NEW YORK — Through 23 games, New York Knicks head coach Mike Woodson is clearly the leading candidate for this season’s Coach of the Year award.
Well, it’s about to be time for Woodson to really earn that honor, because Amar’e Stoudemire has been cleared to practice for the first time since having knee surgery on Oct. 31. And though his teammates will be resting between games, Stoudemire is scheduled to get two practices in this week.
When it comes to designating their young players for assignment, the Knicks have not made much use of the D-League. But this week, they’ll take real advantage of their hybrid relationship with the Erie BayHawks.
Erie’s next game is in nearby Springfield on Friday. So the Knicks will have them practice at the MSG Training Center in Greenburgh this week. And that will allow Stoudemire to get in two full practices on Tuesday and Thursday while his NBA teammates rest. Playing every other day, the Knicks simply don’t have the opportunity to get in the practice time that Stoudemire needs to prepare for game action.
“He’s been cleared and we’re going to let him practice with the D-League team,” Woodson said. “And we’ll evaluate tomorrow after practice come Wednesday and see where he is and see how he feels.”
If practice goes well for Stoudemire, there’s a possibility that he could play Friday against Chicago or Sunday against Minnesota.
“The practices have got to go kind of in his favor,” Woodson said. “I don’t want him coming to me after tomorrow’s practice and saying, ‘Well coach, I’m hurt and sore.’ Then we’ve got to evaluate it and still take it a day at a time. I’m not going to rush him back. He’s got to be ready. And we’ll lean on him to tell me when he’s ready to go.”
The Knicks have been playing incredibly well without Stoudemire. Heading into Monday’s meeting with the Houston Rockets, they lead the Eastern Conference with an 18-5 record, a mark that includes two blowout wins over the second-place Miami Heat.
But if New York needs any help, it’s on the defensive end of the floor, where it currently ranks 16th and where Stoudemire is a liability. Only four teams have regressed more defensively this season than the Knicks, who are allowing about four points per 100 possessions more than they did last season.
The Knicks’ offense, meanwhile, is running like a well-oiled machine. It ranks second in the league behind Oklahoma City and is scoring nine points per 100 possessions better than the league average, which would make it the third-best offense — behind the 2003-04 Mavericks and this year’s Thunder — since the 1977-78 season, when the league started counting turnovers.
So it’s unclear how Stoudemire can help at this point. Last season, of course, he hurt the Knicks, who were much better, both offensively and defensively, when Stoudemire wasn’t playing. Since trading for Carmelo Anthony, the Knicks are 35-45 (including 1-7 in the postseason) in games in which Stoudemire has played. And New York has been outscored by 123 points in the 1,880 minutes that Anthony and Stoudemire have played together.
But things have clearly been different under Woodson than they were under Mike D’Antoni. The Knicks are 36-11 in the regular season under Woodson entering Tuesday’s action, 9-2 in games that Stoudemire played at the end of last season.
Anthony will miss his fourth game this season on Monday, still recovering from the sprained ankle he suffered in last Thursday’s win over the Lakers.
Assuming Anthony is healthy by the time Stoudemire returns, Woodson will have a serious rotation dilemma to deal with. With Anthony clearly more potent offensively playing the four in the Knicks’ offense, he must stagger his two stars’ minutes as much as possible. And whether or not Stoudemire eventually returns to the Knicks’ starting lineup, it will be a serious challenge for Woodson to keep his mojo going as he integrates Stoudemire into his rotation.
But hey, nobody said winning the Coach of the Year award was easy.