- Ian O'Connor, ESPN Senior Writer
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As the New York Knicks appear to be coming undone limb by limb, Amar'e Stoudemire starts to look like the worst kind of $100 million investment. He is a physical wreck before his time, maybe the oldest 30-year-old star in the league.
No, this five-year contract won't live to see a happy ending. And no, the Knicks can't amnesty that maddening fact out of their lives, not after using the one-and-done provision in the most recent labor agreement to fire Chauncey Billups and hire Tyson Chandler.
But it's just as easy to lump Stoudemire's contract in with those given the likes of Eddy Curry and Jerome James, or to equate his $100 million with the $100 million handed Allan Houston before he broke down way back when, as it is to forget that the bad business deal with Stoudemire was a necessary business deal with Stoudemire, too.
The Knicks had effectively tanked two seasons to clear out money for the Summer Of LeBron and the great free-agent class of 2010. Though they once dreamed up a scenario in which LeBron James, Joe Johnson and Stoudemire would accept less-than-max money to form a big three in New York, it became painfully clear in the early hours of free agency that the Knicks weren't landing two big names, never mind three, and that they would be lucky to land one.
But after enduring nine consecutive losing seasons, after posting an average record of 31-51 over those nine seasons, they absolutely had to sign one free agent from the group of James, Johnson, Stoudemire, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Something -- even a second-tier star such as Carlos Boozer (unrestricted) or Rudy Gay (restricted) -- would've been better than nothing.
The Knicks just couldn't strike out looking on LeBron and everyone else. They would've been the league laughingstock -- for old times' sake -- if they ended up with truckloads of available cash and nobody willing to take it.
Amar'e Stoudemire was willing to take it, if only because his own team, the Phoenix Suns, wouldn't guarantee him a full scholarship after he suffered serious knee and eye injuries. Insurance or no insurance, the Knicks weren't asking too many questions. Their coach, Mike D'Antoni, didn't want a reunion with Stoudemire after clashing with him in Phoenix, but he walked into a breakfast meeting with his former player understanding how badly his bosses needed this to work out.
D'Antoni walked out of that breakfast meeting declaring that Stoudemire was a changed man, all grown up and worthy of being a Knick. Jim Dolan, owner, consummated the deal on a handshake at the Four Seasons. "The Knicks are back," Stoudemire now-famously said in his first media briefing, and more than 2&189; seasons later, guess what?
He's sort of right. They're back to being relevant. They're back in first place in the Atlantic, a division they haven't won since 1994.
In the 209 regular-season games played since the Stoudemire signing, the Knicks are 23 games above .500 and on schedule for a third consecutive winning season and third consecutive trip to the playoffs. In the 209 regular-season games played before the Stoudemire signing, the Knicks were 63 games below .500 and lame enough to extend their streak of playoff-free years to six.
Of course, with injuries costing him significant time and with the record showing that Carmelo Anthony's Knicks might be better off without him, Stoudemire can't be cited as the on-court reason for the team's relative success. He was the central figure on the pre-Melo Knicks team that went 28-26 and restored some order to the Garden, but ever since -- with the exception of the fleeting, only-in-New York phenomenon that was Linsanity -- this team has been defined by Anthony and the other pieces (Chandler, Raymond Felton, Jason Kidd, J.R. Smith) brought in to support him, for better or worse.
But here's the thing: Carmelo Anthony never would've become a Knick if Amar'e Stoudemire had never become a Knick. If Dolan and his basketball man at the time, Donnie Walsh, didn't take the gamble Phoenix refused, Anthony would've forced Denver to trade him to New Jersey/Brooklyn or somewhere else.
No Melo probably means no Chandler and definitely means no shot the Knicks are a 38-23 team trying to figure out how to survive Melo's knee pains, protect its divisional lead and maintain its wobbly hold on the No. 2 seed in the East.
"When I signed here in New York," Stoudemire said after the Anthony trade was complete, "that pretty much opened the eyes for the rest of the basketball world that, 'New York is a place where I will go now.'"
Stoudemire made the Knicks a credible option for other stars. It's why Chris Paul was interested before he found bliss, and Blake Griffin, in Los Angeles. It's why a member of Josh Smith's immediate family asked a longtime league official to help place Smith with the Knicks long before Atlanta started shopping him.
Pedro Martinez had the same impact on the Mets after signing in December 2004, for four years and $53 million. Like Stoudemire, Martinez delivered a strong first season in New York before physically falling apart. And like Stoudemire's deal, Martinez's was one that had to be made. Acquiring Pedro made the Mets legitimate enough to acquire Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado and Billy Wagner, players who helped them get to within one game of the 2006 World Series.
These Knicks haven't matched those Mets, not yet anyway. The Knicks have claimed one playoff victory (as in a game, not a series) with Stoudemire on the roster, and the power forward injured himself in the 2011 series with Boston by trying a school-yard dunk in warm-ups, and again in the 2012 series with Miami by losing a bloody MMA fight with a fire extinguisher case.
The fans still love Amar'e anyway, because they remember that he was here first, that he accepted the same Knicks offer that scared everyone else away. The fans know Stoudemire changed a wretched culture. The fans know the guy he replaced, David Lee -- another crowd-pleaser now at the center of Golden State's resurgence -- couldn't elevate the Knicks with his double-doubles; they were a combined 42 games under .500 in Lee's final two seasons.
Even before Stoudemire arrived, the Knicks made some moves that compromised their chances of ever beating what the Heat would become. In the 2009 draft, they picked Jordan Hill over Brandon Jennings. By 2010, they couldn't build a team or presentation worthy of LeBron's serious consideration.
Last summer, when they could've used Dolan's limitless resources (isn't that supposed to be the one advantage to having him as your owner?) to sign Felton and Jeremy Lin, the Knicks let the 23-year-old Lin walk without receiving a single asset in return and continued wasting a roster spot at his position on Pablo Prigioni. Glen Grunwald, general manager, also spent more than $15 million of Dolan's Lin savings on Marcus Camby (including $2 million sent to Houston in the trade), and already Camby's three-year deal feels longer than A-Rod's 10-year deal.
Only now it's a five-year contract that inspires the most scrutiny. Facing another long rehab after yet another knee surgery, Stoudemire will almost certainly end up in the bin with other signings gone south. His legs and his back have betrayed his best intentions, not to mention the Knicks' nine-figure faith.
But without Stoudemire's $100 million contract, there would be no Melo homecoming in Denver on Wednesday night. There would be no Melo, in fact, and no chance the Knicks could secure the 2-seed in the East and maintain a puncher's chance (OK, a Buster Douglas-times-10 chance) to knock out Miami in seven.
So in the end, it's OK to call Stoudemire's a bum deal. Just don't forget to call it a necessary one, too.
4dEthan Sherwood Strauss
5dMatt Walks, ESPN.com