By John Schmeelk
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Thursday is an exciting day for Knicks fans — not only because the team is playing in London against the Pistons.

Iman Shumpert should be making his return from the torn ACL suffered at the end of last season. Along with the return of Raymond Felton, which appears to be coming at the end of the month, the Knicks should be able to cover up a number of glaring weaknesses made obvious over the past few weeks.

But first it’s important to caution all fans out there not to expect too much of Iman Shumpert out of the gate. He’s coming off one of the most serious knee injuries out there, and often times it takes 18 months for a player to truly recover his skills coming off an ACL. Shumpert’s minutes on the court will be very limited early, and will grow slowly, much like the situation with Amar’e Stoudemire.

So don’t expecting him to walk on the court and just start shutting down the best opposing player.

That said, if Shumpert can get close to his old self by April, his perimeter defense will help cover up one of the Knicks’ major weaknesses this year. New York has been victimized by quick guards off the dribble all season long. Especially since Felton (though he wasn’t very good when he was healthy either) went down, Jason Kidd and Pablo Prigioni have been asked to guard opposing point guards with regularity. Prigioni has done OK with his good hands and smart defense, but Kidd simply doesn’t have the foot speed to keep up with those guys.

The result has been a countless numbers of unhindered forays into the paint off of isolations or pick-and-rolls.

Shumpert provides the versatility to cover point guards or shooting guards, and can be assigned to slow down the opposing team’s best perimeter player. Against the Celtics he could be assigned to Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce or Jason Terry. Against the Heat he’s the perfect matchup for Dwyane Wade. Against the Nets, the Knicks could match him up on Deron Williams or even Joe Johnson if the situation was right. J.R. Smith has been the Knicks’ best perimeter defender this season, and Shumpert’s return will take an awful lot of pressure off of him. The Knicks’ less proficient defenders will get to play against lesser scorers, which will help team defense.

Shumpert and Felton will also provide a much-needed shot of athleticism to what has looked like a slow and unathletic backcourt over the last four weeks. Other than Smith, the Knicks lack athletes at guard who can really put pressure on opposing defenses and offenses. Felton should be able to revive the Knicks’ pick-and-roll game, which has appeared on the back of milk cartons since the calendar turned to 2013.

Tyson Chandler’s easy looks at the basket have dropped dramatically and that can be traced directly to Felton’s absence. As much as his inconsistent shot can be maddening, Felton can get into the lane and create havoc on opposing defenses.

Felton’s return will also allow the Knicks to return to some of their dual point guard lineups, which have been some of their most effective this season. With Felton at point guard, Jason Kidd can move off the ball where he is a far better player. Taking a look at my story from Tuesday, the return of Felton and Shumpert should help solve three of the Knicks’ biggest problems this season.

However, the Knicks shouldn’t consider those two guys to be a cure-all. Players like Carmelo Anthony, and even defending Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler, must keep their effort level high on the defensive end. Defense has to be the focus of everyone on the floor. The coach needs to stop ordering switches even at the earliest sign of a screen. Everyone must make a conscious effort to move the ball better on offense. The Knicks still have a long way to go, but the health of many of their returning players could play a huge role in returning to early season success.

Schmeelk’s Snippets

– If the reports are true, Rasheed Wallace might be done for the season. As long as Marcus Camby comes back, the Knicks should be able to survive. I’m guessing they will now seriously investigate Kenyon Martin, who can be a defensive force off the bench.

– Amar’e Stoudemire continues to make progress offensively, but let’s see if he can turn his words about playing better defense into action on the floor. We haven’t seen that so far.

– Finally, on the Carmelo Anthony eavesdropping story: I know a lot of people have been taken aback by all this and are pretty mad, but I’m taking it in stride. I guess it’s mostly because I’m so used to James Dolan doing crazy stuff — so this doesn’t seem out of the ordinary to me. He’s paranoid and overbearing. In this case he’s using it to try and protect one of his own players, as misguided as it might be. Yeah, he’s crazy, but didn’t we know that already?

You can follow me on Twitter @Schmeelk for everything Knicks, Giants, Yankees and New York sports.

Do you expect the Knicks to go on a nice little run once Felton and Shumpert hit the court? Be heard in the comments…

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