After watching Amare Stoudemire over the last nine games, you start to realize why Donnie Walsh and Mike D’Antoni got over losing LeBron James so quickly this summer.
James enters the Garden Friday for the first time since taking his talents to South Beach. Miami is riding a 10-game winning streak, but it’s not that far fetched to believe that had James signed with the Knicks this past July, the Knicks’ Dynamic Duo would’ve actually been more potent than the current Big Three in Miami.
The Heat are as hot as their nickname, but the new-look Knicks are just as smoking, winners of eight of their last 10. They hung 116 points on the defending Eastern Conference champion Boston Celtics Wednesday. Stoudemire now has his sights set on a flawed Miami frontcourt after decimating Boston’s sturdy interior for 39 points on 15 of 22 shooting.
“I figure as long we keep winning and keep having success, that’s what the fans want to see,” Stoudemire said. “So LeBron right now is in Miami and we’re in New York. It’s going to be a battle.”
Stoudemire’s nine-straight 30-point games is a franchise record. He’s averaging 26.7 points, nine rebounds and two blocks per game while James is posting 24 points, six rebounds, and seven assists per game.
When James made his narcissistic “decision” he basically said he wanted no part of a Knicks roster that was about to have an overhaul for the better; that the bright lights of New York City were too hot; and basically that no matter how great he thought he was, the Knicks weren’t going to build a winner anytime soon – and he wasn’t equipped to carry a franchise anymore.
Flash forward to current times and it’s the Knicks who are arguably the most exciting team in the league, averaging the second-most points per game this season [108.8], so it looks like James once again made an ill-fated decision. But like Knicks owner James Dolan crudely – and accurately – stated back in July, some guys just aren’t made to handle that type of pressure.
“It takes courage to play where the lights shine the brightest,” boasted Dolan upon signing Stoudemire, clearly sending a subtle jab at James.
It was Stoudemire who yearned to call the City and the Garden his home. Stoudemire wanted that type of burden, which has only endeared him to the faithful. That’s the type of franchise player team president Donnie Walsh wanted when he sought to give a max contract to one of the free agent superstars.
“I’ve been impressed with Amar’e not only as a player but as a person,” beamed Walsh after a recent practice. “He’s been everything I wanted in a [franchise] player and more.”
Meanwhile, it was James who initially struggled sharing the load with fellow all-NBA player Dwyane Wade. It’s been James who’s seemed tentative at times to take over games [see: both losses to the Celtics] because he’s still feeling out his new teammates and the sometimes abrasive head coach Erik Spoelstra.
Had James joined the Knicks instead, taking into account how both rosters look right now, it’s not difficult to see that perhaps “The Chosen One” chose the wrong team. Judging by their slow start, the Knicks took time to gel as well but once they did, they took off, as each player in the regular rotation has experienced spikes in their scoring average, shots made and attempted, and minutes played. New York has the look of a solid Eastern Conference contender, sans James, so maybe Knicks fans should actually thank the self-indulged King for not choosing New York as his kingdom.
Comparing James’s supporting cast to Stoudemire’s is almost unfair – for James. Yes, James has Wade and fellow all-star Chris Bosh but after those two, the talent drops precipitously. The regular rotation for the Heat feature also-rans named Carlos Arroyo, Mario Chalmers, James Jones, Joel Anthony, Eddie House, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Jamaal Magliore, Juwan Howard, and Erick Dampier. Forward/Center Udonis Haslem, who’s serviceable, and shooting guard Mike Miller are both out indefinitely with injuries.
Meanwhile, the average age of Stoudemire’s sidekicks is 25 years old – and each player is on an ascending arc. It’s not difficult to believe that had James joined Stoudemire, and the cast continued its upward swing, the Knicks would’ve been a dynasty within a couple of seasons. Stoudemire’s crew is full of promise, led by Raymond Felton [18 ppg, 9 apg], who’s suddenly been thrust into the discussion as a top-tier point guard. The regular rotation also includes Wilson Chandler [17 ppg, 1.7 blocks per game], Danilo Gallinari [15 ppg], Landry Fields [10 ppg], Toney Douglas [10 ppg, 1.5 steals per game], and Ronny Turiaf [1.5 bpg]. Not to mention subs like the sweet-shooting Shawne Williams, athletic Bill Walker, versatile Anthony Randolph, and the Russian banger Timofey Mozgov have also seen significant minutes at times and are budding regular contributors.
The Knicks are currently tied with the Atlanta Hawks [16-10] for the fifth seed but Joe Johnson is out a couple of weeks after elbow surgery. The other team that New York can realistically pass in the standings is the Chicago Bulls [16-8] but with Joakim Noah now out at least 10 weeks with torn ligaments in his right thumb, the Knicks could realistically be a four seed and have homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Just imagine if the Knicks stand firm at the four seed and the Heat overcome the Celtics [20-4] for the top seed. That would set up a fantastic second-round Knicks-Heat matchup. And if the Knicks fans are to be so lucky, they’ll get at least two more games to show what the King is missing out on: a budding team on the verge of big things and a real franchise player who’d rather win as the centerpiece than submissively assemble the NBA’s version of “The Super Friends.”