For a while, it seemed like Amar'e Stoudemire would never be back. Sure, he was playing, but he wasn't back. In the summer of 2010, Stoudemire signed a max contract with the Knicks as the potential savior of a franchise, and for about half a season, he looked like a feature star worthy of the hype. In January of 2013, many worried whether his return could screw up the on-court chemistry of the team that was near the top of the Eastern Conference without him.
For a while he did, but something appears to have clicked: the team is on a three-game winning streak, with Stoudemire playing the best he's played in a while. The difference? The return of somebody else on the court.
When Raymond Felton was traded away from the Knicks as part of the Carmelo Anthony trade, New York fans were excited to get Melo, but somewhat disappointed to get rid of a team that, for the first time in a few years, had been cohesive. A big part of that was the pick-and-roll combo of Felton and Stoudemire: for 54 games, Felton played the best ball of his career, averaging 17.1 points and nine assists, both career highs. And Stoudemire was a monster, reeling off one streak where he scored 30 or more in nine consecutive games. Both players seemed to have found a stride: Stoudemire as the feature player , and Felton playing for the first time on a contender with a partner in crime who matched his style, a 1-2 punch that echoed their uniform numbers.
Then came the trade, and after it, both players suffered: Stoudemire never really meshed with Anthony, and had eight games where he scored 20 points or less in the team's final 28 games after only doing that nine times in the 54 he played alongside Felton. Felton seemed lost in Denver and Portland, and when Stoudemire was healthy for the Knicks, he was a changed player, seemingly deferential and out of rhythm.
This year, Felton was back in New York, but he wouldn't get to play with Stoudemire. The big man was hurt, out with knee issues, and wouldn't play until New Year's Day. And just when he got back, Felton was hurt, dealing with an injured pinkie on his shooting hand, missing three weeks after the team's Christmas Day game against the Lakers.
And when Stoudemire returned, he didn't seem himself. He wasn't explosive, and when he was getting himself into positions to score, but more often than not, he wasn't sticking his finishes. Minutes were a factor, but Stoudemire averaged just 11.3 points before Felton's return.
In the four games since Felton has been able to play, Stoudemire is averaging 17.3 per game and hitting two-thirds of his shot attempts. Those four games include a 20-pount outing against Philadelphia, his first of the year and a 7-for-7 performance against Orlando.
Some of the uptick in his numbers are due to an increase in minutes, but the improvement is notable even when using tempo-free stats: this year, when Felton hasn't been on the court, Stoudemire has shot 58.3 percent from the field and been assisted on 59.2 percent of his looks. With Felton on the court, those numbers each skyrocket, with Stoudemire hitting 72.2 percent of his shots and has been assisted on 69.2 percent of his shots.
Felton has a knack for finding Stoudemire near the basket, and right now, that's what he needs. It's still not clear whether Stoudemire will ever be a force again facing up or playing with his back to the basket, but if Felton feeds him close to the rim, he's still a capable scorer.
But the thing that's encouraging isn't just that Stoudemire has found the ability to get points: it's that he's done it without slowing down Carmelo Anthony. Anthony's numbers are also better with Felton and Stoudemire on the court - a 55.4 eFG% - than they are when he was just on the court with Stoudemire before his return - just a 43.0 eFG%.
I'd imagine some of all this is small sample size and a string of games against middling-or-worse teams. Stoudemire needs a point guard to thrive, and it seems Felton gets a kick out of playing with the big man. The Knicks have tried for two and a half years to combine Anthony and Stoudemire, and all they have to show for it is a 1-8 record in the playoffs. Perhaps Felton - in addition to boosted defense and a few other fresh faces - is the key to putting both together they've been looking for.