The buzzwords and insinuations are more troublesome to him than his knees. Now that he's finally healthy and ready to return to the lineup, the Knicks hope to "find a place" for him and see where he "can fit in," and, just maybe, he can "help us out" here in the playoffs.

Go ahead and read between the lines. This is what it has become for Amar'e Stoudemire, a former All-Star suddenly without a prominent place in the rotation, the big peg being forced to fit into a small role.

His Knicks career right now is viewed in New York as a necessary evil, a player with a bloated contract and bad wheels who's just getting in the way of things. His presence is tolerated, not necessarily embraced. And there's the proverbial subtraction-by-addition mentality that some fans hold with Stoudemire, that the Knicks are just better off without him. He can only screw this up; that's the feeling, anyway, leading into Game 3 against the Pacers on Saturday, where he's expected to make his return to the lineup.

Wow. Was it really only three years ago when Stoudemire was the savior, the player who jump-started the Knicks' drastic turnaround after a decade of misery that made the big city tune them out? Didn't Stoudemire, in his first few months as a Knick, hit sensational game-winning shots, average 25.3 points for the season, carry the team and also carry himself as a New York renaissance man about town?

And now, after two surgical procedures and too much time off to recover from the latest, you're saying he's good for 10 to 15 minutes at best?

You can blame the injuries. Yes, that would be a good place to start. He arrived with health question marks because he had microfracture surgery three years before the Knicks gave him five years and $99 million and sure enough, in his second season in town, Stoudemire developed knee issues again. He played only 29 games this season, and none since March 7. He hasn't broken a sweat in the playoffs. He also suffered a terrible gash in his shooting hand last spring after losing a playoff game in Miami and taking his frustrations out on an unlucky fire extinguisher.

The real roadblock, of course, became Carmelo Anthony. That's where the ball and the focus are going now, and it's not changing anytime soon, if ever. From the very start, once the Knicks traded for Melo two years ago, the two were compatible like polka dots and stripes, two players who needed the ball to be effective. It really wasn't much of a contest, with Anthony seizing control of the team and coach Mike Woodson's affections, leaving Stoudemire to play the sidekick before the injuries hits.

In July of 2010, Stoudemire ran only second to LeBron James. It was the great free-agent summer bonanza, and a half-dozen A-list players were on the market. When LeBron said no thanks to the Knicks, they turned their attention and money to Stoudemire, who grabbed a bigger contract than LeBron. He swallowed up a good portion of the salary cap, and the Knicks refused to re-sign David Lee to put themselves in position to get him, but Stoudemire became an All-Star, making more than half his shots and also averaging 8.2 rebounds.

Since then, it's been mostly injuries and some doubt. Can he return to being a starter and the No. 2 option in a reasonable time?

"He's been working his butt off," Woodson said. "We're going to play him. He won't be able to get big minutes, but we're expecting him to do his part when he's in the game. We're going to throw him out there and see what he's got."

* * *

Stoudemire is the only member of the much-discussed and storied core of that 2010 free-agent class to find himself at a crossroad. The others made their millions, left their mark and are factors for teams still alive in the playoffs. Here's a Where Are They Now look at those free agents and what they've done in their new uniforms so far:

LeBron James. The gold standard and clearly the head of the class, LeBron has finally managed to escape the fallout from his sloppy exit from Cleveland. He has two MVPs and one championship, reached two NBA Finals and made the Heat a basketball kingpin. Clearing the money to get him and then convincing him to play in Miami, one of the worst basketball cities in the league, was a masterstroke by Pat Riley.

Chris Bosh. He was the franchise guy in Toronto but wisely accepted a third-banana role in Miami to win a championship. He's often knocked for being passive at times and also for what he can't do, yet Bosh has been an All-Star since arriving.

Carlos Boozer. For a while, Boozer had a fair chance to land in Miami, where he lives, instead of Bosh. He eventually fled Utah for Chicago and the chance to be teammates with Derrick Rose, and the results have been mixed. Boozer was often mocked when things went wrong for the Bulls and for a while dealt with trade rumors. Plus, in this first season, he missed 23 games, which didn't help his reputation in Utah for being fragile. But he's averaged 16 points and nine rebounds in Chicago and missed only three games in the last two seasons.

David Lee. When he signed a six-year, $80 million deal, there was a belief the Warriors overpaid. Not anymore. Lee has averaged a double-double in his three years, was an All-Star this season and anchored a Warriors' front line in light of Andrew Bogut's health issues. In a cruel coincidence, Lee suffered a torn hip flexor early in the first round and is out of the playoffs, while Bogut is healthy and anchoring the paint. Still: You think the Knicks would rather have Lee, instead of Stoudemire, playing next to Carmelo?

Tony Allen. It was no coincidence that the Grizzlies' defensive intensity soared when Allen left the Celtics and signed in Memphis. After serving mainly in a bench role in Boston, Allen gets major minutes because of his ability to guard three and sometimes four positions. But he can't help their need for an outside shooter.

Mike Miller. The Heat gave him five years and $25 million on the strong advice of LeBron, then Miller broke a thumb in his first training camp and dealt with a string of injuries since. Miami came close to amnestying Miller once, and might consider it again. But he'll always have Game 6 of the 2012 NBA Finals, when he made seven three-pointers and broke Oklahoma City's heart. That alone made him worth the money.

* * *

If Stoudemire returns to the lineup and becomes an X-factor, the Knicks suddenly would bring an unexpected edge to their series with the Pacers and maybe the next round if they reach that far. The anticipation of his return isn't quite on the same level as Derrick Rose's. Nobody is doing a Stoudemire Watch or conducting polls about whether he should or shouldn't play. In one sense, that's a slap in the face to a player who was, by far, the best player on the team, pre-Carmelo.

Of course, if Stoudemire works his way into the meat of the rotation, comes up big and leads the Knicks to the Finals, everyone in New York will say they saw it coming.

"Amar'e is a big piece to this team," said Woodson.

We're about to see if Woodson treats him that way.