Before the season, the primary argument involving the New York Knicks was if they were the best team in their city. With a quarter-season of play in the books, focus has shifted to a much larger debate: Are the Knicks the class of the Eastern Conference?
Statistically speaking, they are. The Knicks are holding down the top spot in the East at 18-6, a game ahead of the 16-6 Miami Heat.
But whether the Knickerbockers can sustain their early-season dominance is another question, primarily due to their age. With Amar'e Stoudemire and Iman Shumpert returning as reinforcements in the coming weeks, there's no reason to believe the Knicks will fade from the race any time soon.
Let's run through some more evidence that the Knicks will be competing for an NBA Finals appearance this spring.
All stats accurate entering play on Dec. 19.
Kidd and Chandler both earned a ring in Dallas two years ago.
Over the offseason, Knicks general manager Glen Grunwald's primary goal was to bolster the team's roster with savvy veterans with playoff experience. At this point, it appears as if the plan has paid off.
Thirty-nine-year-old Jason Kidd, an addition that many fans were up in arms over, has added the biggest contributions to the team outside of Carmelo Anthony. Kidd earned a ring two seasons ago in Dallas. His 47 percent clip from beyond the arc leads the team (minimum 10 attempts), as well as his 1.8 steals per game.
The offense and defense are under more careful watch when he's on the court. In fact, the Knicks net 2.5 more points on average when Kidd is on the court, as opposed to when he's resting.
Another maligned roster move last offseason was the addition of formerly retired Rasheed Wallace. Wallace took home the hardware in 2004 as a Detroit Piston. He wasn't expected to be more than a vocal leader/player-coach type, but 'Sheed has shattered those expectations.
The 38-year-old has averaged just under 15 minutes per game, but his stat line normalizes (per 36 minutes) to an impressive 18 points and 10 rebounds, to go along with two blocks.
Tyson Chandler is in his second campaign with New York but was also Kidd's teammate on the 2011 champion Mavs squad.
As you can see, there's no lack of veteran leadership at the top for the Knicks.
'Melo has played the best basketball of his career this season.
There's no two ways about it: Carmelo Anthony is playing the best ball of his career.
Actually, it's all because of the two ways about it. 'Melo is playing two-way basketball for the first time in his career, and it's paying dividends for the first place Knicks.
On offense, Anthony is playing as efficiently as ever. His PER of 26 trumps any mark he's previously put up. His turnover rate of 10.1 percent is the lowest of his career, despite a career-high and league-leading usage rate of 34.2 percent. He's second to Kobe Bryant in points per game with 27.9.
The defensive end, though, is where we've seen the most dramatic improvement from Carmelo. His markedly upgraded effort on D and on the boards is what has the Knicks at first in the East and what is garnering Anthony MVP consideration.
Without Carmelo Anthony, the Knicks are a middle-of-the-pack team in a stacked Atlantic Division. With 'Melo, New York is a title contender.
No Eastern Conference team has beaten NY at MSG this year.
In the playoffs, not unlike regular-season basketball, taking care of business at home is imperative. Thus far in New York's playoff warm-up season, it has been doing just that.
Their 10-1 home record is best in the league, with their only Garden loss coming to Jeremy Lin's Houston Rockets on Dec. 17th. They've yet to lose a game to an Eastern Conference opponent on their home floor in six tries.
The 'Bockers have their home crowd behind them, and the results are evident. Their 8-5 road record is second in the East to the Atlanta Hawks, as well.
Kidd has committed just 18 turnovers this season.
A key to playoff success is valuing each and every possession. Mike Woodson's Knicks take care of the ball better than anyone else in the league.
Their 260 total team turnovers are the least in the NBA. Led by tremendous point guard play from Raymond Felton (2.4 turnovers per game), Pablo Prigioni (1.1 turnovers per game) and Jason Kidd (18 turnovers in 575 minutes this year), the Knicks ensure that offensive possessions rarely go to waste.
On the other end of the court, the Knicks force the fifth-most turnovers in the league at 383.
Shumpert and Stoudemire have yet to suit up this season.
The Knicks have been playing the most impressive basketball we've seen out of New York in a decade. They're the talk of the NBA world and almost a lock to make a run deep into the playoffs.
They've achieved all this without their second-best player in Amar'e Stoudemire and their best defensive player in Iman Shumpert.
The additions of Stoudemire and Shumpert will help spell veterans like Jason Kidd and Rasheed Wallace as the regular season wears along, to aid their readiness come playoff time.
Stoudemire will provide a secondary offensive weapon to Carmelo Anthony. If STAT runs with the second team upon returning, the reserves will have an offensive anchor nearly as dominant as the starters will.
The Knicks have been a brand new team under Mike Woodson.
The Knicks have taken on a brand new identity since the promotion of Mike Woodson to head coach. Since taking over on March 14th last season, the team is 36-12.
They've lost just two home games in the regular season under Woodson: a 93-85 loss to Miami last year and a 109-96 defeat to the Rockets earlier this week. Including the playoff series against the Heat, New York is 22-3 at Madison Square Garden under Mike Woodson.
The theme of Woodson's regime with Knicks players is accountability. Coach Woody stresses that all members of the team will be held accountable during good times and bad. This mantra has rung through, especially to Carmelo Anthony, who is playing the most inspired basketball of his career.
The Knicks have opened an early cushion on the rest of the division.
A key to reaching the Eastern Conference Finals this season for New York is to finish the year with a high playoff seeding.
All division leaders are guaranteed a top-four seed, but the Knicks likely won't need to bank on this clause to finish with a high seed. They're currently at the top, and any finish below second would be sure to irk the fanbase after the team's hot start.
Divisional success will be crucial for the Knicks as the regular season goes on, and their 3-1 record in divisional play has set the tone. As long as the Knicks keep their divisional cushion at a comfortable number, a long postseason run shouldn't be hard to come by.