Credit Mike Woodson For The Resurgence of Amar’e StoudemireA Sports Scribe, Basketball — By J. Clinkscales on February 7, 2013 at 8:24 am
A year ago, the New York Knicks were the most confusing team in the NBA. Sure, if you haven’t heard by now, Linsanity began in earnest a year ago this past Monday against the former New Jersey Nets. Yet despite the team’s improved fortunes with Jeremy Lin running the point, a few weeks later, Mike D’Antoni would resign, allegedly chased out by Carmelo Anthony. Multiple injuries set the team back, but they were able to grab the seventh seed in the playoffs only to be ushered out by the eventual champion, Miami Heat.
Yet the one part of this team that seemed to have pushed the calamity over the edge was a guy who missed a critical fifth of the shortened season: Amar’e Stoudemire.
STAT, in these parts, has been likened to a six-nine shooting guard thanks to an allergy to defense and an offensive game that plays beneath his physical stature. His Phoenix Suns days were about being a remixed version of Shawn Kemp with a combination of power and fluidity, but he was the cog of the wheel called Seven Seconds or Less. His arrival to New York signaled his chance to forge his own identity, even if eventually he would resume a Robin role to someone’s Batman.
These days, Stoudemire has found his groove in a most unexpected manner. After a personally and professionally difficult 2011-12 season and the injury setback that delayed his return this year, Stoudemire has not been the wrecking ball tons of fans expected. In fact, he’s played arguably the best basketball since coming to New York. There are plenty of reasons why it has worked thus far, and truthfully, every single one goes back to one: head coach Mike Woodson.
Accountability has been the theme ever since Woodson took over as interim coach last March, notably on defense as the Knicks rank in the upper tier of teams in the league in several defensive categories. However, the responsibility to one another on that side of the ball was something he forged when he was hired as the ‘defensive coordinator’ of sorts in that previous offseason. It’s how he’s handled the team’s offense that has probably been most impressive, including with pulling the strings behind Anthony, the mercurial J.R. Smith, and STAT himself.
Stoudemire has been scoring much more efficiently, despite his actual points per game being down for a second straight year. In just 47 games during the lockout-shortened campaign, his PPG dropped by nearly eight points from his first season in New York (17.5 against 25.3) while shooting at only 48%, his lowest clip since his sophomore campaign in 2003-04. And those numbers came with him playing in a bizarre stretch-forward offense that had him roaming around the three-point line until a ball handler penetrated into the key. Considering that he was not known for a consistent jump shooter past 12 feet, that D’Antoni play him in that way not only diminished his numbers, but left him as a 3rd or even 4th option on offense.
(To be fair, D’Antoni was also trying to find an offense that blended Anthony, Smith and, inevitably, Lin while using Tyson Chandler’s rebounding abilities.)
Now, he’s playing in the post far more than recent years with some credit going to the summer workouts with Hakeem Olajuwon. He’s at a shade under 14 PPG, but his field-goal percentage is ten points higher than last year. Much of this comes from being the featured option with the second unit, but even when he’s on the floor with the starters, Anthony and Chandler managed to clear the way for him to work on the low block. Even his defensive efforts have paid off in earnest, as he’s not a complete matador on every play (to borrow from Walt Frazier).
Honestly, if D’Antoni was still pacing the sideline at Madison Square Garden, the management of Stoudemire would have been absolutely mangled. STAT would have likely been rushed back to the lineup, especially when the Knicks lost Rasheed Wallace and Marcus Camby to injury and the offense became stagnant in early January. He would have gone back to playing at angles as he did in the very confusing 2011-12 campaign, waiting to be set up instead of demanding his own shot.
And if one needs further proof that Stoudemire’s role would have withered even more, we already see how much of a struggle it has been for D’Antoni to manage the injuries, minutes and hot/cold runs of the Los Angeles Lakers, arguably the most talented team he has ever coached. The current season of Pau Gasol could stand in for Stoudemire’s a year ago.
It’s very easy to say that in the Association, coaches don’t really coach so much as they manage, if not massage egos. They are hired to be fired, as the adage goes. Talent supersedes authority because if the players themselves don’t buy into the system that is supposed to maximize their gifts, the coach has to hand in his whistle. However, something has to be said when a coach who has managed to place his imprint on a team after so many changes could have jaded the players.
Mike Woodson had been labeled solidly mediocre after his six years at the helm for the Atlanta Hawks, and was criticized roundly for heavy isolation offensive sets and an uneven relationship with Josh Smith. Yet, in New York, he has been able to get the most out of Amar’e Stoudemire’s mind, battered body and rejuvenated basketball soul in a way that Mike D’Antoni used to once upon a time in the desert.