By John Schmeelk
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Here are the 10 things that will determine the Knicks’ success this season, in order of importance.

1) Can the Knicks improve their defense?

No question is more important than this one. More so than anything else last year, it was the Knicks’ awful defense that prevented them from making it into the playoffs. Ranked as the seventh-worst team in the league in points allowed per 100 possessions, the Knicks couldn’t guard the pick-and-roll, keep quicker guards out of the paint, protect the rim or cover the three-point line. It was as bad as that sounds.

Jose Calderon is not a defensive upgrade at point guard (well, maybe a slight one), and while Samuel Dalembert will block more shots than Tyson Chandler, he is not the same all-around defender. The Knicks still aren’t a very talented defensive team, but the organization is counting on Derek Fisher’s coaching and strategy to make a real difference on defense. If the team can finish around 17th it should be considered a success. Breaking into the top-half of the league would be a miracle.

2) Will someone step up at shooting guard?

Iman Shumpert still looks fairly lost on offense. Tim Hardaway Jr. still struggles on defense. J.R. Smith looks lost in the triangle, a system that discourages a lot of dribbling and isolation — two things he loves to do. The Knicks need one of these guys to resemble a complete player to give Carmelo Anthony some help in a starting five lacking offensive punch.

It’s a contract year for Shump, and Hardaway Jr. should be better defensively as a sophomore in the pros. As for Smith? The triangle might not be for him. The guy with the best shot to take the step the Knicks need is Hardaway Jr.

3) Can Anthony get better in late-game situations?

This has nothing to do with Anthony being unable to perform under pressure or choking, but rather major minutes not wearing him when crunch time rolls around. The triangle should help in this regard, but even more important will be finding someone to take some of the offensive load off of Anthony’s shoulders in quarters one through three. Anthony shot 45 percent last year but just 38 percent in fourth quarters.

His minutes  (38.7 average last year) should be closer to 35-36. Between the new offense getting him more quality shots late (and giving him more options to find teammates) and monitoring his minutes, I think Anthony will be a better clutch player.

4) Can the Knicks use Amar’e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani successfully?

The Knicks have two high-priced power forwards coming off the bench that play virtually no defense. Bargnani has played decent low-post defense at center, while Stoudemire has struggled everywhere. Can these two players play next to each other off the bench with the Knicks surviving defensively? Who can Stoudemire play with without compromising the team on the defensive end of the floor?

Stoudemire is going to play around 30 minutes per game, according to the head coach, and despite his ability to score his defense might hurt the team more than his offense helps it. As for Bargnani, Fisher has no idea how he can even use him because of the hamstring that has kept him out of the preseason. Figuring this out might be Fisher’s biggest challenge.

5) The Triangle – duh!

I would have thought I was in 6th-grade math class, learning about Pythagoras and his theorem, with the number of times I heard the word triangle during the Knicks’ preseason. Yes, it is important for the Knicks to master this offense. It can make things much easier with all the off-the-ball movement and cuts (which the Knicks need to do more of in the regular season). The team should get easier looks than it did with Mike Woodson, and the ceiling will be higher.

But like all offensive systems, success is determined by the quality of the players. The Lakers won because of Pau Gasol, Shaq and Kobe Bryant, and the Bulls won because of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. The Knicks will get better as they master the offense over the season’s first couple months, but there are more important things that will determine the team’s success.

6) Can the team stay healthy?

This is the same question for every team, but the Knicks are extremely vulnerable in a couple of spots. Anthony has been banged up at the end of the last couple of seasons, and without him this team is cooked. Calderon needs to stay healthy at 33 years old. Stoudemire and Bargnani have extensive injury histories.

7) Can Fisher coach?

Out of all the question marks this year, Fisher not being able to coach is not one of them. He seems like a natural, and he has the intellect, temperament and feel for the game to be successful.

8) Can the Knicks settle on a starting five?

Fisher needs to have a consistent lineup by the third week of the season and stick with it. With the team learning to play together under a new coach, getting continuity as quickly as possible is key. Stoudemire has already said he wants to start, though he has been a good soldier in the past and I wouldn’t expect it to be a lingering problem.

9) Can Fisher limit his rotation?

Fisher has a lot of players that think they deserve minutes, but Fisher won’t be able to play them all. It’s only logical to keep it between nine to 10 players. That means either PabloPrigioni or Shane Larkin won’t play, nor willBargnani, Jason Smith or QuincyAcy. This leavesCleanthony Early and Cole Aldrich out of the rotation completely, as well.

10) Will James Dolan stay out of the team’s business?

There aren’t enough words or time, so I will summarize. It looks like he trusts Phil Jackson. That’s a good thing.

Look out for my season preview and prediction on Wednesday.

You can follow me on Twitter @Schmeelk for everything Knicks, Giants and the world of sports. 

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