By Ben Horney, Knicks fan since '94
The Knicks were off to their best start in years at 21-9. They were just mere percentage points behind the Eastern Conference-leading, defending champion Miami Heat, and Amar'e Stoudemire had yet to return. So by the time STAT made it back from a knee procedure that had forced him to miss the first two months of the season, it would be up to Mike Woodson to work around a minute restriction to integrate his big man back into the rotation.
Despite a litany of recent injuries, he looked like the old Stoudemire, but he sounded like a more mature edition, aware of the questions that surrounded his return.
"Whatever it takes to win," he told reporters whoasked him about his new role iff the bench. “I just want to get out there and help (the team) as much as I can, any way I can.”
For the first week and a half, Stoudemire attempted to assimilate to his new home, the low post. But beneath the rust, it was clear he had picked up a few tricks while studying under Hakeem Olajuwon during the offseason -- a glimpse of fancy footwork or a whirling spin under the basket would sometimes lead to thunderous dunks, reminiscent of when STAT first arrived in New York and declared that the Knicks were back.
As the season continued, Stoudemire became more than just a recognizable name coming off the bench. He quickly became one of the league's most efficient scorers. The ascent began quietly -- STAT's line of 13 points on 4-of-6 shooting and 5-of-6 from the free throw line in an early January loss to the Celtics was just the beginning. A few nights later, Stoudemire's 12 points on 3-of-6 shooting and 6-for-6 from the line in a victory against the Hornets came next.
By the time the Knicks landed in London for an (extremely far) away game, STAT was taking off. He scored 17 points on 3-of-5 shooting and 11-of-12 from the line in London.
Before long, Stoudemire was treating us to extraordinary performances, in spite of his limited minutes. In early February against Sacramento, STAT didn't miss a single shot, scoring 21 points on 10-of-10 shooting as the Knicks pummeled the Kings by 39 at Madison Square Garden. That night, the words "Amar'e Stoudemire" led the AP game story. 22 days after that, he scored 22 points on 9-of-10 from the field in a victory against the 76ers. His efficiency was at an all-time high.
In 29 regular season games, Stoudemire averaged 14.2 points and five rebounds on 58% shooting. Per 36 minutes, his numbers are staggeringly close to his career averages: 21.8 points and 7.7 rebounds on 58% shooting. For his career, he's averaged 22.5 points and 9.1 rebounds per 36 on 53% shooting. He shot at least 50% from the field 21 times.
STAT ended the year with the 13th highest Player Efficiency Rating in the league (22.16), ahead of players like Steph Curry and Kyrie Irving, and just below his own PER from 2010-11 -- his first season with the Knicks, when he was an MVP candidate. This season also revealed glimmers of potentially exciting chemistry between Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler. Lineups featuring all three players averaged 104.8 points per game, nearly five points more than the Knicks averaged overall as a team.
While his season was unfortunately cut short, Stoudemire made the most of it. With new wrinkles added to his game -- a soft hook shot, a one-dribble spin move down low -- STAT has become an even more efficient scorer. Now 30-years-old and heading into his twelfth NBA season, STAT has accepted his role as a veteran and has been a mentor to younger players. He understands that the ultimate goal is to bring a championship to New York, helping in any way he can.
Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images