Amar’e Stoudemire is in Houston, having joined the long list of NBA players who have turned to Hakeem Olajuwon for post-up tutoring. Which raises the question: What the heck happened to Stoudemire’s post game?
We don’t think of Stoudemire as a post-up player because even in his Phoenix prime, he was a turbo-charged pick-and-roll finisher for Steve Nash and a guy who preferred to face the basket in one-on-one situations.
But he had a post game, especially in 2009-10, when the Suns made a memorable run to the Western Conference finals under Alvin Gentry. In that season, 19.2 percent of the possessions Stoudemire finished with a shot, turnover or drawn foul came via post-up plays, according to Synergy Sports. That was a larger share than Stoudemire devoted to pick-and-rolls or isolations. Watch the tape, and it’s clear: Going to Stoudemire on the left wing, just outside the paint and about halfway between the baseline and foul line, was probably the second-most-important set in the Suns’ arsenal.
It was unstoppable, too. Stoudemire shot 50 percent (136-of-272) out of the post in 2009-10 and scored almost exactly one point per possession on those plays, a mark that would generally rank among the half-dozen best low-post scoring rates for players of all positions who use more than a token number of possessions on the block. Over and over, the Suns would find Stoudemire in that sweet spot on the left wing and simply get out his way, clearing the other four players to the right side of the floor or the top of the three-point arc. Creating that space was easier in Phoenix than it is in New York because Stoudemire in that season often played center, with Channing Frye, a long-range shooter, as his big-man partner. Still, the Suns sometimes paired Stoudemire with a more traditional big man, such as Robin Lopez or Lou Amundson, and simply stationed that player somewhere along the right baseline when it was time for Amar’e to operate. That set-up didn’t provide him with as much space as the Frye alignment, but it didn’t matter.
In 2011-12 with the Knicks, only 10 percent of the possessions Stoudemire finished came via post-ups. Worse yet: He shot 39 percent on those plays. Out of 85 players who used at least 75 post-up possessions last season, Stoudemire, once one of the league’s best at this stuff, ranked 58th in points per possession, according to a report Synergy put together for SI.com. Right around him in the rankings: Patrick Patterson, Enes Kanter and Tyler Hansbrough. That is not Stoudemire’s preferred company, especially if the Knicks and coach Mike Woodson want him down there more often next season, as ESPN New York’s Jared Zwerling reports.
There was never a huge margin for error in Stoudemire’s post game, even at his peak. He is insanely left-wing dominant, and he basically has two moves. First: a drive to the left baseline, usually preceded by a head/shoulder fake to his right, that can end in a number of ways: a blow-by dunk, a pull-up floater over a backpedaling defender, a pull-up jumper or a crazy finish in which Stoudemire goes under the rim, pops out the other side and launches an improbable two-handed fading mini-jumper. He’s uncomfortable finishing with his left hand, so those layups and floaters on the left side of the rim are righty shots, meaning he takes the ball back toward the defense rather than hiding it along the baseline and behind his body. And in 2009-10, Stoudemire rarely took jumpers out of the post — something that changed in New York, and generally changes for players as they age.
Move No. 2 is basically the opposite: a left shoulder fake toward the baseline, followed by one hard right-handed dribble into the paint and a quick righty jump hook.
Stoudemire would occasionally toss in a counter spin at the end of each move, but it’s typically slow and labored, by his standards. And for whatever reason, he is slower and much less comfortable from the right wing, and uses many more dribbles to do his work there.
His post game reminds of Nene’s. Both are speed-based and generally lacking in “crisis moves” to which the players can turn when the defender manages to withstand the first quick attack. Two things can ruin a post game like that: the combination of age and injuries, and the influx of new players who take up space down low. Both came together in New York last season, and Woodson and his staff face big a task in reinventing Stoudemire as a post-up force. But it’s certainly not an insurmountable challenge.
Center Tyson Chandler obviously needs to be somewhere the near basket, which naturally brings another defender close to the rim. That’s not a new thing for Stoudemire; as mentioned above, he has plenty of experience eyeing defenders lurking just outside the lane on the right baseline and finishing his move before they can get there. Forward Carmelo Anthony also enjoys the wing area, though he’s very right-wing dominant in both his isolations and post-up plays — something that might have made the Knicks believe he’d be a nice fit with Stoudemire. But he’s still down there, and so a lot of Stoudemire’s post attacks last season drew him into crowds like this:
Or this, with Dwight Howard (No. 12, under the basket) already in the paint a few steps away from Chandler, and Hedo Turkoglu (No. 15, at the free-throw line) almost ignoring Anthony up top, ready to crash on Stoudemire’s righty hook shot:
Anthony is a smart player, though. He knows that when Stoudemire is posting up and Chandler is in the game, he has to get his tail out to three-point line to give Stoudemire room to breathe. But that raises an ongoing issue in New York: Teams don’t fear Anthony’s three-point shooting. Last season, then, opponents sent defenders diving down into the post off Anthony, along with Landry Fields, Iman Shumpert and other shaky long-range shooters the Knicks sent out there.
In addition, Stoudemire, according to every scout, coach and personnel guy you talk to, lost a bit of explosiveness and leaping ability last season, whether it was due to age, several nagging injuries or all of it combined. He gave us glimpses of his old explosiveness, especially late in the season before his back injury in March, but they were mostly just glimpses.
All of this stuff — age, injuries, new personnel — combined to close Stoudemire’s post-up window a precious half-second faster than he was used to in Phoenix. Those righty finishes on the left side? They came with his initial defender still in his face, or with a helper there from the weak side earlier than expected, in position to challenge or block the shot. And on those righty hooks, more defenders were able to keep up with Stoudemire’s first step, so that they were in front him when he gathered the ball to shoot, and not a half-step behind.
Without counter moves, the sort of things Olajuwon is teaching him now, Stoudemire had nowhere to go. He has never been a gifted passer from the block or on the move; even in 2010-11, by far his best passing season, the bulk of his assists came from a stationary position above the foul line, where he could pick out cutters and pitch the ball to shooters spaced around the court in former coach Mike D’Antoni’s system.
It sounds simple to say, “Be a better passer on the move, Amar’e!” Or, “Learn the ‘Dream Shake,’ Amar’e.” But these are major adjustments for in-their-prime stars used to playing a certain way.
There is nothing magical about how the Knicks might better mesh their three frontcourt stars, both in general and in optimizing Stoudemire’s post-up game and other individual skills. The solutions have always been right there on tape, lost amid the pile of other empty possessions — Anthony looping around a Jeremy Lin/Chandler pick-and-roll; Stoudemire cutting from the weak side as Anthony posts up on the right block, or Anthony cutting from the right as Stoudemire posts up on the left; high-low post-ups with Stoudemire and Anthony the same side; the sort of snug pick-and-rolls near the lane that Monta Ellis and David Lee got so good at in Golden State; all three stars becoming more willing and able to make tricky interior passes on the move; more pick-and-roll combinations, and more movement from more players built around those combinations.
We’ve gone over all it before, and we’re not even touching on other big things, including the possibility of cutting the minutes the three stars play together.
Stoudemire’s post game died in New York last season. A week with Olajuwon isn’t going to resurrect it, but it’s the kind of good, hard work that can help settle one issue among many interrelated problems that plagued New York’s broken offense. New York won’t solve out all of them, all of the time, and addressing one doesn’t necessarily create some kind of domino effect toward an efficient NBA offense. Evolution at the team and individual level in the NBA is a tricky, unpredictable thing. But small bits of progress, even inconsistent progress, on a dozen small fronts adds up.