The New York Knicks have been plenty of things this season: delusional, dysfunctional, disappointing and even embarrassing.
But hopeless has never been one of them.
With a talented roster and a horde of question marks hanging above almost all of their Eastern Conference peers, the Knicks have always been a strong stretch away from figuring it out.
But what exactly will signal this team's "Aha!" moment? How will fans tell what's a mirage and what's actually a sign of improvement?
Assuming that turnaround does indeed happen this season, there are a few keys that will mark this franchise's return to relevance.
When They Show Restraint
It feels like a foreign concept when talking about this organization.
When a coach feels the need to protect his players by keeping them holed up in a hotel the night before a home game, it's pretty obvious that this is not the league's most disciplined team:
Know what's even sadder than the fact that the Knicks have a curfew tonight? The Knicks have shown they NEED a curfew.— Charlie Zegers (@charliezegers) December 20, 2013
Luckily, Knicks fans don't have to hope these players start making good life decisions. As long as they're making the right calls on the court, that will be enough to fuel a climb back up the conference standings.
Coach Mike Woodson is deservedly sitting atop a ball of flames on New York's sideline. For all of the heat he's taken, though, a lot of New York's issues can be solved if these players remember to play to their limits.
For some members of the team, that means taking a less-is-more approach:
Knicks are now 4-2 this season when JR Smith finishes 8 or fewer FG attempts… NY is 2-12 when JR attempts more than 11 FG’s— Tommy Beer (@TommyBeer) January 3, 2014
For others, it means carrying the same aggression to the hardwood every night:
When he wants to be, Iman Shumpert is the Knicks best two-way player.— Frank Isola (@FisolaNYDN) January 3, 2014
New York scoring a 105-101 road win over the defending Western Conference champion San Antonio Spurs on Thursday wasn't a warning sign of the apocalypse, it was a reminder of how good this team can be when it plays together.
Carmelo Anthony, back from a three-game absence (ankle), played like a team leader. He scored 27 points, grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds and tossed out four assists. He didn't force his way onto the stat sheet, he simply took what was available to him. As a result, he shot 50 percent from the field and from distance, and converted all five of his free-throw attempts.
Iman Shumpert dominated both ends of the floor. He was the reliable secondary scorer (27 points, 10-of-13 from the field, 6-of-8 from deep) keeping the Spurs from overloading on 'Melo. At the opposite side, he was a pest. He snagged a game-high three steals and held five-time All-Star Tony Parker to 12 points on 38.5 percent shooting (he averages 17.8 on 49.9 percent).
When the Knicks needed a miracle, Shump rolled up his sleeves and worked his magic.
New York has enough offensive options that this team should not struggle to score points. Yet the Knicks own just the No. 19 ranking in offensive efficiency (101.6 points per 100 possessions).
When this group figures out how to find the hot hand, then (tempered) hope can return to the Big Apple.
When They Commit to the Defensive End
The Knicks will never be a great defensive team with this roster.
Tyson Chandler can only plug so many of the leaks springing at that end of the floor.
But there's a difference between dominating and competing. If New York simply buys into the latter, it can still be a force in this watered-down Eastern Conference:
Last season's 54-win team finished tied for 16th in defensive rating (103.5 points allowed per 100 possessions). Not an elite mark by any stretch, but good enough to complement a high-powered offense.
This time around, the Knicks are sitting tied for 25th in the category (106.0 per 100). Even the league's best offense would have a hard time overcoming that weakness.
The results need to improve, but it won't require a dramatic shift. The Knicks just need to show some sort of interest in playing that end—not unlike the one that helped them stun the AT&T Center faithful.
"The effort level was very high, the energy level was very high," Anthony said, per the Associated Press (via NBA.com). "We played like we wanted this game."
The Knicks might have sent a shockwave through the basketball world with that win, but they had reason to be motivated. Anthony was back, a huge lift to a team that had looked lost without him, going 0-3 and losing by an average of 18.7 points.
Now the challenge becomes finding that energy without needing a lift. Sparks won't always come from the outside; the Knicks need to find theirs from within.
Maybe a statement victory like this one will be all that it takes. At the least, it helps clear some of that awful taste from their mouths:
Championship ball. Thats a great job. Knicks look awesome. New year, fresh start!!!— Metta World Peace (@MettaWorldPeace) January 3, 2014
The Knicks can be good, but not good enough to sleepwalk through games. When New York starts stringing together gritty defensive efforts, then they will have something to build around.
Where Can This Track Lead?
The opposite direction from where it's gone over the season's first few months. That alone should be tremendous news.
Playing in the East has its perks. Despite being tied for the second-fewest wins in the league, the 10-21 Knicks are just 2.5 games out of the playoff picture. Only 5.5 games separate New York from the Atlantic Division-leading Toronto Raptors.
There doesn't need to be that much of a boost to dramatically alter New York's short-term future. And that lift may already be in the works:
Just a great basketball game. If Knicks can somehow win 2 of 3 in Texas, perhaps it will serve as a springboard to relevancy.— Jamie O'Grady (@JamieOGrady_) January 3, 2014
How much further can it go from here?
Anything beyond the Eastern Conference semifinals is out of the question, but a second-round playoff appearance is absolutely still a possibility. For how bad this season started, that's a remarkably high ceiling when you take everything (injuries, trade rumors, talks of a coaching change) into consideration.
It won't spur the championship ending that owner James Dolan wants, but it should be something markedly different from this disastrous start.
Anything that looks different than that should be a welcome sight in the Big Apple.