Can NY Knicks Keep Up with Much-Improved Eastern Conference?

Ciaran GowanContributor IIISeptember 8, 2013

Jan 11, 2013; New York, NY, USA;  Chicago Bulls small forward Luol Deng (9) defends New York Knicks small forward Carmelo Anthony (7) during the fourth quarter at Madison Square Garden.  Chicago won 108-101.  Mandatory Credit: Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports
Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

The Eastern Conference is back as a powerhouse in the NBA, and that could spell trouble for the New York Knicks.

After picking up a bunch of veterans and making a significant upgrade at point guard with Raymond Felton, the Knicks finished second in the conference last year, winning the Atlantic Division title with a 54-28 record—their best mark since the 1996-97 season.

At times, New York was truly dominant on offense, riding the hot hand of NBA scoring champion Carmelo Anthony. The defense was sub-par for Mike Woodson's standards, but the combination of the two was enough to make them an elite team in the regular season.

Their performance in the playoffs was disappointing to say the least, and while injuries played a part, many think it's a sign that their strong regular season was just a fluke.

If nothing else, the East certainly looks a lot stronger with the 2013 offseason coming to an end, and that might be enough to push the Knicks back down the conference. Last month, ESPN predicted the Knicks would fall to fifth in the conference at season's end, with the Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers and Brooklyn Nets all overtaking them.

While the Bulls were competitive last year—in large part due to Tom Thibodeau's punishing defense—the return of former league MVP Derrick Rose will undoubtedly make them one of the league's elite teams once again. There may be an adjustment period as he gets back in rhythm, but by the end of the season they should be the Bulls we remember from 2011-12.

The Pacers haven't made any major changes this offseason, but they made strides in the playoffs and the continued development of Paul George and Roy Hibbert—as well as the return of Danny Granger to add scoring to a relatively weak offense—is only going to make them better.

Out in Brooklyn, the Nets made the biggest splash of the summer, adding Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry, hiring Jason Kidd and rounding it all out with what figures to be a very solid bench. They now boast one of the deepest starting fives in the entire league, with a good mix of veterans and players still in their prime.

Even at the bottom of the conference, teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers, Detroit Pistons, Charlotte Bobcats and Washington Wizards are all rising rapidly and should provide a much bigger challenge than they have in recent years. It wouldn't be particularly surprising to see one or two of them make the playoffs.

With all that said, it's way too early to count out the Knicks.

Just like last year, the offseason talk has discounted the moves they've made—getting deeper, younger and more talented at every position—and has also ignored the fact that they, too, have key players returning from injury.

Around the NBA, fans laughed when it was announced that the Knicks acquired Andrea Bargnani, but the Italian forward fits perfectly into their small-ball system. As discussed in more detail here, Bargnani allows the Knicks to benefit from plenty of spacing without having to put Melo's body at risk at power forward.

A big part of why New York only made it to the second round last year was the state of Melo's shoulder after suffering an injury late in the season going up against David West. With Bargnani in town, an injury like that shouldn't happen again.

Beyond that, the addition of Metta World Peace provides the perimeter defense the team sorely missed in the playoffs, while Tim Hardaway Jr. provides competition for J.R. Smith at shooting guard, which should keep him focused or at least provide an alternative when he goes cold.

New York rounded out the offseason with a couple of moves that went under the radar, bringing in Beno Udrih—a perfect fit for the dual-point guard offense—and summer league standout Jeremy Tyler to back up Tyson Chandler.

The Knicks' main issues last year were frontcourt depth, ball movement, defense and an over-reliance on J.R.'s streaky shooting, but they've made steps to address all four this summer.

But that's not all the Knicks have done. Raymond Felton has now had plenty of time to recover from his midseason hand injuries and has also dropped another 15 pounds, which will only help his penetration at the heart of New York's offense.

Amar'e Stoudemire has now had a debridement performed on both knees, which is supposed to clean out the joint and reduce the risk of further injury. He'll be playing on a strict minutes limit this season and will likely not play in back-to-backs, which will only help to keep him healthy and providing efficient offense as often as possible.

Iman Shumpert is entering what is, in reality, his first full season in the NBA. So far in his career, he's had to deal with the lockout, an ACL tear and a coaching change, but we should see him start to make significant strides now that he's in a consistent situation.

We already know Shump is an elite defender, but with a full summer and training camp to work with, he now has a chance to develop a reliable offensive game. He displayed great shooting from outside last season, but with more confidence in his surgically repaired knee and a solid mid-range game, we could start to see him move forward the same way Indiana's Paul George did this past season.

STAT, Shumpert and midseason addition Kenyon Martin all missed at least 37 games last season, but having them on the team from day one will make a huge difference, especially with the chance to work with the rest of the team in training camp. 

If these past three years have shown us anything, it's just how important continuity is for contending teams. New York will have eight key players returning from last season, including every starter in the playoffs, and we can't forget just how big a difference that makes to chemistry and ball movement. As talented as they are, that can't be said for teams like the Nets and Pistons.

There's no doubt that the East has gotten better, but the Knicks have gotten better too. There's no guarantee they'll win as many games as last year, but they have just as good a chance as Indiana, Chicago and Brooklyn in competing for the second seed behind the Miami Heat.

Predicting the standings at this point is difficult, considering all the change, but the idea that New York is going in the wrong direction and doesn't have a chance of competing with these teams is just plain wrong. If they stay healthy, they have all the talent to contend for a title.