By Jack McCallum
July 05, 2010

Amar'e Stoudemire agreed to sign with the Knicks on Monday, has learned, a move that still leaves unanswered the big question of this wild free-agent summer.

Which is: What is LeBron James going to do?

The fact that the talented Stoudemire will be coming to New York to reunite with coach Mike D'Antoni -- he can sign the new contract, believed to be for five years and close to $100 million, as soon as Thursday -- says one of three things:

• James has told the Knicks that he will not accept their offer, sending the message, in effect, to go out and get who you want.

• James has told the Knicks that he is interested in Gotham and likes the idea of teaming up with Stoudemire.

• James has not told the Knicks anything, but they decided to go ahead with Stoudemire anyway.

As first reported by's Ian Thomsen, James is not expected to announce his decision until mid-week. But virtually every free-agent offer that has been extended, or not extended, has been done so in the context of James. The Knicks would not have invited Stoudemire to the party without consulting with the No. 1 party guest.

Neither Team James nor the Knicks would comment on what ramifications the Stoudemire deal may have on James' status vis-à-vis the Knicks.

The offer to the 6-foot-11 Stoudemire had been in the wind for a few days -- mostly because Amar'e put it there -- and most of the pre-signing speculation centered on whether the 27-year-old center/forward can get along with D'Antoni, with whom he had a sometimes rocky relationship when they were together in Phoenix.

Yes, they can.

But that isn't the right basketball question. Which is: Can Stoudemire flourish without a front-line point guard?

It would diminish Stoudemire's talents to suggest that his glittering numbers over eight years with the Suns -- 21.4 points per game with a 54.4 field-goal percentage -- were all the result of his being on the floor with a premier point guard named Steve Nash (who joined Phoenix before Amare's third season). Stoudemire can run the floor and finish with any big man in the league. He is an astonishing dunker who can flush from anywhere near the basket with either hand. He has worked hard to develop a fine outside touch, particularly from the elbow area.

But it's a fact that he is most deadly when storming down the lane after getting the ball on a high pick-and-roll, a stratagem used by Stoudemire and Nash to develop into a sexier version of Karl Malone and John Stockton. Last season's Knicks points guards -- Chris Duhon, Sergio Rodriguez and combo guard Toney Douglas -- resemble Steve Nash only to the degree that they all breathe oxygen and walk erect. (Only Douglas, a rookie last season, is under contract for 2010-11; Duhon is a free agent and Rodriguez has signed with Spain's Real Madrid.)

There are other questions, too:

• Did the Knicks risk too much by guaranteeing all of Stoudemire's money? He had microfracture surgery on his left knee in November 2005, as well as surgery for a detached retina during the latter stages of the 2008-09 season. Stoudemire probably would've re-signed with the Suns had team officials guaranteed the final two years of a five-year deal. But, fearing a breakdown, they based payment on his playing a certain number of minutes. That's when Stoudemire decided to look elsewhere.

• Also, if the Knicks come away with only Stoudemire -- meaning that team execs watch from New York Harbor as James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Carlos Boozer and Joe Johnson (the last already locked up by his old team, the Hawks) sail away to other destinations -- will the business plan that president Donnie Walsh and D'Antoni brought with them two years ago be considered a failure? That plan was: Lose for two years, win later with prizes picked up in the celebrated free-agent class of 2010. Though trades could still be made, that one seems answerable right now. Yes.

Still, all is not dark in Madison Square Garden. Adding Stoudemire, who averaged 23.1 points and 8.9 rebounds last season and whose play in the final half of the season prompted Suns coach Alvin Gentry to call him "the best player in the league after the All-Star break," has to be considered a roster upgrade. If the Knicks manage to re-sign 6-9 David Lee, they would have (with 6-10 forward Danilo Gallinari) three mobile big men, the kind that the offensive-minded D'Antoni can move around and give defenses a lot of trouble.

As for the past trouble between D'Antoni and Stoudemire, it is mostly that -- past. Stoudemire was on D'Antoni's (and presumably Walsh's list) early, and the coach is said to have preferred Stoudemire's athleticism and offensive explosiveness to the more consistent Boozer and even to the more variegated floor game of Bosh.

But what did happen between D'Antoni and Stoudemire? Not as much as you might think. The 2005-06 season was a strange one in Phoenix. I know because I was there for most of it working on a book about the Suns called Seven Seconds or Less.

Stoudemire's knee injury was discovered in training camp, right after he had signed a big contract. He was just 22 years old, going on 18. He was depressed about his rehab and didn't do it as assiduously as he could have. He missed some team meetings and other engagements. He felt alienated from his teammates, who weren't sure whether he was coming back. In a meeting in March 2006 that included then team president Jerry Colangelo and D'Antoni, Stoudemire was told in no uncertain terms to get refocused on rehab and get back in line. Stoudemire said he would. He is not an in-your-face type. Whether he respects authority is one thing, but he generally does not challenge it.

When he did come back in late March, he wasn't ready. That speaks to the uncertainty of microfracture surgery because the Suns' medical staff and training team are respected around the league. He played three games, each one progressively worse than the one before, and the Suns finally shut him down for the season. Stoudemire's return, even at, say, 90 percent, had been perceived as the one ingredient that could've gotten them a championship. (They eventually lost to the Mavericks in the Western Conference finals.) It was enough to try the inner resolve of any team.

But through it all, D'Antoni genuinely liked Stoudemire and appreciated his boyish enthusiasm and self-confidence, both of which, not incidentally, have been on display in recent days. Two days before Stoudemire was even officially extended the contract offer, he was acting like the Prince of the City, pronouncing his intention to lure San Antonio point guard Tony Parker and Denver forward Carmelo Anthony, free-agents-to-be in 2011, to play with him in New York.

But the Knicks also believe that Stoudemire, who nicknamed himself STAT not because of statistics but as an acronym for "Stand Tall and Talented," has matured and become a more responsible teammate, an opinion backed up by the man who coached him last season.

"Amar'e was incredibly focused, committed and determined last season," Gentry said, "and everyone here was sad to see him go."

Still, Stoudemire needs to be chirped at -- relentlessly -- on defense. Without a daily reminder of his defensive responsibilities, he tends to lose focus. Will D'Antoni demand that Stoudemire give his undivided defensive attention and delegate one of his assistants, either Herb Williams or brother Dan D'Antoni, to stay on Stoudemire? Will Stoudemire listen the way he did during his final year in Phoenix?

But the question to be answered before that is still the big one: Will James be the one working the high pick-and-roll with Stoudemire? If the Knicks bag LeBron, D'Antoni's quarterbacking dilemma is over. He hands the rock to James and says, "Go be Magic Johnson." But if LeBron goes elsewhere, Stoudemire better leave his GM hat on, for the Knicks will still need someone to make him as Tall and Talented as he could be.

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