The New York Knicks haven't been able to avoid the spotlight all season long.
Their 20-point walloping of the Miami Heat on opening night surprised many, and a sizzling start had New York at the top of the Eastern Conference—and the list of trending topics—for much of the season's first half.
Since that staggering start, the Knicks' record has slowly descended from elite territory to a much more realistic region.
Since Dec. 17, Mike Woodson's crew is just 7-9, and the team's defense has been painful to watch for much of the year. Through all their issues, the Knicks are at 25-14, good for second in the East.
Though the question seemingly still needs to be asked: Are the Knicks among the NBA's elite?
It's a question that we still may not know the answer to.
Blame It On Health
Amar'e Stoudemire and Iman Shumpert have returned, but are still getting reacquainted with the pace of NBA basketball. Jason Kidd's play has regressed, but only since he was thrusted into the starting point guard role when Raymond Felton was sidelined a broken finger.
Since Kidd became the quarterback of the offense, the Knicks are 5-6. Kidd, who was previously the team's starting off-guard, hasn't looked nearly as effective since the move, either. Since Dec. 26, Kidd has played nearly 30 minutes per game. He's turned the ball over 2.1 times per contest, dished out 4.5 assists, and has hit threes at a 39.7-percent clip, down from his 44-percent mark pre-Christmas.
With Felton likely returning on Saturday, Kidd will presumably be bumped down to the second team, as Iman Shumpert has started at the 2 for New York since his return. A decreased role for Kidd should prove especially beneficial, if not now then in the long run. Kidd's 29.5 minutes per game aren't exactly what he signed up for last July, and more than he logged last season as Dallas' 1.
If Felton's return will help one Knick the most, however, it would definitely be Amar'e Stoudemire. Both players achieved the most success in their careers when playing together under Mike D'Antoni in 2010-11.
This season, Felton has scored 15.8 points per game—the highest mark of his career. His 6.3 assists per game lead the Knicks.
With Felton on the floor Knicks players get significantly better shots, as opposed to when he's on the sidelines. The team's effective field-goal percentage is almost two points higher when Felton is logging minutes, according to 82games. The Knicks net points per 100 possessions when it comes to Felton's on/off-court numbers is nearly plus-8.
To express this graphically, here's Carmelo Anthony's field-goal percentages by zone (via Vorped). The chart on the top is for the entire season, and the one on the bottom covers the last 30 days—primarily played without Felton. Note that Anthony is a better shooter in nearly every area with Felton on the floor.
Not unlike the team's backcourt, the bigs have been hit with one injury after another, or so it seems. Even discounting Stoudemire's 30-game hiatus to begin the season, New York has struggled to court a true force down low.
Rasheed Wallace appeared to be the 'Sheed of old, but it was only fool's gold. The 38-year-old hasn't played since Dec. 13 with what the Knicks have dubbed a "sore left foot." Reports have emerged recently that the team privately fears Wallace could be done for the season, but won't admit to it publicly. Even the uninhibited Wallace was tight-lipped when asked about his status (via Al Iannazzone).
"Talk to the docs and Mike about that man," Wallace said. "It’s not on me. It’s not my call. Talk to them about that."
Marcus Camby is another big Knick body who's struggled to find the hardwood this season. Camby missed seven of the team's first 11 games and didn't become a main part of the rotation until January. Shortly after he was inserted into Mike Woodson's starting five, he went down with the same foot injury that sidelined him for much of the season. He'll miss another three weeks, according to the New York Post.
Without much size, the Knicks are 28th league-wide in total rebounds. Camby and Wallace both average double-digit boards per 36 minutes.
Playing for April, Not January
Mike Woodson's primary objective is clearly to win basketball games, but at this stage of the season, there are a few other targets in sight for the Knicks.
Amar'e Stoudemire and Iman Shumpert both have missed huge chunks of the season, but will likely play huge roles for the team come April and May.
This current stretch of the season is a necessary evil for Woodson and the team.
Yes, Stoudemire and Shumpert will show some rust as they get re-accustomed to playing NBA ball, but their burn, and whatever losses that may ensue, are imperative for the Knicks' chemistry.
Thanks to the team's outstanding start, they've earned a bit of house money to play with while the team develops to full strength. At this point, it's unlikely that any stretch of futility could knock the team out of playoff contention.
The Knicks were 2-4 in STAT's first six games, and he averaged just nine points and three boards. Since, however, Amar'e has had his minutes restriction lifted, and he looks much more fit to play on the MSG court. In his last three games, he's scored 14.7 per, on 57.1 percent shooting. The Knicks are 2-1.
Shumpert has played just two games since recovering from a torn ACL, but his impact on defense has been immediate. He's logged a steal per contest in just 17.5 minutes on average. He's shot 3-of-7 and 1-of-6, respectively, in his two performances.
As long as Shumpert is adequate enough on the offensive end to get by, however, it will be enough. His defense alone merits playing time on the defensively-challenged Knicks.
Where will the Knicks finish in the East?
Overall, the Knicks could very well be as good as the were in the season's first quarter. They've been tossed a few curveballs due to injuries over recent weeks, but once Felton returns, the team will be closer to full health than they have been all year.
Jason Kidd will sink into a less taxing reserve role, Amar'e Stoudemire will reestablish himself as an offensive force, and Iman Shumpert will take care of business on the defensive end. All while Carmelo Anthony continues his MVP-caliber play.
Or the Knicks could suffer a Laker-esque streak of dysfunction and their championship hopes will go up in flames.
But I'll put my money on the former.
Follow me on Twitter at @JSDorn6.
Stats are accurate as of games played entering Jan. 23.