The New York Knicks struggles in the 2011-2012 season were not a product of a lack of talent, but a lack of cohesion and of a positive, team-oriented culture.
With Carmelo Anthony, Amar'e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler as a core, this club has the capacity to be much more than the sixth or seventh playoff seed they have been over the past two seasons. However, in order to take that next step and join the league's elite teams, they need to find a way to create a winning culture and unite their roster under the common goal of winning a championship.
Now, the team is at a crossroads in its development. Gone are young, promising guards Jeremy Lin and Landry Fields. They've been replaced by a slew of veteran contributors including Marcus Camby, Jason Kidd and Raymond Felton, who has been tapped as the team's starting point guard of the future.
The Knicks have aged. But, with an older, more experienced core, they have the opportunity to change the culture of the team and usher in a new, dominant era of New York Knick basketball.
The team made some positive strides last season, namely ditching Mike D'Antoni in favor of Mike Woodson. Although D'Antoni was preferred by some members of the team, he was simply tuned out by others.
There was just no way to build a contender with that kind of disconnect between players and coach.
The decision to commit to Anthony's style of play as opposed to D'Antoni's was looked at unfavorably by many fans and pundits. But the reality is the Knicks brought 'Melo in to be their franchise player, and with Woodson waiting in the wings, D'Antoni had become expendable.
However, while the team obviously needs to establish Anthony as the primary scoring option, they must be wary to not alienate Stoudemire, who often looked frustrated late in the season and in the playoffs at the number of offensive touches he was getting.
The team can use Anthony to set the tone early, but with Felton back in the fold, the team can also utilize the Felton-Stoudemire pick-and-roll which was extremely effective during the 54 games the two spent together as Knick teammates in 2010-11.
Stoudemire may not be the same transcendent player he was a few years ago, but he is a dominant offensive big man and should be given more of an opportunity to make an impact than he got last season.
Much has been made of the supposed inability of Stoudemire and Anthony to mesh together, but the team needs to create a culture that plays to the strengths of both forwards and does not alienate them or put them at odds with each other.
Although Anthony will be taking the brunt of the shots, Stoudemire deserves his share of looks and with their ability to both play in the post, attack off the dribble and hit shots from the perimeter, they can actually complement each other as long as they are willing to move the ball.
Both are tremendously talented players, but Woodson needs to make them understand the need to share the ball and use their offensive abilities to create better scoring opportunities for one another.
Essentially, the team needs to create a culture that places group success over individual accomplishments. This may sound like a cliche, but it is far easier said than done. If 'Melo is being ineffective or jacking up low-percentage looks, Woodson needs to be willing to take the ball out of his hands and use the rest of the talent at his disposal.
Though this team lacks one phenomenal playmaker, Anthony, Felton, Kidd and even Stoudemire are more than capable passers who can see the floor and make plays for their teammates.
Defensively, their star players also need to be shown that giving a lackadaisical effort is simply unacceptable. Both Anthony and Stoudemire have shown that they can sporadically be impact players on the defensive end, but neither has played an entire season of high-level defense.
Now, New York has two players in Ronnie Brewer and Marcus Camby who can come off the bench and take minutes from both Anthony and Stoudemire if they are letting their man blow by them or not hustling back in transition.
Accountability is a key aspect of a successful defense, and the best way to create that is by showing players the consequences of only putting in effort on one side of the basketball court.
Too often players will only look to impact the game in a single area, but Mike Woodson and the Knicks staff need to demand that their players not limit themselves to a single facet.
Chandler is an excellent interior defender, but is also a capable finisher on the pick-and-roll. Anthony is a natural scorer, but can also crash the glass and distribute the basketball in a point-forward role. Smith is not just a three-point bomber, but a superb athlete who can break a defense down off the dribble and make a kick-out pass to an open shooter.
Although many have stressed that New York follow the model of the Miami Heat, the Knicks may actually be more suited to play like the San Antonio Spurs, where they push the ball, space the floor and get everyone involved both offensively and defensively. With its depth, this team can legitimately go 10-deep any given night and should exploit this strength, considering that at a certain point, any NBA season becomes somewhat a war of attrition.
Woodson needs to stress that, while the team's 18-6 late-season stretch was helped by Anthony's hot shooting, the play of role players like Steve Novak, Jared Jeffries and Iman Shumpert was also crucial in earning the team a second consecutive playoff berth.
With the talent they have assembled, this Knicks team is poised to take a huge developmental step forward, but only if they create a culture that preaches accountability, selflessness and a willingness to be active on both ends of the floor.
Without that, this team will be nothing more than an underachieving sixth or seventh seed yet again.