Knicks

Optimism Runs High As Amar’e Makes Knicks Debut

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AP Photo/Francois Mori

AP Photo/Francois Mori

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TORONTO (AP) – The Toronto Raptors are wondering how they’re going to replace an All-Star big man who was the face of their franchise. The New York Knicks are curious how much better they’re going to be with one.

Shut out in its attempt to lure one of the NBA’s free agent megastars, New York still feels like it emerged a winner by adding Amar’e Stoudemire, who makes his Knicks debut Wednesday night at the Air Canada Centre against a Raptors team that could be facing a long rebuilding process after the departure of Chris Bosh.

LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Bosh all turned down the chance to play in New York in order to unite in Miami, but that didn’t stop the Knicks (29-53) from making a sizable splash in free agency.

Stoudemire agreed to leave Phoenix for a five-year, $100 million deal in New York, instantly becoming the best player to wear a Knicks uniform in years.

For a franchise that hasn’t made the postseason since 2004 and hasn’t won a playoff game since 2001, adding one of the NBA’s premier offensive big men has led to something that’s been hard to find at Madison Square Garden lately – optimism.

“The fans are ready just as well as we are,” Stoudemire said. “Again, we’re working hard on the basketball court to really give them what they’re looking for.”

Perhaps the biggest hook for Stoudemire – aside from a max contract – was the up-tempo system of Mike D’Antoni, who coached the five-time All-Star for four full seasons in Phoenix. Stoudemire averaged 23.6 points and 9.2 rebounds under D’Antoni from 2004-05 to 2007-08.

D’Antoni is counting on similar production for a team that renounced the rights to its two leading scorers – David Lee and Al Harrington – to free up salary cap space.

Of course, after two seasons with 61 total wins since D’Antoni arrived, the Knicks were willing to do whatever it took for a chance to land a big name.

“You never know if you went another way what would have happened or will we ever know,” D’Antoni said. “But we had to set ourselves up to try to get one or two or three of the big free agents last summer and we came away with a good one, so it wasn’t 100 percent but it worked out pretty good.

“It was a tough two years, that’s behind us now. And everything now will be to develop guys, keep good pieces and try to add to the team.”

Many have speculated one of those pieces will eventually be Carmelo Anthony, the Brooklyn-born forward who apparently wants to be traded from Denver ahead of his pending free agency.

For now, though, Stoudemire is left to lead a team that shouldn’t have any trouble getting up the floor. The Knicks dealt Lee to Golden State for athletic big man Anthony Randolph, and used part of the cap space they had left over to sign point guard Raymond Felton.

Felton will start in the backcourt, and Stoudemire will join sharpshooting Danilo Gallinari and Russian rookie Timofey Mozgov up front, but the other starter isn’t set in stone. Either Toney Douglas or rookie Landry Fields will start alongside Felton, with the versatile Wilson Chandler settling into the role of sixth man.

Perhaps no franchise is in flux quite like Toronto (40-42), which failed to make the playoffs after going 8-14 down the stretch.

That, of course, is the least of the Raptors’ problems. Bosh joined James and Wade in Miami, leaving Toronto with nothing but a large trade exception for its all-time leading scorer and rebounder.

Five days later, the Raptors shipped Hedo Turkoglu – whom they signed to a five-year, $53 million deal in 2009 – to Phoenix in a deal that netted speedy guard Leandro Barbosa.

Between Bosh and Turkoglu, that’s 35.3 points and 15.4 rebounds per game left to replace.

“We are going to make sure we ride the hot hands, get everyone a lot of touches and recognize some nights it’s going to be one guy and another night it’s going to be a whole host of players,” coach Jay Triano told the Raptors’ official website.

Perimeter-oriented big man Andrea Bargnani (17.2 points per game) is the leading returning scorer, while rookie forward Ed Davis will eventually be counted on to take Bosh’s place. Davis, however, is out for at least three more weeks after tearing the meniscus in his right knee in a pickup game Sept. 15.

In the meantime, it’ll be up to Amir Johnson and Reggie Evans to fill in at power forward, while Linas Kleiza could replace Turkoglu.

That means the Raptors will be relying on plenty of scoring from a backcourt of Jarrett Jack, Barbosa, Jose Calderon and DeMar DeRozan.

Jack and DeRozan are the likely starters, and DeRozan’s progress could be critical. He started 65 games as a rookie last season and averaged 8.6 points, but he’ll likely need to increase that for Toronto to compete.

“I think he’s got a lot more experience being on the floor in crucial times,” Triano said. “I think that’s going to be something that benefits him not only this year but throughout his career.”

DeRozan averaged 17.7 points against the Knicks last season, playing in three of the four wins in Toronto’s season sweep. He had a career-high 24 in a 131-113 victory April 14.

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