Right Before Our Very Eyes
The birth of Amare Stoudemire, Superstar
By Adam Hoff
It is official, the Phoenix Suns will not win the NBA title this season. But whether the Pistons, Heat, or Spurs hoist the trophy in late June, the eventual winner will have a very difficult time competing for fans’ lasting memories. In the same way that Jordan’s Bulls often overshadowed the champion Pistons and Steve Bartman is more memorable than the 2003 Marlins, we often recall the most exciting, heartbreaking, and otherwise unique events that happen along the way more than we do the end result. Most often, those two things are one and the same. However, the 2005 playoffs may wind up belonging to the Suns no matter who wins it all. More to the point, they might wind up belonging to Amare Stoudemire.
The NBA is a league of superstars. From Wilt and Russell to the Big O to Kareem to Magic and Larry to Jordan to Shaq. That’s the lineage of the ultimate superstars. Peppered in between are guys ranging from Jerry West to Dr. J. to Charles Barkley to Allen Iverson. No other sport works quite the way basketball does. So when a transcendent talent is born on the biggest of stages, it pretty much trumps everything else.
10 years from now, we might very well be looking back at the 2005 playoffs as Amare’s coming out party. Then again, the same thing could be said about D-Wade. Or it could be the answer to the trivia question: “When was the last time LeBron James missed the playoffs?” Or it could be remembered as Duncan’s third and most legit title. Or Shaq’s fourth. Or the Pistons’ back-to-back effort. Only time will tell. But here’s the thing: the last five things could all be true, but if Stoudemire becomes as good as it appears he could be, nothing else will come close where storylines are concerned.
Because there is one scary fact regarding Amare Stoudemire: he has barely scraped the ceiling of his potential. Sure, Wade could develop a three and limit his turnovers and become even better. LeBron might become more dominant defensively. But those players already feature a fair amount of polish. I still think LeBron could be one of the best players in league history, but it might be a footrace to see who will the most dominant force. If that makes sense. Where James has a dizzying array of post moves as a guard, Amare has none as a big man. Where Wade looks for certain places on the floor where he can execute specific maneuvers, Stoudemire simply reacts. James and Wade are such special young players because merge athletic ability, skill, instinct, and understanding to do the things they do. Amare already has the first three … just wait until he latches on to #4.
Before throwing out Stoudemire’s numbers and talking about his dominance in these playoffs, consider some of the basic things that he still doesn’t do very well. Elements of his game that will be natural additions:
Off the ball positioning. Bill Walton was right on when he pointed out that Amare doesn’t do a single thing to help himself away from the ball, particularly on the defensive end of the court. He grabbed 16 rebounds, blocked four shots, and made Duncan work for everything … and he was playing purely on athleticism. Just wait until he learns how to meet a guy at the three point line. To keep an offensive player from coming across the lane. How to block somebody out and draw an over-the-back foul. He has no clue how to play defense and yet he still changes games. He seems willing and able to learn (evidenced by the incredible improvement he displayed on his jumper this year), so I expect him to master these basics within the next two seasons. There has never been a player with his size, strength, leaping ability, and youth. When an understanding of the game is added to the mix, it is going to be frightening.
Post moves. Every once in a while, he does something amazing in the low block. A reverse pivot for a jump hook or a drop step dunk or even that incredible move in Game Five that resulted in him somehow starting on one block and dunking from the other. However, as intoxicating as these moves are, they are sporadic and completely improvised. I bet even he couldn’t describe exactly what he did. The Suns don’t need him to post up much, but you can bet that he will be back next year with two or three go-to moves in the post.
Defensive rebounding. He’s got the effort down and every once in a while he starts taking over on the glass, but his rebounding numbers should be much better. Once he learns both the importance and the fundamentals of controlling the defensive backboards, he will probably average 14 board a game.
Weak side defense. His help defense was brutal, but it is going to get better. With it will come intimidation and blocked shots. Lots of blocked shots. This will be the last year that an Amare anchored defense is that soft in the middle. Phoenix is rumored to be looking for a shot blocker in the offseason and while that is a good idea (Kelvin Cato would be perfect off the bench), they will already be adding one.
Hanging onto the ball. I told you these things were simple and easy to fix. He gives away too many possessions by letting the little guys strip (read: hack his arms) the ball from him. In time, he will be like Duncan and KG and all the other elite power forwards – if you rip the ball out of his hands, it will be because you fouled him. He’ll commit fewer turnovers and shoot even more free throws.
Those are just the easy things. The elements of his game that will come through osmosis and experience and a few hours a day in the gym. Throw in things like using his lower body to hold off smaller defenders, adding the three-point shot to his arsenal (a natural progression), reading double-teams, and staying out of foul trouble while remaining aggressive are more subtle skills that will just make him that much better.
Needless to say, he has incredible room to improve. That’s when you think to yourself: wait a minute, if he needs to work on all that, how exactly did he dominate in the playoffs? And then you realize how freakishly talented this guy is. The frame that looks like it was chiseled out of granite. The incredible hands that catch everything. The leaping ability that is as impressive on three levels: his ability to jump high, far, and quickly. He plays like he’s got springs in his legs. The fearlessness and ferociousness with which he attacks the basket. The speed and body control and innate ability to roll to the basket. Throw in his markedly improved shooting (just look at his work at the line) and you start to get an idea of the baseline player you have to work with.
It was that package of marvelous athletic ability coupled with good basketball instincts and competitive fire that turned Amare into quite possibly the most dominant player in of this postseason. Again, this is from a third year player that came right out of high school and completely lacks many of the basic elements that are usually needed to be good, let alone great. Put another way: he crushed everyone from Pau to Dirk to Duncan with serious holes in his game. That, my friends, is a scary thought.
So if Amare does indeed add the rest of the package – from the essentials to the extras – we might be looking at a guy that not only completely dominates the game for a long stretch of time, but a player that redefines the game. He could wind up changing each and every contest the way Shaq has done for the last decade. He could average 35 and 15 for a season. And if all that happens, we will find ourselves looking back to May 2005 as the origins of it all. We’ll remember:
- The massive dunks in traffic where his arm seems to extend in length and then swing down like Thor’s hammer.
- The relentless attacking of the rim which led to dozens of free throws.
- The steady stream of clutch jumpers while trying to stave off elimination.
- The blocked shot of TD’s dunk in Game Four; a play that felt a little bit like a changing of the guard.
- The full speed catches on pick-and-rolls when he grabs a ball heading behind him, takes a giant step into the lane, absorbs contact, hangs in the air, and double-pumps the ball in to the basket with one hand.
- The 37 he averaged against the best defensive team – and arguably best defensive player – in the West (the most ever for a player in his first conference finals).
- The 40 and 16 in Game One against Dallas.
- The 37, 14, and 5 blocked shots in a “must win” Game Three of that series.
- The 33 and 18 he had in a huge Game Five against the Mavs, after being challenged to hit the boards by Barkley.
- The 41 points in 36 foul-plagued minutes in Game One of the Spurs series.
- Of course, the 42, 16, and 4 blocks in an elimination game.
- Becoming the first player since Shaq in 2001 to go for 30 and 10 for an entire playoff run.
Then again, maybe he won’t grasp the subtleties of the game. Perhaps he’s closer to his ceiling than I think and that he will be left in the dust of LeBron and Wade. If that’s the case, then the field is once again wide open. Wade and Shaq and Duncan and the Pistons are all back in the mix as possible winners of the “lasting legacy” sweepstakes in the 2005 Playoffs.
I’ve got say, my money’s on Amare.
Adam Hoff is a columnist for the Webby-winning website WhatifSports.com and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers of America. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.