Amar’e Stoudemire shouldn’t have aged well. He relies on athleticism over intelligence. He has the knees of a geriatric flamingo. He’s a power forward in a league that no longer wants power forwards. By rights, Amar’e Stoudemire should’ve languished on the free agent market all summer, remained unsigned, and then end up on some piddly international team with a name like the Bangkok Thunder Ducks. For a good chunk of this season he didn’t do much to dispel that. And then Hassan Whiteside got hurt and Stoudemire found new life at a new position. For the first time in his career, Amar’e Stoudemire is playing like a real center.
It all starts on the defensive end. Miami’s defensive scheme is aggressive by design but often reckless in practice. They love showing (doubling for a step or two before scampering back to the roll man) or even blitzing (outright doubling) pick-and-rolls, and can do this because Chris Bosh is mobile enough to stick with most ball-handlers and get back to the paint quickly enough to contest layups. Of course, the problem here is that occasionally it’s going to lead to open cuts to the basket. This should be prevented by the center, previously Whiteside, staying home and contesting those layups and dunks. But Whiteside is too jumpy. He’s in the air the moment he suspects a shot is coming, looking for a block, and offenses take advantage of that. But Stoudemire has been far more patient in his stead. Take a look at this play:
The initial action on the play is relatively simple. Cody Zeller screens for Nic Batum to get him the ball on the left wing. Miami tries to ice Batum (force him towards the baseline) by having Deng guard him from his side and Stoudemire defend baseline drives. Many centers would have either aggressively leapt out towards Batum to try to force a bad pass or play the baseline more closely as a conservative measure. Stoudemire wisely does neither, sagging off his man Zeller enough to provide meaningful help on Batum, but without taking himself out of future actions. Batum gets skittish at this defense and passes the ball back to Zeller, and because he stayed at home, Stoudemire easily rotates back onto him and prevents any sort of attempt at the basket.
Zeller passes the ball to Marvin Williams, a faster stretch-4 who drives to the hoop. Bosh knows that he can’t keep up, so he funnels him to the left, right into Stoudemire. Amar’e makes virtually the opposite decision on this play. He sags so far off of Zeller that he can contest Williams at the rim if he attempts a layup. This was a calculated decision, as Zeller was on the right wing where he wasn’t a threat to score. Amar’e guesses that even if Williams were to notice that Zeller was open, he would have time to both contest at the rim and race back to Zeller if he attempted a shot because Zeller would have to get closer to the basket. That’s exactly what happens, and he ends up blocking Zeller.
This isn’t rocket science, but it’s the sort of basic cost-benefit analysis defensive players have to make on every possession. Stoudemire has lacked the necessary basketball IQ and awareness to do this for most of his career. In fact, plays like these were not uncommon in his time with the Knicks:
So what changed? In short, stature. Amar’e was a highly-paid superstar in Phoenix and New York. He just never felt like he had to improve at these fundamentals. But now he’s a role player in Miami. He knows he doesn’t have the athleticism to skate by anymore. The Heat are a notoriously disciplined organization. They practice more than most teams, expect flawless conditioning and drill fundamentals into their players’ heads. Stoudemire was at the perfect point in his career to find this specific team. Players like Bosh and Justise Winslow protect him physically and the organization forced him to improve mentally.
And it’s showing. The Heat are 8-4 with Stoudemire in the starting lineup, and don’t seem inclined to make the switch back to Whiteside any time soon. Their defense has allowed only 99 points per 100 possessions with Amar’e on the floor in that time, and he’s blocking 4.6% of opponent shots, higher than all but 11 players in the league over the full season. As a point of reference, for his career he has only blocked 2.9% of opponent shots. He’s seen the same boost as a rebounder.
In New York, Stoudemire’s rebounding was something of a joke. Even in his first season, in which he played 37 minutes per game, he only managed 8.2 rebounds per game and a measly 11.1% total rebound rate. Things only got worse upon Tyson Chandler’s arrival. Neither wanted to play defense away from the rim, so the pair ended up giving up too many open three’s and fighting for easy rebounds. Stoudemire’s partnership with Bosh is much more fruitful. Bosh does the perimeter chasing and leaves the rebounding to Amar’e knowing that he’s almost never going to have to compete with more than one opponent. The results have been otherworldly. In this admittedly small sample size, he’s getting 23.2% of total available rebounds and a ridiculous 33.9% of available defensive rebounds. That’s a higher percentage than Andre Drummond. That’s more than Moses Malone ever grabbed in ANY season.
And offensively? He’s given Goran Dragic a willing pick-and-roll partner. In fact, that’s where plenty of his shots are coming from. Two-thirds of his attempts are coming within three feet of the basket, and he’s made 62.5% of field goals as the roll man (per NBA.com player tracking). You may think this hurts Miami’s spacing, but remember, Stoudemire gives the Heat something Whiteside doesn’t: the threat of passing. In only 25 games this season, Stoudemire has 17 assists. That’s not many, but Whiteside has only 21 IN HIS ENTIRE CAREER! Defenses at least respect that Amar’e might do something other than shoot, and that prevents them from collapsing completely on him near the hoop. The same isn’t true for Whiteside.
These are all skills Stoudemire has developed only now, as his career winds to a close. He’s down to only 20 minutes or so per night, but he’s making those minutes count for Miami. If this keeps up, he might be able to make a second life for himself as a role player. As much as teams want to space the floor with shooters, they need big men to eat up regular season minutes down low to keep those smaller wings fresh. It’s not a glamorous job, but it’s a paycheck and another shot at a ring. For years it seemed like Stoudemire had no place on a contender. Now he’s turning himself into the kind of player they fight to sign.