Can New York Knicks Sneak into Eastern Conference Title Hunt?

Jim CavanContributor IAugust 20, 2014

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 31: J.R. Smith #8 of the New York Knicks high-fives teammates Carmelo Anthony #7 and Iman Shumpert #21 in a game against the Boston Celtics on March 31, 2013 at Madison Square Garden in New York City.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2013 NBAE  (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
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If New York Knicks fans were still holding out hope that the 2014-15 would find them back in the conference-title title hunt, Carmelo Anthony’s recent appraisal—“I do not expect to win a championship this year”—must’ve been disheartening indeed.

With a spotty supporting cast and new leadership at the controls, the Knicks don’t exactly strike an intimidating pose. Throw in the return of Derrick Rose and LeBron James’ latest superteam, and the prospects sure seem downright dreary.

Until you realize the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls are quite literally the Eastern Conference’s only two sure things, and so double back to the original question: Can the Knicks actually sneak into Eastern Conference conversation?

In ranks this unpredictable, anything is possible.

Jason DeCrow/Associated Press

To be sure, with training camp mere weeks away, the Knicks face more rotational uncertainty than just about any other NBA team. Beyond Anthony and the newly-acquired Jose Calderon, three of New York’s five starting slots are wholly up for grabs.

Complicating matters even further, head coach Derek Fisher wields the unenviable task of installing a brand new offensive system—Phil Jackson’s triangle, or some hybrid thereof—completely from scratch. Even with the form’s master in the Knicks’ midst, reorienting a team for years beholden to isolation-heavy offense toward one of the game’s most nuanced and complicated schemes won’t exactly be paint-by-numbers easy.

That the Knicks could stumble out of the gate is, at this point, a distinct possibility. But the quicker Fisher can secure full basketball buy-in—particularly from Anthony—the better chance New York has of remaining in the playoff fold.

LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 11: President Phil Jackson of the New York Knicks attends the game between the New York Knicks and the Dallas Mavericks at the Samsung NBA Summer League 2014 on July 11, 2014 at the Cox Pavilion in Las Vegas, Nevada. NOTE TO USER: Use
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To his credit, Jackson has pulled out just about every stop possible to prepare the Knicks for the looming transition.

“Given what little resources the Knicks had, Jackson's offseason activity—from acquiring Jose Calderon to drafting Cleanthony Early to re-signing Anthony–equates to him working small miracles,” Bleacher Report’s Dan Favale recently wrote. “The Knicks are a deeper, more well-rounded team on paper, built to contend for the playoff spot they missed last year."

For his part, Melo seems more than keen on redefining his role as the team’s unquestioned leader. Case in point: Anthony's recent, very noticeable weight loss, the product of a stricter diet and workout regimen implemented by his trainer, Idan Ravin.

“Amazing people have been hired over there and he wants to come in as the leader and a top-three player in the world,’’ Ravin recently told Marc Berman of the New York Post. “If [he’s] being meticulous, you should not just follow [his] word, but follow [his] actions.’’

Jan 14, 2014; Charlotte, NC, USA; New York Knicks forward center Andrea Bargnani (77), guard forward Iman Shumpert (21), and guard Tim Hardaway Jr. look around after coach Mike Woodson (not shown) is called on a technical foul during the second half of th

Beyond Anthony, the Knicks are awash in uncertainty. Can J.R. Smith rebound from a slump season? Will Iman Shumpert finally assert himself as the team’s unquestioned shooting guard? What About Tim Hardaway Jr.? How much game remains in Amar’e Stoudemire’s knees? Has Andrea Bargnani already worn out his welcome?

Still, if the Knicks can expect any return from Jackson’s planned overhaul of New York’s sense of culture and community—one of the principal talking points of the Zen Master’s inaugural press conference back in March—it stands to reason some of these questions will yield promising answers.

All this will be moot without a vast improvement on the basketball court, of course. Even so, New York’s improved depth and positional coherency should make them a lock to make last year’s 3-13 start to the season a distant memory.

From there, it’s largely a matter of counting on the flaws of conference foes to rear their own ugly heads.

MIAMI, FL - April 20:  Chris Bosh #1 and Dwyane Wade #3 of the Miami Heat celebrate against the Charlotte Bobcats during Game One of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals of the 2014 NBA playoffs at the American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida on April 20
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The Miami Heat? Impressive as their on-the-fly rebuild was, they have chemistry and cohesiveness issues of their own to sort out.

The Indiana Pacers? They’ll be hard-pressed to recover from the losses of Paul George and Lance Stephenson.

The Brooklyn Nets? The health of Deron Williams and Brook Lopez will, once again, be paramount. And that’s before you even get to Paul Pierce and Shaun Livingston’s respective departures.

The Washington Wizards and Toronto Raptors? Last year’s surprising success could easily turn the other way. Ditto the Charlotte Hornets and Atlanta Hawks.

Biased though he may be, Fisher at least seems to sense the East landscape for what it is: rife with mines, to be sure, but with enough in the way of space between for a halfway competent outfit to navigate it without incident. From Berman:

My opinion is, based on our roster and who we’re going to become, we can compete for playing in the playoffs and playing for a championship in the Eastern Conference. When that happens, putting dates on it, that’s not my job…I believe in our guys. Even if nothing else changes, we’re good enough to be a playoff team in the Eastern Conference, but we have to go out and prove it.

The Knicks of the past two seasons have been nothing if not enigmatic. Looking back, New York’s 54-win blitzkrieg in 2012-13 was as unexpected as last year’s chaotic crash. Chalk last season’s swoon up to what you will—coaching, a too-nebulous offensive system, sheer happenstance—but it’s by no means obvious that that Knicks teams was somehow a more faithful representation of the talent and tactics at hand than the one of two years ago.

Apr 2, 2014; New York, NY, USA; New York Knicks guard J.R. Smith (8) and forward Carmelo Anthony (7) look on against the Brooklyn Nets during the second half at Madison Square Garden. The New York Knicks won 110-81. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TO

All of which dissipates in the wake of a simpler truth: When you have one of the game’s most gifted scorers at your disposal, pleasant surprises are far from a mere flight of fancy.

For as much as New York might be looking forward to the summer of 2015, with its impending cap relief and ranks of potential free agents, saving face this season would go a long way in repositioning itself as a promise-laden destination.

Carmelo Anthony was 100 percent right in saying the Knicks don’t stand a chance to win the championship. But given where they’ve been and where they plan to go, success should be measured not by being the best, but being among them.