By the time the Knicks were shoved out of the playoffs in Miami, Stoudemire appeared diminished on every level, his Q-rating and efficiency rating in simultaneous free fall.
“I’m still that player I was last year,” Stoudemire insisted then, vowing a return to full strength and “an incredible year” next season.
The mission began last week, on a quiet ranch in Katy, Tex., where Stoudemire took the first drop-step in a midcareer makeover. The pick-and-rolling, power-dunking star is now a student of the low post. His teacher is a soft-spoken Hall of Famer with a Nigerian accent and two championship rings.
, a former Houston Rockets star and an oracle of the low post, is pleased with his pupil’s progress.
“You won’t believe it,” Olajuwon said in a telephone interview from his ranch outside Houston.
The apprenticeship began on Aug. 6, with daily three-hour sessions on Olajuwon’s private court. Stoudemire has proved a quick study, assimilating moves and countermoves as fast as Olajuwon can demonstrate them.
“It’s night and day,” Olajuwon said. “What’s so nice is he wants it; he likes the post. He’s always wanted to play there, but he doesn’t have the moves that would give him that option.”
Since retiring in 2002, Olajuwon has become the N.B.A.’s go-to source for players hoping to develop their post skills. LeBron James, Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant have visited the Olajuwon ranch. So have Marcin Gortat and the Lopez twins, Brook and Robin. This month, it’s Stoudemire and Denver’s JaVale McGee.
Most players come for about four days, Olajuwon said. Stoudemire is staying for two weeks. His motivation is clear.
Stoudemire’s 17.5-point scoring average in 2011-12 was his worst in a full season since his rookie year. His .483 field-goal percentage was the lowest since his second season. He had his shot blocked 1.3 times per game, furthering speculation that his body was breaking down (although, in fact, that rate was close to his career average).
When the season began, Stoudemire was still dealing with the aftermath of an injured back muscle. In February, his older brother, Hazell, was killed in a car accident, which took a tremendous emotional toll. Stoudemire sustained another back injury (a bulging disk) in late March.
The final injury was self-inflicted and humiliating — a lacerated left hand sustained when Stoudemire smashed a glass fire-extinguisher cover in the Miami arena, after a Game 2 loss to the Heat.
Stoudemire returned to help lead the Knicks to a series-saving Game 4 victory, but the damage to his reputation was done. And although he is known for a high work ethic, Stoudemire had reason to work a little harder this summer.
“This is the most engaged I’ve seen him in years,” said Happy Walters, Stoudemire’s agent. He added, “I think fans will be happy.”
They will be happier still if Stoudemire’s new skills foster a better dynamic with Carmelo Anthony, his All-Star tag-team partner. Stoudemire was a dominant scorer when he joined the Knicks, but his role and production diminished once Anthony arrived in February 2011. The Knicks have a losing record with Anthony and Stoudemire in the lineup, and every advanced statistic shows they are worse when both stars are on the court.
Now Stoudemire has lost the coach (Mike D’Antoni) and the offensive system that made him a star in Phoenix and New York. Without a steady diet of pick-and-roll plays, he will need other ways to score. Enter Olajuwon.
Mike Woodson, the new coach, was Olajuwon’s teammate for two years, and the two remain friends. It was Woodson’s idea to send Stoudemire to Houston.
“The coach, he has a good vision,” Olajuwon said cheerfully.
Even at 29, Stoudemire has the strength, quickness and agility to be an effective post scorer once he masters the footwork and timing.
“His spin is becoming so sharp and crisp,” Olajuwon said. “He could spin all day. He loves it.”
Until now, Stoudemire hardly needed a post game. In his first season in the league he was a high-flying 20-year-old — the Blake Griffin of his generation — before developing a sharp midrange jumper that made him nearly unguardable. He has averaged at least 20 points in seven of his N.B.A. seasons, with a career shooting percentage of .533.
Stoudemire has also played most of his career for D’Antoni, whose offense is predicated on spacing and movement, not dump-it-in-the-post sets. When Stoudemire was averaging 37 points against Tim Duncan in the Western Conference finals, no one saw much need for a low-post game.
“We had so much success with him, averaging almost 60 wins a year in Phoenix with the system the way it was,” said Phil Weber, who was on D’Antoni’s staff in both Phoenix and New York. “He could have posted up, but he was so successful.”
But circumstances have changed. D’Antoni is gone. Woodson is installing a more traditional offense. Anthony is dominating the ball on the wing. Stoudemire has little choice but to evolve.
“To now develop a post game is going to be remarkable for me,” Stoudemire told Fox 26 in Houston. “It’s going to catch a lot of my opponents off guard, and it’s going to be a great year for me.”
Olajuwon sounds just as eager to see Stoudemire unleash his new moves in the fall — and to see Woodson’s reaction. Woodson attended the first workout last week and was “very happy,” Olajuwon said.
“But if he sees now, if he sees him today,” Olajuwon continued, chuckling, “he would not believe. I’m excited.”