It’s easy to forget Amar’e Stoudemire’s first months in the Knicks blue and orange, when he was consistently dominating, scoring 30+ points night in and night out, and legitimately proving himself as a Top 5 player in the league. I can still remember how Stat completely owned Kevin Garnett in Game 1 of the playoffs last year before he injured his back. An injury that slowed him down and kept his performance level down throughout this season, until very recently when we started to see flashes of the “old” Stoudemire, only to see him get injured once again.
If you’re like me you’re absolutely terrified of what will happen with Amar’e and his future injury status. The reason why Stoudemire’s injury woes are much more of a concern than any normal player is not just because we’d potentially lose one of our best players; his contract would also kill the franchise’s realistic chances of repairing the problem. It’s questionable if Stoudemire is worth 20 million a year even at his best, because of his tendency to only care about offense and after all basketball is just as much about defense as it is offense. Worse yet, an injured or seriously hampered Amar’e is 1/3 of the cap space just sitting there, staring at us for the coming three seasons. That’s why it’s imperative that we find a way to make the most of the situation, regardless of if Amar’e returns to full explosiveness and health or not. And I think I may have the solution in the form of a former Knick great.
The young Larry Johnson was one of the most dominant players in the history of the NCAA. And when he came into the NBA, drafted by the Charlotte Hornets as the #1 pick, he instantly became one of the most dominant players at the professional level too. The moniker “grandmama” was born out of a Converse ad he did and LJ became a phenomenon. He was athletic, powerful and just sheer dominant. He crushed the boards and impressed in the slamdunk contest. His game was built on strength and even though he was short, he held his own as a power forward in the paint. In short (no pun) he was quite similar to Amar’e Stoudemire. But unfortunately for LJ, back injuries slowed down his game, and his athleticism was taken away as a result. Gone were the flashy dunks and the imposing power game.
LJ had to reinvent his game. And that’s exactly what he did in New York when he was traded to the Knicks for Anthony Mason. Even though he wasn’t as dominant in the paint, he became very smart and deceptive, getting to the basket with head-fakes and easy lay-ups rather than dunks. He developed an outside shot ranging all the way to three point land. He became a willing passer. But most of all he became the consummate team mate and unquestionable leader of the Knicks. In the Knicks run to the finals in 1999, Houston may have been the team’s most reliable scorer, Sprewell was the closest the team came to a major star and Marcus Camby was the team’s X-factor. But all through this, Larry Johnson was the heart and soul of the team and Jeff van Gundy who was the coach at the time has many times since stated that Larry Johnson was the best team mate he ever coached. Even though his stats declined and his star power decreased, he was the leader of the team and still managed to give us the single biggest play of the last 20 years.
If Amar’e won’t come back 100%, then this is how I envision Stoudemire for his coming years as a Knick, he should follow the blueprint written by LJ. First of all, Amar’e has got the leadership qualities and the personality to follow LJ’s path. When Stoudemire came to NY in 2010 and declared that “the Knicks are back” that forever made him the leader of the current team regardless of points per game and highlight dunks. And we know Stat’s already got the mid-range jumper in his arsenal. We’ve even seen him connect from three in key moments, which is a component he definitely should be able to develop in which case he would be un-guardable at 6’11. If he can master getting rebounds by boxing out and getting in the right position rather than outjumping the opponents, and if he can learn to get buckets in the paint by outsmarting and outmaneuvering the opponents rather than outmuscling them, he should be more than fine. The key is that he needs to find a way to just stay on the court consistently, even if it means altering the way he plays the game. That’s why I want him to take his time and not risk anything long term with his back injury, the next three seasons are more important than just one post-season, particularly given Stoudemire’s contract.
Naturally, I’d like to see Amar’e fully recover and get his full explosiveness back to where it was last year before the injuries. The 25 and 10 Amar’e that was a legitimate MVP candidate the first half of last season is of course everyone’s dream, and I hope with everything I’ve got that he will recover quickly and heal completely, and get back to that level. But even if he doesn’t, I want to remain optimistic that there is a Larry Johnson 2.0 in there just waiting to take the Knicks to the promised land.