The first thing he sacrificed for the Knicks was his body.
When the Knicks signed Amar’e Stoudemire they knew they had to be careful with his conditioning, particularly his knees. While Stoudemire had at that stage only had the one major injury – cartilage damage in his knees that required micro-fracture surgery in 2005 – the Knicks knew that they had to avoid putting too much strain on his physique. Although he’d averaged 34 minutes a game across all 82 games the previous season, the Knicks had been told that his 5 year $99.7m contract could not be insured because of concerns about his knees.[i] This had also been the reason that Phoenix had not offered him a long term contract despite him putting up 23 and 9 the year before.
The coach of the time, Mike D’Antoni, had been Stoudemire’s coach in Phoenix and was well aware of his strengths (setting the pick and rolling to the rack, using his explosive first step in the post, facing up slower big men, hitting an 18 footer when the defence sagged) and his weaknesses (defence, knees and back). So while D’Antoni did an excellent job making sure Amar’e got the ball in the places he could go to work, he also rode these skills to relevance at the expense of Stoudemire’s future.
Amar’e averaged nearly 37 minutes a game in his first season with the Knicks. He scored 25 points and 8 rebounds a game, and totaled 8 win shares and a 1.9 VORP[ii] per basketball-reference.com. All of this production, all of these minutes, all of this work got the Knicks above .500 and making the playoffs for the first time since the 2000-01 season. Unfortunately, they only finished 42-40, getting swept in the first round of the playoffs by the Celtics.
Stoudemire’s body couldn’t sustain this workload – indeed these minutes may have contributed to the ongoing injuries he would face in the coming years. In the playoffs against the Celtics he hurt his back in warm-ups. Then he hurt his knee again before the 2011-12 season and ended up playing only 47 games that year. He had ‘secret’ knee surgery again after the 2012-13 season
He would never again play the full complement of games for the Knicks, and became a ‘sometimes’ player, playing only 29, 65 and 36 (of 53) games over the coming years as injuries took their toll.
But by this stage, Amar’e had been asked to make a second sacrifice for the Knicks – his game.
When the Knicks traded for Carmelo Anthony in early 2011 it was unquestionably a difficult fit for Amar’e. Stoudemire had been asked to carry the team from the moment he got to New York. Now he was asked to take backstage to Melo’s brand of basketball – one that relied on the ball being in Melo’s hands, instead of Stoudemire’s. A team with a better point guard than Jeremy Lin and Raymond Felton, or a better coach than Mike D’Antoni or Mike Woodson, may have been able to find a way to make the ball work better with these two ‘shoot first and last’ players.
Even worse, the defensive deficiencies of both players made it clear that the Knicks could not be an elite team while both players shared the court. Unfortunately, the contracts of both meant they had to co-exist, and so Amar’e took a back seat, often finding himself playing off the bench (he didn’t start a single game in 2012-13) while the team’s offence and success centred around Melo.
Ultimately, sacrificing his body and his game for the Knicks didn’t bring Amar’e much. There was the All-Star season in his first season with the Knicks. There was one playoffs series victory against the Celtics in 2012-13. It was not for nothing, but what Amar’e gave was not returned in kind by personal or team success.
Finally, the Knicks have made a sacrifice for Stoudemire.
With his contract running out this year, and no hope of trading him for anything of value, the Knicks and Stoudemire will finally part ways, agreeing to a buyout that will see Amar’e free to sign elsewhere. Amar’e is rumoured to be sought out by Dallas, the Clippers and the Thunder – all championship contenders that desperately need front-court depth. He still offers excellent speed in the post on offence, and the ability to knock down the 18 footer is ever-present. These contenders will do well to use him in short spurts off the bench to avoid wearing down his already weary body.
He will be sorely missed by Knicks fans for bringing relevance to the Knicks after the dark years between 2000-01 and 2011-12. But most of all because he will be remembered for the sacrifices he made to his body, and his game, to bring New York success.
Enjoy the next phase of your career Amar’e. Here’s hoping the sacrifices are more rewarding this time.
[i] From Quora.com: “When a team signs a contract with a player, they’re typically able to take out insurance on that contract in the case of something like a sudden, debilitating injury. The insurance provider on the contract will require a physical exam and access to medical records before providing coverage (if you’re getting the sense that the player in this scenario is being treated like an asset, no more than any other economic commodity such as a piece of machinery or new factory, you’re correct). In the case of Stoudemire, his medical history drew enough red flags to win a game of Risk and the insurance providers bowed out. That makes his contract a pretty large financial liability, similar to buying a $100m asset with no warranty. Most teams wouldn’t be able to take on that kind of liability. But the Knicks are different; they have deeper pockets than many of the family owned franchises in the league.”
[ii] VORP is Value of Replacement Player. This is actually a relatively low VORP which reflects that his stats are slight inflated by D’Antoni’s all offence no defence style, which results in lots of points but not necessarily wins. Lebron and Jordan’s VORPs are around 12 in their best seasons, and 1.9 would be below average for Carmelo Anthony.