PHOENIX — Over the course of his eight seasons in Phoenix, Amare Stoudemire was criticized for his lack of leadership and ability to be “The Man” when the lights got bright.
STAT played the role of Steve Nash’s sidekick, but never seemed able to take the reigns on his own when the Suns needed him. When he bolted for the Big Apple this past offseason, opinions formed that he would crumble under the New York spotlight.
It’s still early in the season, but through 34 games Amare has embraced the NYC stage as he’s lifted the once-woeful Knicks to a 20-14 record while bringing the fun and electricity back to Madison Square Garden.
Although Phoenix is floundering without him (14-19 in 11th place in the Western Conference), the Suns have no ill will toward STAT for his decision to leave. After failed attempts with the Suns in the playoffs, Stoudemire clearly wanted to prove to the league that he could lead a team, and head coach Alvin Gentry sees “nothing wrong with that.”
“I think that was very much a part of it,” Gentry said. “He just felt like being here that it was going to be Steve’s team a lot and I think he felt like he would like to have a team that was his, where he was the focal point and that it would be basically his team. I think going to New York he saw an opportunity to be the case.”
What impresses his former coach and floor general most is his ability to take on the pressure of New York and morph the Knicks into a playoff team, as he’s helped rise their win percentage 23.5 percent from last season.
“I think what I’ve been proudest of what he’s done is just embrace the challenge of New York,” Nash said. “They’re very hungry for success. They can be very difficult and critical of the team. They started off rough and he embraced it and has come through unbelievalbly in a lot of areas.”
His numbers haven’t risen considerably since the move to New York — he’s averaging 3.3 more points, 0.1 more rebounds, 1.5 more assists, and 1.4 more blocks this season than he did with the Suns last season — but his ability to put the team on his shoulders is what’s caught the eye of the basketball world.
“For me more than points, assists, rebounds it’s just how he’s taken on the challenge, going out, fought and won games in a tough situation,” said Nash, who wanted zero credit for Amare’s leadership development.
Although Nash seemed impressed and slightly surprised with Amare’s ability to step into the spotlight and perform the way he has in New York, Alvin Gentry defiantly said he saw it coming.
“It’s no surprise,” Alvin Gentry said when asked about Stoudemire’s success. “It’s not a surprise to anyone here that had any association with him.”
Even the leadership ability he’s shown doesn’t surprise Gentry, who said he wants the Knicks to win every game but the two they play against the Suns and that he and Stoudemire “still talk and I’ve e-mailed Amare a couple times.”
When asked if he was shocked how well Amare’s embraced New York and taken on the burden of being a leader, Gentry said, “That would be assuming that he didn’t do that here and he did do it here. Obviously we have Steve and we have Grant here but I thought he did a great job as a tri-captain here last year.”
Amare has the Knicks sitting in sixth place in the Eastern Conference, with wins over the Spurs, Hornets, Thunder (twice) and a near-victory over the Celtics, all while Stoudemire is averaging the eighth-most points in franchise history.
So as former head coach Mike D’Antoni and the Knicks are surging toward a playoff spot and fighting for potential home-court advantage, the Suns are four games out of the playoff picture, with no interior scoring threat to boot.
“We lost an All-Star power forward and we didn’t replace him,” Nash said. “We have no real, kind of power forward.”
Did the Suns ever think Amare was going to return to Phoenix?
“Obviously I wanted Amare to stay. I think I maybe foolishly thought he would,” Nash said. “I thought somehow we would get to an agreement.”
Gentry wanted to make it clear that Amare “was offered a max contract, I can tell you that.” But, despite popular belief, it wasn’t about the money and Amare’s will for a shot at leading a team was worth more than the Suns could offer. Now he’s finally thriving as the No. 1 option, averaging 26.4 points, 9.0 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.4 blocks per game.
“Amare had his moments where he was unhappy or maybe didn’t do what he asked, but overall he was pretty successful so it’s tough for people to be overly critical of him because he did his job pretty damn well most of the time and we had a lot of success,” Nash added. “I think overall he was pretty happy here and we were pretty successful.”