An All-Star party raged for three days in his hometown, but Amar’e Stoudemire was far from the N.B.A.’s managed chaos. He had traded his goggles for a snorkeling mask and ditched basketball for the beach.
“It was beautiful,” Stoudemire said of a family trip to the Bahamas. “Much needed.”
As welcome as it was, the mini-vacation was only possible because for the first time in six years, Stoudemire is not an All-Star. His first-half play was mostly uninspiring, and in places alarming. The break was surely for the best, physically and emotionally.
It has been just three weeks since Stoudemire’s older brother, Hazell, was . His sorrow resides permanently on his right cheek, in a teardrop tattoo.
Stoudemire has played with passion in the seven games since returning from Hazell’s funeral. But competitively, this was already his most trying season in years.
As of the All-Star break, Stoudemire was and shooting 44.7 percent from the field, figures that would rank as his lowest for any full season since his rookie year. His jump shot has gone flat, along with his actual jump. He looks less springy, less explosive, not at all like the Stoudemire who lorded over the rim for nine years. His shots are being blocked at an alarming rate, 1.4 a game, the third highest average in the league.
Theories abound: his back, his surgically repaired knees, his increased muscle mass, the impact of Carmelo Anthony, the impact of Tyson Chandler and the impact of a long layoff during the lockout.
Stoudemire’s knees are, by all accounts, O.K. The rest of that list could be assembled into a pie chart of contributing factors.
“I think a lot of it is psychological,” Coach Mike D’Antoni said Tuesday, after the ’ first practice since the All-Star break. “And I think he’s ready to explode.”
Stoudemire made the same assurance, and he offered his most extensive remarks on the subject this season. In his view, his struggles stem primarily from the back injury he sustained last April. The injury kept Stoudemire from playing basketball for most of the off-season. At the same time, he was adding muscle mass, to strengthen his torso and to protect his back.
When Stoudemire reported to training camp, he was carrying 15 pounds of added muscle weight, and had hardly played for seven months.
“That’s the longest I’ve ever been away from the game of basketball,” he said.
As for the added weight slowing him down, Stoudemire said candidly: “It might have. It’s the biggest I’ve ever been.”
He added, “There’s no excuses for that. But I wanted to get stronger, I wanted to definitely heal my back.”
Over the past two months, Stoudemire has shed 10 pounds, to 250, as he works his way toward 245, his playing weight last season.
“It was all muscle, which looked good,” he said with a playful smile. “But to play my style of basketball and be a force full-court, fast-break guy that I always played like, maybe shed a few pounds.”
Asked if he could regain his explosiveness, Stoudemire said — with a tone that sounded more like a warning — “Stay tuned, stay tuned.”
For all of the excitement generated by Jeremy Lin, and all of the star power on the roster, the Knicks will not go far without Stoudemire returning to form — bludgeoning rims, rebounding, blocking shots and hitting his midrange jumper.
Stoudemire has been solid around the basket, converting 67.5 percent of his shots at the rim, . But he is shooting 25.7 percent from 3 to 9 feet, 33.3 percent from 10 to 15 feet and 36 percent from 16 to 23 feet — a profound drop-off from his past rates.
That has prompted natural speculation that perhaps, at age 29, after multiple knee surgeries, Stoudemire could be in decline. Knicks officials believe otherwise, feeling that Stoudemire will be fine once he is back in prime condition and he is comfortable in his surroundings again.
Anthony’s arrival last February reduced Stoudemire’s role in the offense. Chandler’s arrival in December pushed Stoudemire further toward the perimeter. The lack of a true point guard left Stoudemire without a reliable pick-and-roll partner for the first time in his career. In the absence of easy scoring chances, Stoudemire has been forcing shots, eroding his effectiveness.
Lin’s emergence should spark a Stoudemire renaissance, if his body is ready for it and if Lin can establish as strong a pick-and-roll partnership with Stoudemire as he has with Chandler. The difficulty is in keeping both big men in rhythm. One option would be to play them separately more often, but D’Antoni dismissed the idea.
“You can’t win a championship without both of them on the floor,” he said. “They’re going to be on the floor together at the end of games. So that has to work, and we have to figure that out.”
After Lin’s magical February, all things seem possible: a fluid offense, a respectable bench, a deep playoff run.
The Knicks will need Anthony — whose scoring and field-goal percentage are also way down — to find his rhythm and his conscience. They will need J. R. Smith to show some discipline, and Baron Davis to return to full strength. They will need Lin to keep being Lin.
But the Knicks’ revival began with Stoudemire, and their postseason hopes still ride with him.
“I’m counting on him,” D’Antoni said. “I’m betting on him.”