The New York Knicks are coming off their most successful season in over a decade. However, that was last season.

In a city that is starved for an NBA championship — add to that the headline-stealing crosstown rival Brooklyn Nets — the Knicks know that the pressure will be on in 2013-14 to exceed last season’s second round playoff appearance. Last season didn’t end how head coach Mike Woodson and his team would have wanted. The Knicks were muscled out of their second round playoff series by the younger and bigger Indiana Pacers.

Despite winning their first division title since 1994 and clinching the second seed in the Eastern Conference, the Knicks were still left with a bittersweet and incomplete feeling. They matched up well in the regular season with the eventual champion Miami Heat and arguably could have pushed them to the limit had it not been for the Pacers ... dream deferred.

This season brings a whole new bag of challenges for the Knicks to overcome if they intend on surpassing last year’s success. The Eastern Conference is expected to be much deeper and stronger than a year ago.

The Pacers will be back in the mix full of confidence, Derrick Rose returns to the Chicago Bulls after missing all of last year recovering from a torn ACL injury, the Brooklyn Nets reloaded thanks to the summer blockbuster trade that brought them Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, and, of course, the best player in the world — LeBron James — is still in Miami looking for a third consecutive championship.

The biggest subplot the Knicks will encounter this season involves their franchise player Carmelo Anthony with free agency looming in the background. Anthony’s most likely going to opt out of his contract with the Knicks and test free agency because he wants the experience of being courted by other teams.

If the Knicks don’t exceed last year’s second round playoff appearance and can’t show Anthony anything convincing him to re-sign, other than the extra $30-$33 million they can pay him, he could be on his way out of town. This isn’t something I think is going to happen; however, in this era of the NBA, one can never be sure.

The Knicks may not be able to control what Anthony does next summer, however they can control how their upcoming season shapes up. They started by making some moves in the summer that weren’t flashy but if they pan out could be productive and cost-effective roster fits.

Trading for former No. 1 NBA Draft pick Andrea Bargnani brings the Knicks scoring and size upfront while the signing of Metta World Peace brings defense, experience and intensity. The free agent addition of point guard Beno Udrih was underrated, as he’ll bring depth to that position and can knockdown a shot when called on. The re-signing of Kenyon Martin and Pablo Prigioni gives the Knicks more toughness upfront and experience at point guard respectively that won’t truly be valued until the playoffs get closer.

Those additions, along with the drafting of Tim Hardaway Jr., will be counted on by Woodson to take the weight off the core players, which is where the biggest question marks on this team happen to be.

The Knicks will go as far as Anthony takes them this year, and that may depend on how healthy he can stay. Anthony is known to take a beating on the court and his shoulder will be worth keeping a close eye on as the season progresses. He took a risk by choosing not to have surgery on it this past summer. He’ll need to put up a second consecutive career year for the Knicks in their pursuit of the playoffs.

Also, Tyson Chandler has to do more on offense this year. I get that the former Defensive Player of the Year isn’t here for that, but he has to find a jump shot. Ironically, Chandler’s defense wasn’t exactly stellar last season either, and he has enough reason to be motivated to bounce back.

Amar’e Stoudemire has gone from big-time free agent addition who signaled a new chapter for the Knicks to a glorified and overpaid reserve who’s barely played the last two seasons. It’s not fair that he’s been victimized by knee injuries, however the Knicks are hopeful just to get 15 minutes out of him. With STAT being owed $45 million over the next two years, it’s an expensive gamble

Raymond Felton will be counted on again at point guard to be a floor general. He slumped badly in the playoffs last year, however the Knicks will need the stability he brings to the offense.

Iman Shumpert and his continued progression will also be worth watching this season. Shumphert has already established himself on defense, and it’s on offense now where the Knicks will be looking to see if he’s ready to grow.

The wild card in all of this happens to be the unpredictable and streaky J.R. Smith. Smith has always been to me the modern-day John Starks. When he’s on, he’s a dangerous second scoring option for the Knicks. When he’s off, he can shoot his team right out of a game.

Smith rose to the challenge of Woodson last season and earned the NBA Sixth Man of The Year award, it was well-deserved. However, in the playoffs, all it took was for one error in judgement by Smith that seemed to trigger a miserable shooting slump that helped torpedo the Knicks season.

The Knicks rewarded Smith with a contract extension in the summer, but he was then suspended for violating the league’s drug policy, costing him the first five games of the season and bringing questions up again about his lack of maturity.

When Smith comes back from his suspension all eyes will be on how his surgically repaired knee holds up and if it’ll hinder him any. If it’s off the bench or in the starting lineup at shooting guard, Smith needs to show he’s turned the corner and matured on and off the court. The Knicks are counting on it.

This Knicks team has the talent and depth to challenge again in the East, just like last year, getting off to a fast start is going to be big for Woodson’s squad. The Nets are eagerly looking forward to challenging for the division crown and the conference is deeper and stronger.

Age and durability will be major question marks this season, however if the Knicks can avoid injuries and get a few balls to bounce their way, a top five finish in the east and a trip to the conference finals isn’t out of the question.

It’s the next logical goal in this current team’s progression.

This article was written by Anthony Rushing. Follow him on Twitter here and read more of his work here


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