GREENBURGH, N.Y. – Amare Stoudemire hadn't even signed yet when he declared the start of a new era for one of the NBA's worst teams.
"The Knicks are back," Stoudemire said in July, a clip that's been replayed to loud cheers before the start of exhibition games at Madison Square Garden.
What he meant is still to be determined.
Back to focusing on basketball, not the budget?
Back to the playoffs?
That probably depends on Stoudemire.
The All-Star power forward was the only big piece the Knicks landed in free agency, and now will try to lead them to their first postseason appearance since 2004.
"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."
The Knicks share the NBA's longest current playoff drought with the Minnesota Timberwolves, but their ineptitude goes back even further. New York hasn't won a postseason game since 2001 and is in the midst of a franchise-worst stretch of nine consecutive losing seasons.
The last two, coming under Mike D'Antoni, were part of New York's plan to focus on building through free agency. Nearly every move was made with the salary cap in mind, as the Knicks arrived in July with enough cash to afford two maximum-salary free agents.
LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh all said no, choosing to play with each other in Miami, so the free agency route wasn't all that was hoped. But Stoudemire agreed to leave Phoenix for a $100 million deal in New York, instantly becoming the best player to wear a Knicks uniform in years.
"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."
Stoudemire flourished in D'Antoni's offense in Phoenix and seems poised to put up big numbers in New York. He entered the final week of preseason play averaging a league-leading 22.8 points, and he didn't even play in the fourth quarter of his first two home games.
"I do like that we have someone we can throw the ball to and get on his back," D'Antoni said.
Stoudemire said all the Knicks have to step up, but the roster is young and unproven. Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler are returning starters who are capable of big nights but haven't proven they can put together a long string of them.
Raymond Felton was signed away from Charlotte to be the starting point guard after helping the Bobcats make their first playoff appearance last season. He wouldn't compare this Knicks team to the Charlotte one that earned the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference.
"We fought for many years in Charlotte. We finally made the playoffs, brought that atmosphere back to the city, that's the same thing we're trying to do here in New York," Felton said. "It's been a while since they made the playoffs, since they've had a winning season, but we're just trying to come out, trying to play hard and trying to do big things for ourselves and for the fans of the city."
Rookie Timofey Mozgov of Russia could start at center, and the Knicks will count on Anthony Randolph, Ronny Turiaf and eventually the injured Kelenna Azubuike, all of whom were acquired from Golden State in a sign-and-trade deal for All-Star David Lee.
D'Antoni called himself "cautiously optimistic with a lot of concerns" about the Knicks, who haven't been anywhere near the playoff race in the two years since he arrived from Phoenix, where his Suns were a perennial contender.
Now he finally has the type of player the Knicks spent two years preparing to chase. Better yet for the Knicks, they could be in position to add another one next summer, when Carmelo Anthony could become a free agent and Eddy Curry's contract will finally come off the books.
Maybe they'll even see a postseason game before then.
"It was a tough two years, that's behind us now," D'Antoni said. "And everything now will be to develop guys, keep good pieces and try to add to the team."