A late season free agent acquisition can alter the course of an NBA team's season. That was the case when the has certainly turned out to be true of the Rockets' signing of Josh Smith, who was critical in their comeback from a 3-1 series deficit against the Clippers.
That kind of magic didn't happen with the Mavericks' signing of Amar'e Stoudemire. Dallas spent half the season looking for a quality replacement for Brandan Wright and -- after finishing as runners up in the J-Smoove sweepstakes -- reached an agreement with Stoudemire just after the All-Star break. He was a solid role player for much of the regular season but came to magnify the team's weaknesses in the playoffs.
No one had any illusions about the kind of player Stoudemire was at age 32 after multiple knee issues in New York. The Mavs believed Amar'e was overextended with the Knicks and he would do better in a smaller role more suited to his abilities in Dallas. That would mean about 16 minutes per night compared to 24 in New York. The Mavs hoped he could provide the finishing ability around the basket the team had missed since losing Wright in the Rajon Rondo trade. In many ways he met those expectations over 23 regular season games, averaging 10.8 points on 60 percent true shooting.
The Mavericks offense did go through some rough stretches when Stoudemire would get the ball in the post and the rest of the team would turn into bystanders. For whatever reason, the team sometimes went away from the ball movement that was such a strength for the offense with Wright or Stoudemire on the floor.
But the biggest problem with Amar'e on the floor became his defense. By the end of the season, Rick Carlisle settled on a reserve unit with Stoudemire at center and Dirk Nowitzki at power forward -- the same kind of pairing that worked so well with the wispy but mobile Wright at center for the previous two and a half seasons. That frontcourt pairing along with Al-Farouq Aminu, Devin Harris and Barea was the third-most used five-man lineup after Amar'e joined the team.
At another point in their respective careers, Nowitzki's shooting would have been an ideal complement for Stoudemire's ability to catch the ball at the rim off. But the 36-year-old Dirk was the weak link in the Dallas defense and in the first round of the playoffs the Rockets attacked that matchup relentlessly off the pick and roll. Tyson Chandler was frequently faced with the choice of leaving his own man open under the basket or giving up a layup or dunk to Nowitzki's. When Amar'e entered the game for Chandler, the steady drizzle of shots at the Dallas basket became a downpour.
While the Rockets ran a layup line with Stoudemire and Dirk in the game, third-year center Bernard James and rookie big man Dwight Powell rode the pine. A coach can always find a reason not to play a rookie in the playoffs but Stoudemire just wasn't giving the team anything on either side of the floor, shooting less than 43 percent from the field
The Mavericks front office talked during the season about keeping Amar'e around in the future but he's the kind of role player that worked on Dallas squads when Nowitzki was still playing at an MVP level and capable of covering others' weaknesses. The playoffs showed why the team should give that roster spot to a younger, athletic player without such clear limitations. If the team wants to save Carlisle from effort juggling rotations with multiple ill-fitting pieces, Stoudemire's tenure should be short-lived.