One of the biggest questions during the first couple of months of the NBA season was about how the New York Knicks would handle the return of Amare Stoudemire. The Knicks got off to a blazing start to the season and the symmetry between the Knicks starting line-up with Carmelo Anthony at the power forward spot was perfect and the idea was that putting Amare back into the starting line-up would ruin the chemistry of what was at the time one of the five best teams in the league.
Relegating Amare to a super-sub role was obviously a hard sell for Mike Woodson to make to a player that was once the best offensive big man in the league, but to his and Amare’s credit, Stoudemire has accepted and flourished as New York’s back-up center and power forward, putting up a 21.61 PER (third amongst power forwards, albeit in 27 games) with a 64.5% true shooting percentage (also third amongst power forwards), which are large improvements over his dreadful year last season.
Ironically, Amare’s return has coincided with a 15-12 stretch for the Knicks. While New York’s defense has looked awful during this slump and Amare has never been known for his defense, he has been a net positive for the Knicks. Stoudemire has improved each month since returning and just capped off a solid February in which he averaged 14.9 points and six rebounds on 60% shooting in just 23.2 minutes per game. His start to March has been even better, as he scored 24 combined points against the Wizards, who are actually good defensively, and Heat, and just finished his best game of the season against the Cavaliers on Monday night.
Carmelo Anthony went down with a knee injury in the second quarter against the Cavs, and at the time, the Knicks were facing a 22-point deficit and a 10-game losing streak in Cleveland. Their offense was a mess in the first half and it seemed like it was just one of those nights for the Knicks and that they would be well on their way to a disappointing loss that they could pin on losing Carmelo. But then Amare stepped in and saved the day.
He played a season high 32 minutes, started the second half as the power forward next to Tyson Chandler and was key down the stretch. He finished with 22 points on 10-of-15 shooting, grabbed six boards and seemed to be filling the gaps perfectly offensively. Take a look at his reel against the Cavs and how well he scored on post-ups and how great of a job he did working the baseline on those Raymond Felton-Chandler high pick-and-rolls.
The biggest sign that Stoudemire is back, and that the Knicks are using him effectively, is that he has started to post-up more. Stoudemire posted up 242 times (12.2% of his possessions) during the 2010-11 season, which is when he was being considered a legitimate MVP candidate, according to Synergy Sports Technology. Amare shot 54.6% from the floor on post-ups that season and produced the most points per possession of anyone in the league not named Dirk Nowitzki (at least 200 possessions). That changed last year when he only shot 40% on post-ups and went to the block on just 10% of his possessions.
Stoudemire is not only producing as efficiently as ever on post-ups, he also on the block more frequently than at any other point in his career. Over the past two seasons, isolations were far and away Amare’s number one offensive play type (31.5% in ’10-’11 and 20% in ’11-’12); this year post-ups have accounted for 34.9% of Stoudemire’s offensive possessions while isolations are now his least frequent offensive play type (11 possessions in 27 games).
Stoudemire is scoring .992 points per possession on post-ups per Synergy, which ranks fourth in the league amongst players with at least 100 post-ups this year, and first amongst big men (Durant, Kobe and Wade fill out the top three while Carmelo is fifth). Stoudemire’s 58% field goal percentage on post-ups also ranks first in basketball with the next closest big man being Jason Thompson (!) at 49%.
Here are a few clips of Amare featuring the work he has done in the post this season.
To the eye, Stoudemire has been a lot more aggressive with the ball in the post this season, using his strength to create closer and more efficient looks at the rim. I’ve seen Amare utilizing traditional post moves like hook shots, spin moves and back downs to get close to the rim more than ever before, and he seems to have regained a bit of the giddyup that made him such a special player in Phoenix. Amare has always been good at putting his head down and driving on the baseline, but now he’s incorporating an extra dose of hook shots and power moves than before when he used to bail defenses out with long jumpshots.
On a related note, Amare is getting to the basket five times a game according to HoopData, which is excellent for a player that is on the floor for just 23 minutes a night. On top of that, Amare is shooting just one 16-23 foot jumpshot a game, which is his career low by a mile and a testament to his acceptance of his new role. Take a look at Amare’s shot chart and you’ll be amazed that Amare has 196 shots in the paint and just 43 shots elsewhere. Amare has always lived in the key, but he’s also been a frequent jumpshooter, but he has traded those looks for shots closer to the hoop this year.
The Knicks have been getting Amare looks in the post off of stumped pick-and-roll plays as well as classic cross screen action. It’s a nightly treat watching Raymond Felton plant his mitts in the chest of opposing big men and push with all of his mite in an attempt to get Stoudemire across the paint freely. After that cross screen is set and Amare starts establishing position – he is almost always working on the left block, by the way – Tyson Chandler will crash down from the three-point line and become a factor on the offensive boards if necessary. Most of the time, though, Amare makes a quick and effective move that results in points for the Knicks.
Amare’s numbers in the post aren’t just a way to evaluate how well he has played this season, they are also a way to evaluate the job Mike Woodson has done re-inserting him into the line-up and making him a key contributor to the team. Stoudemire has been the focal point of the offense way more this season than last year and he’s been in positions to succeed almost every time he’s touched the ball. He’s operating closer to the basket than ever, which has helped have one of the more efficient seasons of his career despite being 30 years old and fresh off knee surgery.
Speaking of that surgery, Amare is also back to being one of the league’s best dozen roll men on pick-and-rolls, which is assuring. Last season seemed ominous because of the way Stoudemire was getting stuffed at the rim and out jumped by defenders, but I feel like he’s some of those springs back this season. He is scoring 1.262 points per possession on pick-and-rolls this season according to Synergy, which is sixth best in the league out of big men with at least 50 possessions on rolls, and any jumpshots he takes on pick-and-pops are generally around the foulline range.
I really like some of the staggered high screen action that the Knicks mix to get Amare cleaner looks on rolls to the rim. Sometimes it will be with he and Chandler up high and other times it will incorporate a pair of shooters, but whatever the case may be, the mere presence of a second screener up high changes the way defenses defend pick-and-rolls.
This is a triple staggered screen up top for Pablo Prigioni, who starts the play off on the far left side of the floor in semi-transition, allowing for his three screeners to get into place offensively. Smith sets the first screen and then fades to the left wing/corner, Steve Novak sets the second one and pops to the top of the key and Amare Stoudemire sets the last screen and rolls hard to the rim.
By the time Prigioni has reached the right side of the floor, the defense may have switched on screens as many as three times, and there is always confusion as the defense enters scramble mode.
When New York ran this play against the Cavs down one with eight minutes to go in the fourth quarter, Cleveland got confused. Ellington, who was switched onto Novak on the second screen, and Speights, who was guarding Amare but never came above the foulline, both darted towards Novak once they saw him open, leaving Amare free to roll straight down the paint.
Another way that Amare has found himself contributing is by lurking on the baseline when the Knicks go to high pick-and-roll action, usually with Felton and Chandler. Felton has done a really good job this season turning the corner and breaking down the defense, forcing that second big (Amare’s man) to come over and help on the drive, which leaves Amare free for the easy drop off dunk.
With the Cavs choosing to show hard on such a high screen, it is easy for Felton to split him and dive right into the lane.
The defense is in an impossible position once Felton gets into the paint because the Knicks always space the floor with at least two shooters and Amare is clear for the easy dunk.
Interestingly, Stoudemire has played the majority of his minutes this season with Carmelo on the floor with him (433 minutes with Melo on versus 189 minutes with Melo off, according to NBA’s StatsCube). That is odd because it seemed like the primary reason for bringing Amare off the bench was to get Stoudemire to play with the bench unit and to spend as little time on the floor as possible with Anthony, since it didn’t appear as if their games meshed last season.
Last season, Carmelo was a +6.3 per 36 minutes when Amare was off the floor and -1.8 per 36 minutes when Amare was on the floor with him. That really hasn’t changed at all this season despite Amare’s improved play. Per 36 minutes, Carmelo is a +6.2 and Amare is a +7.4 when they are on the floor without each other, and they are a -2.4 when they share the floor.
The good news is that Amare’s chemistry with Chandler has improved leaps and bounds.
Last season the Amare/Chandler pairing had a net rating of -3.7 points per 100 possessions in 1001 minutes played. This year, in 303 minutes together, Amare and Chandler have a ridiculous net rating of 14.3 points per 100 possessions; the Knicks’ offense scores a bonkers 116.5 points per 100 possessions when they are on the floor (which is 4pts/100 more than Miami’s league leading rate) and their defense surrenders just 102.2 points per 100 possessions, which is slightly better than New York’s defensive rating on the season (103.3).
And though the team’s defense would rank third worst in the league if this trio played the whole game, New York’s big line-up featuring Carmelo, Amare and Chandler is scoring 115.5 points per 100 possessions (222 minutes), which is an incredible improvement over their paltry 98.5 offensive rating from last season.
You can thank the Knicks’ improved offensive harmony with those three to the fact that Carmelo has become a much better passer this season and that Felton signed with the team this summer. Melo’s improved arsenal of passes has really helped the Knicks pick apart defenses, even if his passes don’t directly lead to baskets, and Felton’s ability to penetrate on pick-and-rolls has made Amare and Chandler both better players (and we saw the potential for this during Jeremy Lin’s run in New York last season).
The Knicks certainly have a long way to go before they are going to be brought back into the title discussion, but there is reason to believe that this team, as constructed, can be a championship caliber team with some defensive improvements. There are some critical questions still to be answered by Woodson and the Knicks this season, but at least for now, we can relish in the fact that Amare Stoudemire, one of the game’s most exciting players, is back.