Unsolved mysteries of the Knicks, and the tantalizing reemergence of Amar’e Stoudemire

Stoudemire and Lin. (nba.com)
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Among the nearly incalculable number of plotlines provided this year by the New York Knicks—Linsanity, Carmelo Anthony's attitude toward sharing the ball, Steve Novak's emergence, J.R. Smith's attitude toward everything, and many more—none has been more consistently negative than the one about the performance of Amar'e Stoudemire.

As recently as last season, Stoudemire was a force—averaging better than 25 points and eight rebounds per game on 50 percent shooting. His Player Efficiency Rating—a metric measuring total production—ranked 12th in the N.B.A.

But after a back injury forced him out of New York's first-round loss to Boston in last spring's N.B.A. playoffs, Stoudemire spent the summer, and then the fall, resting and rehabilitating his back. As a result, Stoudemire says, he went months without even picking up a basketball.

The results were evident, both in Stoudemire's stat line and by watching him on the court. His Player Efficiency Rating this year of 16.4 ranks fifth—on his own team. The once-accurate shooter has a season field-goal percentage of just over 44 percent.

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Though Stoudemire made his name by exploding over defenders for fearsome dunks, he has frequently gotten his shot blocked by smaller players this season. And while he's never been a quality defender, the number of times he's appeared to simply give up on plays on the defensive end has risen sharply over last season as well.

So with the Knicks struggling to find the right formula to turn their collection of individual talent into a title-contending team—and, to be fair, they've only been at it, full strength, for a few weeks—Stoudemire's 26 points, multiple rim-shattering finishes and even his commitment to defending Dirk Nowitzki could be the most important thing to come from what was otherwise a dispiriting 95-85 loss to the Dallas Mavericks Tuesday night.

To be sure, Dallas' defense was custom-built for an Amar'e breakout game. Dallas lacks a solid interior defender, with Tyson Chandler now a Knick and Brendan Haywood out due to injury. Shawn Marion, the Mavericks' best defender, locked down Carmelo Anthony, while a series of double teams attacked Jeremy Lin. That left Dallas with no answer for Stoudemire.

He took advantage, dominating the Mavericks with a ten-point second quarter on 4-for-4 shooting, and led New York with 12 points overall in the first half. He shot 5-for-7 in the half; the rest of the Knicks shot 11-for-32.

But these Knicks still don't know how to take advantage of their mismatches. The very reason having weapons like Stoudemire, Anthony and, yes, Lin at the same time matters so much isn't so that a coach can measure an equal number of possessions and shots, dividing them neatly between the three.

It is because on some nights, the opposition will be Dallas, and Stoudemire will be the matchup the Knicks' opponents cannot contain. Other nights, it will be the Chicago Bulls, who have ample interior defenders to slow Stoudemire but no real defensive presence to stop Jeremy Lin from making mischief. And on still other nights, it will be Carmelo Anthony who provides opposing defenses questions on the wing they cannot answer.

Stoudemire struggled somewhat in the third quarter, as Dallas switched to a double-team on him, and Carmelo Anthony failed to take advantage of the newly found space. But by the fourth quarter, with Dallas reeling and the Knicks clamping down defensively, Stoudemire was repeatedly ignored by his teammates. Baron Davis took six shots, as did Steve Novak—Stoudemire got only five, four of the five coming after Lin replaced Davis with under four minutes left, a bit too late to hold off Dallas.

Davis and Novak have been nice stories. But the fortunes of N.B.A. teams rise and fall on players like Stoudemire, the reason New York paid more than $100 million over five years to bring him in. At the very least, the Knicks have reason to be cautiously optimistic about the way he's trending. Check out Stoudemire's field goal percentages by month: 40 percent in December, 43 percent in January, 47 percent in February, and 50 percent in his two March games.

The Knicks stand at an odd position at this point in the season.

They've obviously failed to coalesce as a team yet—which is entirely understandable, considering that they've had a starting point guard for a month, his first month getting regular minutes, while the trio of Lin/Anthony/Stoudemire have been playing together for 16 days. And if they do nothing more than tread water over the final 28 games of the regular season, they're likely to still end up in the playoffs. As of now, they are the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. Should they make any kind of move forward, with Boston 2.5 up and Philadelphia 3.5 up in the Atlantic Division, they could easily find themselves with a division title, a third seed, and home court in the playoffs against anyone other than Miami and Chicago.

But exactly how long it takes for a team with two stars and a sensational point guard learning the league as he goes to figure out how to play together is anyone's guess. They've got 28 regular-season games to figure it out, plus however long they can extend their season into the playoffs. And if they fail, the Knicks will spend the summer listening to questions from impatient fans, for whom Linsanity will be a wistful and very distant memory.