The signing of Amar'e Stoudemire means the Knicks have something to show for their painful payroll cleanse and that is certainly worth something. But here's the reality of the situation: The Knicks just spent $100 million on a player who may not be an upgrade over David Lee.
Let's put aside the fact Stoudemire is one awkward landing on his microfractured knee away from fading into NBA oblivion such as former All-Stars Allan Houston and Chris Webber. Let's also forget for the moment that Lee is younger than Stoudemire and has logged fewer miles on the odometer.
Strictly in terms of production, Lee was the superior player last season and by some accounts, it wasn't even close.
According to ESPN Insider John Hollinger's player metric Estimated Wins Added, which converts a player's box score statistics into an all-in-one win estimate, Lee's stellar play was worth a total of 17.5 wins to the Knicks last season, good for the fifth-best campaign in the NBA. And Stoudemire? His contributions translated to 15.8 wins last season, lower than Lee but still among the league's best.
But EWA represents only one player metric, and when dealing with an imperfect science such as this, it's best to solicit second opinions. What do we find? Statistical consultant to the Pacers and Basketball Prospectus author Kevin Pelton and his Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP) metric tells us that Lee bested Stoudemire by 2.4 wins last season. Another, sports economist Dave Berri's Wins Produced metric, says Lee's basketball worth doubled Stoudemire's on-court contributions last season (17.3 wins to 8.6).
Did the Knicks just hand a nine-figure check to a player that's only half the caliber of Lee? No -- the gap is far narrower than Berri suggests. But in analytics circles, there's still a margin between the two free-agent big men and it's not in Stoudemire's favor. A survey of the four most prominent statistical evaluations has Lee's 2010 season worth 3.1 wins better than Stoudemire's in a season in which both players were healthy and primary scorers on their respective teams.
Critics are quick to point out that Lee was a product of coach Mike D'Antoni's high-octane offense, and his stats should be docked accordingly. It's true, D'Antoni's fast-paced style has the power to inflate per-game numbers, but Lee's efficiency and per possession statistics remain first-rate even after adjusting for the rapid tempo.
And let's not forget Stoudemire had some assistance in Phoenix, too. Stoudemire owes much of his signature pick-and-roll finish to his two-time MVP co-pilot Steve Nash. Not to mention Stoudemire had some of his best years under D'Antoni's direction.
In the end, it comes down to the Knicks making the Amar'e deal for the sake of not appearing complacent this summer; doing something is better than doing nothing at all. Like a goalkeeper in a penalty kick situation picking a side while knowing his best option is to stay put, the Knicks' front office understood that action will be better received by the fans than inaction -- that is, keeping Lee in the fold.
The Knicks will try to sell Stoudemire's electric style of play as justification for the $100 million pricetag, but they may have been better off keeping the extra cash and playing Lee instead. With all the hype surrounding the big signing, it's certainly possible that the Knicks are merely running in place.
Tom Haberstroh is a regular contributor to ESPN Insider and an NBA analyst for Hoopdata.com. You can follow him on Twitter: @tomhaberstroh.