The Four Chronicles: The Return of The Amare Rumors

January 25th, 2010 by John Krolik

Windhorst has the report, which originally comes from Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic. (Coro did specify that the rumors were of other teams’ interest in Amare, not necessarily the Suns’ interest in trading him.)

I think that Amare ending up in a Cavs uniform this season is a long shot at best. It would just be too cruel of the Suns to trade Amare for salary reasons, especially with the Suns having a very good year this season. Even still, let’s run with some of the possible implications of an Amare trade.

The Dream:

Here’s the thing about an Amare trade. I’ve always dreamed about Amare Stoudemire on the Cavs. Always. LeBron James has had tremendous success running the pick-and-roll in his NBA career, despite the fact he’s never really had a truly dangerous big to run the pick-and-roll with. Z’s always been a pick-and-pop guy, and while his 18-foot jumper is nice, it’s always been a shot defenses can live with. Drew Gooden was Drew Gooden. Ben Wallace is one of the worst offensive players in NBA history. Shaq can’t run the high pick-and-roll. Varejao has evolved into a very smart cutter and a very crafty finisher around the basket, but he isn’t very dangerous if he doesn’t get the ball right under the basket, he’s not a great foul shooter, and he doesn’t finish with authority.

Meanwhile, Amare Stoudemire has already established himself as one of the great pick-and-roll big men of all time. He’s not the elemental force around the basket he once was, but he always takes it strong to the rim, he has great explosion and touch, and he’s both willing to take contact and able to knock down free throws. He’s even become a very good pick-and-pop guy. A pick-and-roll where the roll guy is almost as dangerous as LeBron is a scary, scary notion. That play could burn down the league. Every time I play NBA 2K, the first thing I do is play as the Cavaliers, try to sell the farm for Amare, and take fair trades off if I can’t get the trade to work.

If you’d told me in fourth grade that Brittney Spears would someday be considered unattractive at any point in time, I would have thought you were insane. Likewise, if you’d told me in 2007 that Amare Stoudemire would be considered anything less than an all-time slam dunk, I would have also thought you were off your rocker.

The Skepticism:

But here we stand in 2010, and I would have some misgivings about an Amare trade. First of all, Amare isn’t the most cerebral offensive player. His assist ratio ranks 61st of the 68 listed power forwards. His turnover ratio is 46th out of 68. He’s not as good of a finisher in traffic as he used to be, either. He only makes 56% of his layups, and doesn’t have a left hand to speak of, but he’s more than willing to try and force a right-handed shot in traffic. If the ball gets tossed to Amare, it’s probably not coming back. And those numbers come in an offense with amazing spacing and a directive to rotate the ball back to Steve Nash at the first sign of trouble. Do you really want a player like that on the floor with LeBron James, especially late in games?

Also, there’s the question of Amare’s defense. It’s pretty darn bad. Every time I watch a Suns game, there are at least one or two “Amare, what are you doing?” plays that lead to a basket, if not more. The Cavs are built on defense. If Amare was put into the starting lineup, the Cavs would be starting two bona fide defensive liabilities, and it wouldn’t just be a “show starter” situation like it is right now with JJ.

For Amare to be effective defensively alongside of Shaq, he’d have to be active on the perimeter, show on pick-and-rolls, and discourage opposing teams from hitting easy jumpers as Shaq sags back to shut down the paint. With Amare’s knees, it’s an open question whether or not he could handle that responsibility even if he had the desire to do so. And it’s a very open question whether he’ll ever develop the desire to do so.

There’s also this issue, which seems to get forgotten a lot during deadline talk. Anderson Varejao is the second-best player on the Cavaliers. It’s true. Say it aloud. It’ll help it sink in. As crazy as it sounds, the guy with the crazy hair who looks like he could get knocked over by a stiff breeze, has no game outside of 10 feet to speak of, and doesn’t dunk on people has become an absolutely vital piece for the Cavs.

How would Andy be able to play next to Amare? They would both need too many minutes to never play with each other. Almost all of Varejao’s offensive game is predicated on him setting the screen up high and/or cutting around the hoop and looking for easy baskets. When Amare’s in the game, it would be foolish not to use him in the high pick-and-roll offensively and try to set him up with as many dunk opportunities as possible. Andy can’t stretch the floor in those situations. Will there be enough space for Andy to be effective in the same lineup as Amare and LeBron? They might be able to figure it out. Or they might not be able to be, and the Cavs end up losing all of their momentum.

The Optimistic Point of View:

Let’s look at Amare next to JJ Hickson, who currently starts at power forward for the Cavs and does play 40% of the total minutes, despite his designation as a “show” starter. As bad of a decision-maker as Amare is, JJ has been worse. JJ ranks 66th among power forwards in assist ratio, and 53rd in turnover rate. Both of those ranks are worse than Amare’s.

When JJ Hickson is on the floor, the Cavs give up 111.1 points per 100 possessions. When Amare Stoudemire is on the floor, the Suns give up 111.6 points per 100 possessions. The players around Amare are much worse defenders than the players around JJ, and Phoenix has a much more lax defensive philosophy. If JJ’s defense is acceptable, Amare’s could be too, at least in the starting lineup.

(Two quick disclaimers here. JJ has been a starter in name only for the Cavaliers so far this season. Amare would likely be a “true” starter, which would mean that his shortcomings would have more impact than JJ’s. I realize this. Also, JJ does seem to have experienced a kind of basketball Nirvana, and has played like a new man in the past two games. I’m of the opinion that selling high would be the correct play, but absolutely understand the notion that JJ is too talented and too young to be given up on. I just feel like we’ve seen this movie before with regard to falling in love with JJ’s potential.)

Additionally, ever since the Shaq trade, the buzz has been that the Cavs need a “stretch” four. Well, get this: Amare Stoudemire is a very good outside shooter for a big man. He doesn’t shoot threes, but Amare has been absolutely deadly on deep twos this season. He’s one of the best shooting power forwards from the 10-15 foot range and the 16-23 foot range this year, shooting 56.5%/47.0% from those ranges. To provide some contrast, Z’s career-high marks from those ranges are 43.0% and 44.0%, respectively. Overall, Amare’s eFG% on jumpers this season is a stellar 48.3%, which is a very good mark for a perimeter player. For a big man who doesn’t shoot threes and is regarded as a finisher, it’s almost unheard of. In fact, Antawn Jamison’s eFG% on jumpers is only 44.8%. Amare will never be as good shooting from outside as he is finishing at the rim, but he’s still a tremendous outside shooter for a big man.

The last question about Amare is how he’d fit in with Shaq. Windhorst mentioned in his article that Amare and Shaq got in each other’s way last season, and that’s certainly the opinion of the general public. On paper, it makes sense; Amare likes to pick-and-roll, and Shaq likes to sit in the lane. However, the numbers don’t support this thesis.

In 2007-08, Amare was one of the best finishers in the league, shooting 74% from the immediate basket area. In 08-09, Amare took the same proportion of his shots at the rim. However, he converted those opportunities at a significantly worse rate, with his eFG% on “close” shots dropping to 65.8%. The rate at which Amare drew fouls also dropped, going from 23.2% to 18.9%.

This drop in effectiveness occurred when Amare theoretically should’ve been a year further removed from microfracture surgery, and that much closer to regaining his once-fearsome hops. Faced with these facts, everyone came to the logical and understandable conclusion that Shaq was hurting Amare’s effectiveness at the rim. The data from this season, however, refutes this theory. Despite the fact that the Suns have replaced Shaq with three-point bomber Channing Frye and opened up the paint for Amare, his numbers at the basket remain identical to where they were last season. He takes 46% of his shots at the rim, up 1% from last season. He shoots 66.8% at the rim, up exactly 1% from last season. And his foul drawing rate is 18.2%, which is actually a little lower than it was last season. Whatever it was that caused Amare’s effectiveness at the basket to drop last season, it looks like it wasn’t Shaq.

Amare and Shaq were also quite effective when they played together, especially on the offensive end. Last season, Amare and Shaq’s two most used lineups had an average offensive rating of 1.14 and a defensive rating of 1.07.

This season, the Shaq/Hickson lineup has an offensive rating of 1.05 and a defensive rating of 1.12. The most-used Shaq/Varejao lineup has an offensive rating of 1.02 and a defensive rating of 1.02. Of Shaq’s 10 most-used lineups this season, only two have an offensive rating equal to or better than 1.14, and those lineups have been used for a combined 43 minutes. Now, that 82games data is 12 days old, and the lightbulb really seems to be turning on for Shaq and the Cavs over the last few games. However, the above data does show that Shaq was more effective playing alongside of Amare than he was playing with either JJ Hickson or Anderson Varejao. I think this should be taken into consideration before Shaq and Amare are labeled oil and water.

Well, after all that, I am profoundly ambivalent. On the one hand, it’s Amare. This could be the move that would make the league’s most dangerous offensive player the leader of the league’s best offense. On another hand, he doesn’t look like a good fit on either offense or defense. Plus, the Cavs are only now getting used to their one big acquisition, and do seem to be rolling on all cylinders. On a third hand, possibly an elbow, most of Amare’s perceived flaws don’t look very bad at all on paper. But then again, that’s what people were saying when the Magic signed Vince Carter. Ugh.  It’s a good thing this trade probably won’t happen, because I’d probably drive myself crazy trying to figure out how I felt about it if it did go through. Well, I have class in five hours. Until tomorrow, everyone.

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