by Yaron Weitzman / @YaronWeitzman

When the Knicks gave Amar’e Stoudemire a five-year, $100 million contract last offseason, I thought they made a huge mistake. Then-Knicks President Donnie Walsh had run the franchise for the previous two seasons with the one goal—to clear salaries. And now he was spending his precious cap room on a defensively challenged, eight-year veteran with a history of knee problems and reputation for not being the greatest teammate. Not exactly characteristics typically used to describe a franchise player and, on paper, not the type of player who a team should stake its future on.

But basketball is not played on paper, and as much as we like to analyze off-season transactions, it’s impossible to flawlessly predict how a person will react under a new set of circumstances. In this case, Stoudemire was everything the Knicks hoped for. A go-to scorer who could create his own shot. A clutch player. A leader, both on and off the court. The New York spotlight is not for everyone. Many want to be nowhere near it, and those who do, often can’t handle the brightness. Stoudemire could and did. Not only did he play like a franchise player, but he also acted like one.

Never was this more evident than after Carmelo Anthony came to New York. At the time of the trade, the Knicks were 28-26 and Stoudemire was being mentioned as a borderline top-five MVP candidate. He was the king and undisputed leader of the resurrected Knicks. And just like that, he no longer was. Stoudemire helped make the Knicks relevant, but Anthony, the new “savior,” would really be the one bringing the Knicks “back.” Or at least that’s how the story went. Suddenly Anthony was the one getting MSG Network commercials. Suddenly the Madison Square Garden crowd was chanting “Mehh-lo” instead of “M-V-P” for Stoudemire. Yes, Stoudemire appeared to be thrilled after the trade, but it also would have been extremely human if he had begun to feel a little resentment.

He never did.

On the contrary, STAT seemed to go out of his way to adjust to Anthony. Melo might have been taking more shots, but Stoudemire, displaying a personality that he probably never could in Phoenix under the giant shadow of Steve Nash, was clearly the leader of the Knicks, and was providing the franchise with the type of leadership that a $100 million man should.

Leadership and intangibles, however, are pretty useless if a player doesn’t bring tangibles to the court. And as good of a locker room guy as Stoudemire was last season, it was his basketball skills, and specifically, his tremendous offensive game that brought Playoff basketball back to New York and gave The Renaissance Man this No. 11 ranking.

What makes Stoudemire so good offensively is not just that he scores, which he does a lot, but how he gets his points. Stoudemire is one of the best pick-and-roll finishers in the NBA, which is one of the most efficient and effective ways for a big-man to score. A pick-and-roll basket comes off of ball movement as opposed to an isolation play, and it also forces the entire opposing defense to react and shift. In fact, the ability to score within the flow of an offense and without holding the ball is one of Stoudemire’s greatest strengths, and one that many scorers don’t posses. He’s also one of the best shooting and passing big men in the League, which opens up the floor for his teammates even when Stoudemire isn’t scoring and doesn’t have the ball. A power forward who can shoot, pass, take his man off-the-dribble, and who likes to operate from the top of the key—meaning a defense can’t load up to guard him—is nearly impossible to stop, and is the type of player who a Championship team can build its offense around.

Unfortunately for Stoudemire and the Knicks, a Championship team also needs to defend and rebound. For the most part, Stoudemire does neither. For a 6-10 player to average just 8.2 rebounds on a fast paced team where he’s often the only big man on the court is inexcusable. And both his on-the-ball and help defense leave much to be desired. But Stoudemire does block shots, and he does talk about making the Knicks a better defensive team. Talking the talk is obviously not enough, but it’s certainly better than completely ignoring that side of the court.

Will Stoudemire ever lead the Knicks to a Championship? It’s impossible to say. But because of Stoudemire’s decision last July to put New York basketball on his back, that question is no longer a ridiculous one.

SLAMonline Top 50 Players 2011
RankPlayerTeamPositionPos. Rank
50Luol DengBullsSF8
49Andrew BogutBucksC7
48Ray AllenCelticsSG9
47Marc GasolGrizzliesC6
46David WestHornetsPF15
45Kevin MartinRocketsSG8
44Andrew BynumLakersC5
43Brandon JenningsBucksPG11
42Lamar OdomLakersPF14
41Gerald WallaceBlazersSF7
40Brook LopezNetsC4
39Joakim NoahBullsC3
38Carlos BoozerBullsPF13
37Kevin GarnettCelticsPF12
36Eric GordonClippersSG7
35Tony ParkerSpursPG10
34Andre Iguodala76ersSG6
33Al JeffersonJazzPF11
32Al HorfordHawksC2
31Stephen CurryWarriorsPG9
30Tim DuncanSpursPF10
29Josh SmithHawksPF9
28Manu GinobiliSpursSG5
27Tyreke EvansKingsPG8
26Rudy GayGrizzliesSF6
25John WallWizardsPG7
24Danny GrangerPacersSF5
23Monta EllisWarriorsSG4
22Joe JohnsonHawksSG3
21Paul PierceCelticsSF4
20Steve NashSunsPG6
19Zach RandolphGrizzliesPF8
18LaMarcus AldridgeBlazersPF7
17Chris BoshHeatPF6
16Kevin LoveTWolvesPF5
15Rajon RondoCelticsPG5
14Blake GriffinClippersPF4
13Pau GasolLakersPF3
12Russell WestbrookThunderPG4
11Amar’e StoudemireKnicksPF2

• Rankings are based solely on projected ’11-12 performance.
• Contributors to this list include: Maurice Bobb, Shannon Booher, David Cassilo, Bryan Crawford, Sandy Dover, Adam Figman, Jon Jaques, Eldon Khorshidi, Ryne Nelson, Doobie Okon, Ben Osborne, Quinn Peterson, Dave Schnur, Abe Schwadron, Dan Shapiro, Irv Soonachan, Todd Spehr, Tzvi Twersky, Yaron Weitzman, DeMarco Williams and Ben York.
• Want more of the SLAMonline Top 50? Check out the archive.