The New York Knicks have high expectations going into the 2013-14 season, and rightly so. They're going into the year deeper and younger than before, but there are still some major red flags that they'll need to overcome.
While the Knicks certainly have the talent to go far in the Eastern Conference, there are a lot of factors that could stop them from making that a reality. Some of these factors are in their control, like ball movement, shot selection and smart coaching, but others—like health and improved competition—they have very little say in.
New York isn't the only team in the East's elite with concerns. The Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers and Brooklyn Nets all have their own problems to worry about, but if the Knicks can't solve the majority of their own, it's hard to see them improving on last year's disappointing second-round exit.
Undoubtedly, the biggest concern for the Knicks going into this season is health. Last year, Amar'e Stoudemire, Kenyon Martin, Tyson Chandler, Carmelo Anthony, Iman Shumpert and Raymond Felton all missed significant time with injuries, while new acquisition Andrea Bargnani also missed a chunk of the season with the Toronto Raptors.
With the news that J.R. Smith was also dealing with a major injury in the postseason, that adds up to seven of the Knicks' most important players suffering health setbacks last year, which undoubtedly contributed to their early exit against Indiana.
The Knicks did manage to win 54 games and the Atlantic Division title despite these injuries, but with the conference getting stronger across the board, it's hard to see them repeating that if health is still an issue.
Going into the season, it's very possible that the Knicks could have their full roster—save for Jeremy Tyler—healthy on opening day. Smith will still be serving his suspension, but other than that it's a good sign for New York.
There's still plenty of work to be done in terms of getting in rhythm offensively and building a solid defensive system, but with players going in and out of the lineup, that would be very difficult to achieve.
Moving forward, there's not really much the Knicks can do to stay healthy. STAT will rightly be kept on a strict minutes limit, but other than that it's out of their control. Ideally, players like Chandler and Martin could be rested as often as possible, but there's no one else on the roster who can match their defensive intensity inside.
Going into last season, the Knicks preached defense as their priority but ended up becoming a record-breaking offensive team and one of the worst defensive teams left in the playoffs by the second round.
Tyson Chandler was still elite inside—good for an All-Defensive first team selection—but with little help on the perimeter until Iman Shumpert returned, New York's team defense was mediocre at best.
With Shumpert and Kenyon Martin now on the team for a full season and Metta World Peace joining them, the Knicks have plenty of great individual defenders. Becoming an elite defense, however, requires contributions from everyone on the team.
On the bright side, it was only two years ago that the Knicks finished fifth in defensive efficiency with a roster with much worse defensive personnel. Players like Jeremy Lin, Mike Bibby, Baron Davis, Steve Novak and Amar'e Stoudemire all played major minutes that season, yet the defense remained elite.
What that means is that it's very possible the Knicks could turn things around this season. Stoudemire is playing less minutes, while players like Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith have certainly gotten better as individual defenders.
The key for New York really comes down to two players—Raymond Felton and Andrea Bargnani.
Felton had a pretty good reputation as a defender until last season, where he allowed a 19.7 player efficiency rating from opposing point guards. This was particularly surprising considering his weight loss, which does raise questions as to what he can really do to improve in 2013-14. It could turn out that cutting his minutes is the only way to fix the issue.
Meanwhile, in the frontcourt, Mike Woodson has a tough decision to make as to whether Bargnani or Anthony will play outside. Both players were above average as defensive power forwards last season, but could struggle out on the perimeter.
When the Knicks are at their best, they're borderline unstoppable. We saw that twice last season, with their 6-0 run to open the year and their 16-2 run going into the postseason.
What we also saw in between those two runs and in the playoffs was some truly mediocre basketball, with a heavy focus on isolation and zero communication on defense.
Considering the talent they have, the formula for New York's success is relatively simple. If they move the ball consistently, they will be an elite offensive team, and if they play just average defense on the perimeter, Tyson Chandler and Kenyon Martin will clean up the mess.
And yet the Knicks struggled to do both of those on a regular basis last season, particularly in the playoffs.
With no true second option behind Carmelo Anthony, the Knicks' success is likely going to come down to the play of J.R. Smith, Raymond Felton and Iman Shumpert—three of their biggest culprits in terms of inconsistency.
All three had moments of brilliance last season and, unsurprisingly, they coincided with the team's best runs in form. Smith and Felton in particular, however, were almost unplayable at other times during the season.
Again, when these players are at their best, the Knicks can beat anyone in the East. But they're rarely in form at the same time, and they certainly weren't when it mattered most against Indiana.
As a motivator, Mike Woodson has been fantastic as the Knicks' head coach. He's managed to get the best out of Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith, which is a huge reason why they won 54 games last season.
With that said, he still leaves a lot to be desired with his tactics, where he fails to adjust and deserts what has worked for him in the postseason.
To be fair to Woodson, he struck gold with the dual-point guard offense and playing Melo at the 4 last season, but it seems that was more out of necessity than anything else. With Iman Shumpert and Amar'e Stoudemire out, he was forced to play small ball and, luckily, it worked.
It's very difficult to argue with Woodson's record as a head coach, but he has made some very questionable decisions. The constant switching on defense and reliance on isolation in key games had a direct impact on the Knicks' early exit in 2013.
So far in the preseason, we've seen more of the same from Woodson. Even with Raymond Felton, Pablo Prigioni, Beno Udrih and Toure' Murry on the roster, Melo regularly brings the ball up on offense, which is proven not to work.
Woodson isn't a bad head coach by any means, and is actually great in some areas, but there are clearly aspects of his style that could hold the team back moving forward.
In terms of talent, the Knicks are right up there with the Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls, but in head-to-head matchups they could be at a disadvantage.
Last season, the Knicks went 4-10 against the Bulls and Pacers including the playoffs, with their physical styles proving to be too much to handle.
With Derrick Rose and Danny Granger back, beating these teams isn't going to get any easier unless they find a way to take away what they do best.
In the regular season, these matchups won't affect New York's record too much, but in order to get past the second round, they will have to find a way to beat them in the playoffs.
The addition of Metta World Peace adds an extra physical element, while Andrea Bargnani could potentially help to draw the likes of Roy Hibbert and Joakim Noah out of the paint, but he'll have to shoot much better from outside than he has in recent years.
Ironically, the Knicks are actually built to give the Miami Heat a run for their money in a playoff series, but without beating the Bulls or Pacers, they won't have the chance to face them.