Amar’e Stoudemire’s comeback has been the opposite of a problem

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Amar'e Stoudemire dunks. (NBA.com)
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A fair number of the media's questions for Mike Woodson following the Knicks' 120-81 destruction of the Sacramento Kings Saturday night weren't about the team's fourth straight victory or its 30-15 start, but on whether Amar'e Stoudemire, the undisputed star of the night, would be starting anytime soon.

Stoudemire, the man who signaled the rebirth of the New York Knicks back in the summer of 2010 by signing a long-term contract, but whose tenure in New York has been marked by injuries and obscured by the rise of Carmelo Anthony, has been scoring lately as effectively as he ever did in his finest years with the Phoenix Suns.

On Saturday night, he took ten shots, and he made all of them. He made his only free throw attempt. He scored 21 points in just under 21 minutes of action. And his entrance into the game marked the turnaround point, taking a Knicks team that had been trailing the Kings, 13-3, and lifting them to as much as a 50-point lead.

So naturally, reporters wanted to know: Would Woodson consider starting Stoudemire?

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"I'm not real worried about that, I'm really not," said Woodson, who worries about almost everything. "We're winning the way we are right now. I don't see anything wrong with that."

It seems unlikely, before the latest comeback, that Stoudemire would ever again approach his pre-Knicks peak, or even the M.V.P.-level play he gave the Knicks in his first season in New York, before a back injury ended one season early and a knee injury delayed this one. But through 15 games, Stoudemire is shooting 58.5 percent, as high a mark as he's put up since 2007-08, and a percentage that would rank fifth in the league if he'd played enough minutes to qualify. 

And that's without accounting for rust: Stoudemire shot 44 percent in his first seven games back, and in his past eight games, he's shooting an absurd 69 percent from the field. That would lead the league in accuracy, just ahead of teammate Tyson Chandler. But unlike Chandler, who uses less than 14 percent of his team's offensive possessions, Stoudemire has done this while using 27 percent of possessions, up around Paul Pierce/Tim Duncan levels.

Over his last eight games, Stoudemire is scoring both as often and as efficiently as he ever did in his accomplished career.

So the question about whether Stoudemire will start is good one, but less important than the questions of whether he'll play starter minutes, and what that will mean for the production of Carmelo Anthony.

J.R. Smith, who has yet to start a single game with the Knicks despite some devastating injury combinations in the backcourt, has logged the most minutes on the Knicks this season. Not Anthony, not Chandler, but Smith. 

Stoudemire, even during this eight-game stretch, hasn't been playing nearly that much. He's averaged 22.3 minutes per game since returning, and over the past eight games, that's up to just 23.9. He played 21 against the Kings, in a blowout. A night earlier, against the Bucks, a game that was close until relatively late saw Stoudemire play just 24 minutes.

This is more to do with the simple math of maximizing both Stoudemire's time on the floor independent of Anthony, and vice versa, than anything else. Stoudemire's logged 334 minutes total, of which 239, or 71 percent, have been with Anthony on the floor as well.

Considering that Anthony averages 37.8 minutes per game, it's impressive that Woodson has found that much alone time for Stoudemire to lead the Knicks' offensive charge. But getting more Stoudemire minutes requires either more time for the two stars together, or less Anthony time on the court.

Woodson could increase Stoudemire's minutes either way. More minutes with Anthony and Stoudemire together would give the Knicks an opportunity to force defenses to decide between concentrating on Anthony and letting Stoudemire beat them, or focusing on Stoudemire and allowing one of the league's best scorers unlimited one-on-one opportunities.

But with many months until the playoffs begin, Stoudemire's rise also means that Woodson can play Anthony less, which may actually be necessary. The Knicks have been so dependent on Anthony's offense that he's been averaging 37.8 minutes per game, the most he's put up in several years. And over 15 games from December 23 through Friday night against the Bucks, that number rose even higher, to 41.5 minutes per game. Anthony played well, but his efficiency started to drop a bit from his early-season levels, when he played fewer than 36 minutes per game over the first 22 contests.

Simply giving Anthony 5-6 extra minutes per game to rest, and letting Stoudemire increase his minutes load to around 30, will result in many more opportunities for Stoudemire to attack opposing defenses, and make for a stronger Anthony both in the regular season and, ultimately, the playoffs.

Amar'e Stoudemire's return, far from being a problem, is looking like a best-case scenario.

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