Raymond Felton went down with a broken finger in his New York Knicks' Christmas Day loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, and since then his team has cooled down considerably, going 6-6 after a hot start to their 2012-13 campaign.
Felton returned to action against the Philadelphia 76ers, and with the scrappy UNC product back on the active roster, there are many who believe that New York should be the favorite to make it out of the Eastern Conference.
In his first game back, Felton clearly had to shake off some rust as he scored eight points on 2-for-8 eight shooting and notched three assists in 29 minutes of playing time. To make matters worse, he allowed Jrue Holiday to torch him for a career-best 35 points, barely contesting jump shots and allowing the speedy point guard to blow right by him and attack the rack at will.
He looked better in his second game, a home win over the Atlanta Hawks, notching 12 points, four rebounds and 10 assists, but he allowed Jeff Teague to drop 27 points on just 15 shots from the floor.
For the season, Felton is averaging a respectable 15.6 points, 2.8 rebounds and 6.2 assists per game, but shooting a mere 39.3 percent from the field and 35 percent from three-point range. Still, he has played better than expected for the Knicks and his presence makes a noticeable difference on the court.
Per 48 minutes with Felton on the court, New York is scoring 104.8 points per game compared to a mere 95.4 with him riding the pine. The team is also shooting slightly better, 44.8 percent compared to just 32.1 percent.
Despite his troubles defensively against Philadelphia, New York has a defensive rating of 105 with Felton on the floor compared to 100.2 when he is not.
Felton is not an elite shooter, but he can knock down open shots and thrives in the drive-and-kick game and running the pick-and-roll.
Perhaps most importantly, Felton showed great chemistry with Tyson Chandler and worked sensationally with Amar'e Stoudemire when the two were Knicks together in 2010-11. Stoudemire and Felton ran a devastating pick-and-roll and Felton was always capable of finding Stat in the spots where he could be most effective.
However, Stoudemire is not the offensive threat that he was back then and has been relegated to a bench role as he recovers from knee surgery.
Felton's penetration ability also provides a nice scoring option in the starting lineup behind Carmelo Anthony. Part of New York's recent struggles has come because defenses are keying in on 'Melo, and the Knicks' other capable scorers are not stepping up.
With Felton back and J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, Ronnie Brewer and Jason Kidd on the roster, New York has one of the deepest backcourts in the Eastern Conference, something that should greatly benefit them come playoff time.
If one player is having an off-game, they have alternatives who are capable of absorbing their minutes and producing off the bench.
New York is currently second in the Eastern Conference, trailing the Miami Heat by two games and looking like they will play either the Milwaukee Bucks or Boston Celtics in the first round of the playoffs. Despite Rajon Rondo's ACL tear, both of these teams have strong backcourts and the Knicks will need Felton to play solid defense in order to advance.
The team New York has their sights set on though, is the reigning champion Miami Heat. Felton played well in both games against the Heat, a pair of 20-point routes.
He posted 14 points and nine assists in the Knicks' season-opening win and, with Anthony out, shot 10-for-20 with six three-pointers en route to a 27-point, seven-board performance in an impressive victory at American Airlines Arena.
Mario Chalmers is a decent defensive point guard, but Felton has the capacity of putting up good numbers against the Heat's stingy defense because they will be focusing in on stopping Anthony, Stoudemire and Smith.
However, Felton is far from a perfect player. He has struggled with his shot all year long and that inefficiency has hurt New York at times, particularly in a 3-for-19 performance against the Brooklyn Nets and a 9-for-30 outing against Chicago.
He can be goaded into taking poor shots by an opposing defense, and having a recently broken pinky finger will undoubtedly affect his stroke and ball-handling ability.
Are the New York Knicks Eastern Conference Favorites With Felton Back?
Felton's presence also does not help New York much with defensive rebounding, one of the squad's major issues. They rank just 24th in the league with 40.8 boards per contest, and as games slow down in the playoffs, they will be hurt by their inability to consistently secure the glass.
With Felton back in the fold, New York is undoubtedly a threat to make the NBA Finals, but the team's shooting is regressing since a blazing start and an inefficient point guard should not help that significantly.
Felton's steady hand in the backcourt does not mitigate all of the team's issues and it will take some time for him to find his way back to midseason form.
The Knicks are a top-three team in the Eastern Conference and should be even better with their starting point guard back, but even with a healthy Raymond Felton, New York is still not quite the favorite ahead of Miami.
All statistics accurate as of January 26th, 2013. Advanced stats courtesy of NBA.com.