, were blessed with the two best sixth men of all time. Coming off the bench, Hondo, a 13-time All-Star and Hall of Famer, helped lead Boston to eight NBA titles. Fellow Hall-of-Famer McHale, a seven-time All-Star and two-time Sixth Man of the Year, helped lead the team to three titles, while spelling Larry Bird and Robert Parish. Granted, both of these guys were elite defenders, something Stoudemire most certainly is not. But they prove that there’s nothing wrong with having a team’s second-best player coming off the bench (though whether STAT is still the Knicks’ second-best player is up for debate.) Just think of it like the second line of a hockey team. (In case you’ve forgotten, “hockey” is a team sport played on “ice” using “sticks” and “pucks.” Once upon a time it was quite popular).

Luckily for the Knicks, Stoudemire has indicated he’d be willing to take on the Sixth Man role, and if everything goes right, his return (and that of ace defensive stopper Iman Shumpert) could make for a very scary Knicks lineup. Or the Knicks could trade him to the Lakers for Pau Gasol, reuniting Stoudemire with his former Suns and Knicks coach Mike Dantoni. And for opposing teams, that could be even scarier.

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