Once upon a time, Amar'e Stoudemire was the king of New York, the Knicks inspired hope and Madison Square Garden was a palace of basketball splendor.
And it might be again, if Stoudemire recovers from an abysmal 2011-12 campaign and gives tortured hoops-heads in the Big Apple reason to smile again in the process.
Let's first go back to the winter of 2011, when STAT still had that new-car smell and the ink was still fresh on his five-year, $100 million deal. A win over the Atlanta Hawks on February 16th left the Knicks at 28-26 overall, already on their way to their first winning record since the 2000-01 season.
Through his first 53 games in a Knicks uniform (not including one missed on January 12th), STAT averaged 26.1 points (on 50.7 percent shooting), 8.6 rebounds and 2.7 assists while carrying the interior load for an exciting squad under the auspices of fast-break guru Mike D'Antoni.
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Those were simpler, more innocent times at Madison Square Garden. The Knicks had a young, up-and-coming roster, featuring the likes of Danilo Gallinari, Raymond Felton, Wilson Chandler and Timofey Mozgov.
But then Knicks owner James Dolan pushed hard for Carmelo Anthony, GM Donnie Walsh caved in, and away went New York's exuberant nucleus, replaced on February 22 by a wantaway superstar, an aging point guard (Chauncey Billups) and a bucket of boat trash (Shelden Williams, Renaldo Balkman and Anthony Carter) unbecoming of even an entree at Bubba Gump.
Gone were the myriad pick-and-rolls, the uptempo basketball free from the burden of expectation, and the All-Star spirit that Stoudemire had embodied. The Knicks went 14-14 over their final 28 games, while Stoudemire's numbers dropped to 23.5 points (on 49.1 percent shooting), 7.3 rebounds and 2.4 assists as he sacrificed his game to help his buddy 'Melo fit in.
Then came a first-round playoff sweep at the hands of the Boston Celtics. Then the lockout. Then GM Glen Grunwald essentially swapped out Chauncey Billups for Tyson Chandler. Then a slow start to the shortened season, for Stoudemire as well as the Knicks. Then personal tragedy, Linsanity, D'Antoni's departure, back problems, a busted fire extinguisher case and a five-game "gentleman's sweep" at the hands of the eventual-champion Miami Heat.
All told, STAT's stats dropped precipitously—to 17.5 points, 7.9 rebounds and 1.1 assists, his worst numbers over the course of a full season since his rookie season with the Phoenix Suns. Carmelo's weren't particularly impressive, either, at least by his standards.
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Which brings us to the present day. Jeremy Lin is off to Houston, replaced by Felton and Jason Kidd. Kurt Thomas and Marcus Camby are in, too, as much to bolster the bench as to solidify the Knicks' standing as a safe haven for AARP members in mesh shorts.
The change could be good for Stoudemire, though. He could certainly use a fresh start after all the mayhem and embarrassment of last season.
A normal offseason of rest, healing and training should serve him well, as should the arrivals of Felton and Kidd—two pass-first point guards who, for all of their flaws on and off the court, should better be able to facilitate an offense with scorers like 'Melo and Amar'e better than the ball-dominant Lin did.
A pick-and-roll here, a few wins there, and perhaps Stoudemire will be back in the good graces of those New York sports fans who disdain his decline and detest the fact that it'll cost the Knicks more than $65 million over the next three years to watch it continue.
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Chances are, STAT's never going to be the perennial All-Star of old, or even the player he was when he had the spotlight at MSG all to himself. He'll be 30 in November, inhabiting a body that's been embrittled over the years by injuries and the usual wear-and-tear that comes with playing basketball professionally.
There's plenty of reason for optimism, though. He and Carmelo will finally have the benefit of a full training camp to work out the kinks of playing together, under the guidance of iso offense proponent Mike Woodson. He'll also have veteran backups like Thomas, Camby and Balkman on whom to rely if/when the time comes to depress his minutes.
Frankly, though, a big bounce-back campaign by Amar'e won't matter unless it leads to more wins—and something more than a blip in the playoff picture—for the Knicks. Stoudemire may describe himself as STAT ("Standing Tall And Talented), but he's not there just to pile up points and rebounds.
Or shouldn't be, anyway.
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Ultimately, the best way for Amar'e to mend fences with New Yorkers is to make the Knicks a respectable winning outfit that's fun to watch. That'll certainly require better production out of Stoudemire and, in turn, better bang-for-their-buck for the Knicks.
More importantly, Stoudemire will have to develop a more effective working relationship with Carmelo and turn himself into a key cog in a successful, if expensive, basketball machine.
That may not be enough to make him the king of New York again, but at least he'll be cheered rather than jeered by those who profess a love of the jersey he wears every night.