The New York Knicks are off to a hot start in the 2012-13 season, much to the surprise of basketball fans and experts alike.
But as unlikely as it may seem, this Knicks team is genuinely improved, and should be amongst the Eastern Conference's best all season long.
The two most striking differences we've seen in the Knicks so far are their ball movement and defensive effort.
Every single player has bought into the commitment to making the extra pass, and it has resulted in plenty of good looks for the Knicks offense. So long as they can keep moving the ball, a team this talented offensively should continue to have success moving forward.
On the defensive end, the Knicks have built on the foundation that Mike Woodson and Tyson Chandler laid down last season, and now lead the league in defensive efficiency (accurate as of Nov. 11, 2012).
Even notoriously bad defenders such as Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith have made strides defensively. Not only are they not liabilities on defense any more, but they are actually difference makers who help to cause a lot of turnovers.
Again, as long as the commitment is there, the Knicks can and will continue to shut opponents down just because of their sheer defensive talent.
One thing that may not be so sustainable for the Knicks is their three-point shooting. So far, the Knicks are second in the league from outside, shooting 44 percent, which is something that can't be relied on for 82 games.
That said, it's not like the Knicks are getting lucky with their outside shooting. With excellent passers like Raymond Felton, Jason Kidd and Ronnie Brewer in the starting lineup, they are simply finding the open man and making the shots that they should make.
Besides, with their point differential of plus-17 so far, the Knicks can afford to start missing some threes.
With the Knicks continuing to play defense at a high level, the offense doesn't have to be particularly good. Average offensive performances will get them wins if they continue to hold opponents to low scoring totals—something that Mike Woodson teams are known for.
After all, since Woodson took over last March, the Knicks are 14-0 in games where they've held opponents to less than 90 points.
Speaking of Coach Woodson, it's his assuring presence at head coach that will keep the Knicks going at such a high level all season.
Though the Hawks eventually cut ties with him after their second-round exit in 2010, Woodson's teams have always been consistent, which is a great sign for these Knicks.
Woodson is known for keeping players accountable and establishing a dominant defense, and that's exactly what he's done in his first nine months on the job.
Though people will point to this Knicks stretch only being four games long, you have to take into account that this didn't just start on Nov. 2—the Knicks have been hot since Woodson took over.
So far in his tenure, the Knicks are 22-6, good for one of the best records in the league. Melo, their star player, has been dominant throughout those 28 games, winning the Player of the Month award back in April.
As the league's scoring leader so far this season, he's on pace to win it again in November.
When people think of the Knicks, they think of a dysfunctional team that continues to make bad decisions. Considering the last decade, that's a fair enough assumption to make, but those Knicks are no more.
This is not Mike D'Antoni's team anymore; it's Mike Woodson's team, and something clicked when that change was finally made.
For those that have been paying attention to the Knicks over these last two seasons, they will have noticed that the two things that have been holding them back are coaching and point-guard play.
The talent has always been there, but they've never had the personnel to bring them together. Thanks to general manager Glen Grunwald's hard work over the summer, they finally have the glue to bring their pieces together.
Not only do the Knicks now have a better fit at head coach, but they also have a completely revamped set of point guards capable of building the chemistry they've lacked for so long.
Felton, Kidd and Pablo Prigioni are all great, selfless passers, and it's clear that their presence has transformed the offense.
No longer are the Knicks relying on the below-par Toney Douglas or Mike Bibby (who's currently out of the league) to run the offense—they now have genuine pass-first point guards in their place.
As with any team, things are obviously not perfect, and there are some things to worry about moving forward.
For one, the age of this roster dictates that health will be an issue throughout the season, as players will inevitably miss time with the nagging injuries that come with age.
To counter that, the Knicks have rotation-quality players from one through to 15, with preseason star Chris Copeland barely even playing in these opening weeks.
This depth will help big time when it comes to covering for these injuries. In fact, it already has, with the Knicks going 4-0 without starters Amar'e Stoudemire and Iman Shumpert.
Another worry is the return of Stoudemire. STAT is coming off the worst season of his career, and has struggled to find his role with Melo and Tyson Chandler joining him on the team.
Hopefully, just as he's done for the rest of the roster, Woodson will help Stoudemire by encouraging improvements on the defensive end and putting him in a position to succeed on offense.
Though he's currently nursing a knee injury, Stoudemire has finally shaken the back issues that have held him back recently, so his jump shot should be more effective.
This will help the Knicks spacing tremendously, and go a long way to helping Amar'e and the rest of the Knicks offense mesh.
Are the Knicks for real?
The return of his former partner in crime, Raymond Felton, shouldn't hurt either.
Being realistic, there are going to be some major obstacles and some bad stretches along the way for New York, but this should still be an elite team come season's end.
Clearly they won't go undefeated, but 50 wins and home-court advantage in the first round shouldn't be a surprise to anyone come June.
Like it or not, the Knicks are back.