Now it's a Garden of possibilities

The great free-agent class of 2010 turned out to be a two-man class, and Amare Stoudemire does not have a desk in that room. He is not LeBron James or Dwyane Wade, and no, he is not a true max-out player or $100 million asset, either.

But you do know what Amare Stoudemire is, right?

A hell of a catch for the New York Knicks.

In fact, if Stoudemire can persuade James or Wade to join him, he will represent the smartest signing the Knicks have ever made.

This isn't the time to focus on what or who Stoudemire is not. If he fails to stay healthy, or if he fails to shape a consistent contender without a quarterback named Steve Nash throwing him spirals, Stoudemire will get what's coming to him from the Madison Square Garden crowd.

That's fine. Stoudemire wouldn't be the first big-name, bigger-money ballplayer jeered out of New York, and he sure wouldn't be the last.

Only this much is certain for now: Stoudemire is the Knicks' best player since Patrick Ewing, better than Allan Houston and LJ and Spree, even if every New Yorker -- the new power forward included -- hopes Amare surrenders that title by the end of the week.

"LeBron James is going to be a Knick," Brian Cashman, ace free-agent recruiter, said Monday after hearing the Stoudemire news . "I'm convinced of it. New York is the place that will allow him to be the player and person he wants to be, and it's coming together. Just listen to me, LeBron James will be a Knick."

Cashman was called because he's a leading scholar in the field of courting free agents and, when necessary, overpaying them. Stoudemire's history of knee and eye injuries inspired some to suggest he deserved four guaranteed years instead of five and a total package south of the $100 million he scored.

Of course, Cashman didn't want to pay CC Sabathia $161 million over seven years. He did what he had to do after the 2008 season because the Yankees had missed the playoffs for the first time in forever, and because he needed Sabathia as much as the Knicks needed Stoudemire.

"In free agency, it's not about cutting the best deal, it's about securing the player," Cashman said. "I gave CC an extra year and an out after three years because we needed him. We couldn't afford to lose him. He was the most vital piece to our entire game plan in free agency."

Stoudemire might prove to be the Knicks' most vital piece. They need to land James or Wade, but the max-out deal Phoenix and others wouldn't offer Stoudemire was the only credible way for the Knicks to get in the game.

"You don't get a gold star for saving money on a deal; your goal is to win championships," Cashman said. "You can't enter the free-agent market as a buyer hoping to beat the other teams by one dollar. You can't mess around and lose the player."

The Knicks didn't mess around, and they didn't lose Stoudemire. As a result, they might not lose LeBron to Cleveland or Chicago.

Before cutting this deal with Stoudemire, the Knicks had assurances from the James camp that this agreement certainly wouldn't hurt their chances. LeBron doesn't prefer Chris Bosh over Stoudemire. In fact, one source close to the situation said the opposite is true.

It doesn't matter now. The Knicks have declared themselves, and now they're waiting for James and Wade to do the same. And don't dismiss Wade as a candidate for only the Heat and Bulls. The Knicks believe they're alive and well in the hunt for Pat Riley's 2-guard, too.

They're selling the possibility of Carmelo Anthony to one and all, and somehow, some way, they plan to carve out another max-out slot next summer for a former Syracuse star who's been telling people he wants back on the Big East tournament's floor.

Anthony remains in the distance, more concept than reality. For now, Stoudemire amounts to a whale of a start. He has an injury history with his knees and eyes, a history that scared off some otherwise interested teams.

Stoudemire also has played at least 79 of 82 games in three of the four seasons since microfracture surgery on his left knee cost him nearly all of 2005-06. After surgery to repair his detached retina, Stoudemire returned this past season to average 23 points and 9 rebounds per night.

So yeah, he's going to help the 29-53 Knicks, as in a lot.

He's going to help them in the frontcourt plenty more than Joe Johnson would've helped them at guard. That's why the Knicks had him break breakfast bread with Mike D'Antoni on Sunday morning, and why they had him at Jim Dolan's house Sunday night. That's why the Knicks threw Stoudemire a big Garden party Monday and slapped his image on the world-famous marquee.

When Stoudemire was done agreeing to agree with the Knicks, he called himself a "pioneer" for being the first major free agent to agree to sign with a raiding team. Under a blue team cap, he declared, "The Knicks are back."

Back from the dead. Back from under the pile of desperate recruiters with virtually no chance of signing James or Wade.

Back with a relevant product that is one phone call from putting on a show worthy of the biggest Broadway stage.

Ian O'Connor is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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