Before the season, no one had anything nice to say about New York Knicks forward Amar’e Stoudemire.
The jabs came left and right; he’s washed up, he can’t play defense, his knee is shot, he can’t play with Carmelo Anthony. All of those ideas were repeated to death long before the Knicks even stepped on the court.
When the season began, it got even worse. The Knicks quickly jumped out to one of the best records in the Eastern Conference and looked like a solid, cohesive team without Stoudemire in the lineup. Now, the perception of Stat wasn’t just that he was a declining player, he was a full-blown liability.
The Knicks were going to crumble once he returned to the lineup! And there’s no way they can possibly trade him!
It was even suggested that the mere presence of Stoudemire would prevent this talented Knicks squad from making a serious run for a title.
After a few weeks with Stat back in the lineup, this talk has mostly stopped. While Stoudemire looked rough in his first few games, as he was still getting back into the groove, he has looked excellent in the last stretch of games, propelling the Knicks bench and letting us all know that the dominant Stat we’ve grown accustomed to is not going away quietly.
There was plenty of talk about whether or not Stoudemire would be willing to accept a bench role, but he’s embraced the situation with open arms. Stoudemire is the anchor of the Knicks’ second unit and when Anthony can’t get his shot going, he has no problem picking up the slack. Really, Stoudemire is probably the best bench player in the league right now. If not for the time he missed due to injury, he’d be a prime candidate for Sixth Man of the Year.
His recent run of excellent play has reminded us of something many basketball bloggers seemed to forget: Stoudemire is a really, really good basketball player. As recently as two years ago, we viewed him as one of the 15 best players in the league. Obviously, that perception changed for good reason, as his 2011-12 campaign was lacking, to say the least.
The thing is, the coverage of Stoudemire was so negative that we forgot all the good things he does. We just saw him as an injury-prone ball hog who couldn’t play defense.
This recent run has allowed us to remember that he’s also one of the best low-post players in the league and once he heats from the field, no defense can contain him. More importantly, the fact that we no longer perceive Stoudemire as one of the 15 best players in the league means we no longer have to hold him to that standard. We can just watch him score 15 points in 20 minutes off the bench and say, “Oh right, I forgot how good that guy is.”
When we view someone as being “elite,” or an “alpha dog,” we inevitably hold him to impossibly high standards. Just ask Stoudemire’s teammate, Anthony, who gets scrutinized every time he bricks a jumper. Once we put someone in that group, we tend just focus on all the ways that player isn’t as good as Kevin Durant or LeBron James.
Actually, LeBron is the definitive example of this phenomenon. Before he won his first title with the Miami Heat last year, every conversation about him centered on how he was a choker, or why he couldn’t win on the biggest stage. All the great things he does on the court were largely ignored until he finally shut us up by getting that ring.
Whatever strengths these top-flight players have, we begin to disregard to focus only on their weaknesses. It’s always going to be like this; the more praise James Harden gets, the more we bash him for his weak defense; the more we appreciate Tyson Chandler‘s defense, the more we deride him for his limited offensive game.
That’s why being regarded as one of the best in the game is a blessing and a curse. You get tons of accolades, but everything you do gets taken for granted.
Stoudemire no longer has to deal with that, because no one thinks of him as a top-15 player anymore. We view him as an all-offense, no-defense guy whose fragile knees and giant contract make him untradeable. Luckily for him, this also means we no longer hold him to that ridiculously high standard, so when he shows the offensive prowess that made us love him in the first place, we can just appreciate it for the beauty that it is and not concern ourselves with whether or not Stat could be the best player on a championship team, or how much his weak defense detracts from his game.
No one knows what will happen from here.
Maybe Stoudemire’s excellent bench play carries the Knicks to a title and raises his trade value. Then, after thriving as a starter on a new team, we put him back into the elite discussion and start this conversation all over again.
Or, perhaps he spends the rest of his career in the sixth-man role and does the same job that Bob McAdoo did for the Los Angeles Lakers in the early 1980s.
Or maybe his knees never stop bothering him and he’s out of the league in two years.
We can’t say for sure. What we do know, however, is that Amar’e Stoudemire is thriving as a bench player for the Knicks, and the fact that he no longer has to deal with pressure of living up the “elite” label seems to be helping him considerably. He can just be himself, and we can appreciate that for what it is, warts and all.
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