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
Rank Player Team Position Pos. Rank
50 Luol Deng Bulls SF 8
49 Andrew Bogut Bucks C 7
48 Ray Allen Celtics SG 9
47 Marc Gasol Grizzlies C 6
46 David West Hornets PF 15
45 Kevin Martin Rockets SG 8
44 Andrew Bynum Lakers C 5
43 Brandon Jennings Bucks PG 11
42 Lamar Odom Lakers PF 14
41 Gerald Wallace Blazers SF 7
40 Brook Lopez Nets C 4
39 Joakim Noah Bulls C 3
38 Carlos Boozer Bulls PF 13
37 Kevin Garnett Celtics PF 12
36 Eric Gordon Clippers SG 7
35 Tony Parker Spurs PG 10
34 Andre Iguodala 76ers SG 6
33 Al Jefferson Jazz PF 11
32 Al Horford Hawks C 2
31 Stephen Curry Warriors PG 9
30 Tim Duncan Spurs PF 10
29 Josh Smith Hawks PF 9
28 Manu Ginobili Spurs SG 5
27 Tyreke Evans Kings PG 8
26 Rudy Gay Grizzlies SF 6
25 John Wall Wizards PG 7
24 Danny Granger Pacers SF 5
23 Monta Ellis Warriors SG 4
22 Joe Johnson Hawks SG 3
21 Paul Pierce Celtics SF 4
20 Steve Nash Suns PG 6
19 Zach Randolph Grizzlies PF 8
18 LaMarcus Aldridge Blazers PF 7
17 Chris Bosh Heat PF 6
16 Kevin Love TWolves PF 5
15 Rajon Rondo Celtics PG 5
14 Blake Griffin Clippers PF 4
13 Pau Gasol Lakers PF 3
12 Russell Westbrook Thunder PG 4
11 Amar’e Stoudemire Knicks PF 2

Notes
• 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.