Sunday, January 18, 2009

Max Money for Amar'e? Not So Fast...

If, as expected , Amar’e Stoudemire opts out of his contract with the Phoenix Suns following next season, he’ll be one of the most sought-after free agents in the Summer of 2010- probably as much as anyone except LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Stoudemire’s an excellent NBA power forward, but he’s unlikely to justify the max-money contract he’ll inevitably receive. As talented and athletic as he is, and despite being touted as such, not least of all by himself, Amar’e Stoudemire is not a franchise player.

Now in his seventh NBA season, not only has Stoudemire not developed into the statistical wonder that many predicted he’d become, he’s failed to fulfill his stated desire of being “the guy” on a team, particularly on the defensive end. This void was perfectly illustrated in the Suns’ January 15 overtime loss to the Denver Nuggets. With Shaquille O’Neal out of the lineup and three key contributors (Jason Richardson, Leandro Barbosa and Matt Barnes) combining to make just thirteen of forty-one field goal attempts, it was crucial, even more than usual, that Amar’e Stoudemire step up his performance. In these moments, the late moments in tight road games, when true franchise players thrive, Amar’e Stoudemire was conspicuous by his absence, attempting just one field goal in the fourth quarter and overtime. In addition to his underwhelming late-game offensive performance, Amar’e managed just eight rebounds, hardly picking up much of the slack in Shaq’s absence, committed five turnovers, and was primarily responsible for an inexcusable defensive breakdown that allowed the Nuggets to seal the win in overtime.

With just over 90 seconds remaining, and Denver with the ball and leading 110-105, Chauncey Billups and Kenyon Martin set up for a high pick-and-roll, defended by Stoudemire and Steve Nash. As Billups came off of the screen near the top of the key, with Nash following him, obviously not switching on the pick, Amar’e Stoudemire did… nothing. While Amar’e stood with his back to Kenyon Martin, neither looking to neither switch onto nor aggressively trap Billups, K-Mart, who Stoudemire was supposedly guarding, walked down the lane for an uncontested dunk, extending the lead to seven points.

How does something like this happen? It’s one thing to be a sub-par defender, but such a lack of effort and commitment at a critical moment is nothing short of pathetic. The problem is not Stoudemire he made the wrong play, it’s that he chose to make NO play. It was as though he didn’t have a clue as to what he should have been doing. It’s difficult to fathom an above-average professional so comprehensively seizing up at a key moment, let alone a guy that considers himself a franchise player and is in search of a nine-figure financial commitment. What did Amar’e Stoudemire display in that moment, when he opted to do nothing at all in lieu of at least pretending to try, that would convince an NBA franchise to tether it’s long-term future, both on the floor and the salary cap, to him?

Although Amar’e does put up solid numbers, scoring just under 22 points per game, making 55% of his field goals, and grabbing more than 8 rebounds, there’s no aspect of his game that can be classified as dominant. Inside of 20 feet, Stoudemire can do virtually anything on the floor, but he’s never truly defined his style of play, nor has he shown an ability take over games down the stretch, barely cracking the top 50 in 4th quarter scoring, while shooting under 50% from the field and just 64% with a 48-minute +/- rating of -3 in “clutch” situations. While he’s is a gifted athlete and a fantastic player to watch, the reality of the situation is that Amar’e Stoudemire is good-but-not-great, and not a true franchise player.

Compared to Dwight Howard, a legitimate franchise cornerstone, Stoudemire consistently comes up short. Despite greater experience and a far more polished offensive game, Stoudemire’s scoring average is similar to Howard’s (21.8 v. 20.2), but in other aspects of the game, namely on the boards and on the defensive end, Stoudemire’s hard-pressed to compete with Howard. While Howard, a player with similar physical assets, is totally dominant at both ends of the floor, leading the NBA in rebounds and blocks, Stoudemire is 20th in the league on the boards, averaging roughly the same number of rebounds per 48 minutes as teammate Matt Barnes, grabbing as many rebounds as Howard averages (14) just three times all season, and has reach double-digits just once in his last ten games. The situation is similar with blocked shots, where Howard averages 3.2 blocks per game, and Amar’e has yet to produce a single game this season eclipsing Howard’s average, blocking 3 shots in a game three times, and ranks 33rd in the NBA in blocks, with just 1.1 per game.

Any which way you slice it, Amar’e Stoudemire’s perceived value to the Phoenix Suns, or to any team that elects to toss $20 million per year at him, clearly outstrips his intrinsic value. Aside from his atrocious defense play and Marion-esque comments about wanting to be “the man”, his inability to genuinely commit to utilizing his incredible physical gifts to be something more than just another good player should give teams serious pause as they look to deploy precious cap space in the Summer of 2010.

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