Amar'e Stoudemire looks on during a game against the Los...

Amar'e Stoudemire looks on during a game against the Los Angeles Clippers. (Feb. 10, 2013) Credit: Jim McIsaac

The Knicks kept the core of last season's 54-win team together, hoping they can make a serious run at their first championship since 1973 -- and hoping that helps keep Carmelo Anthony from leaving New York.

Anthony is expected to opt out of his contract after the season, and the best way for the Knicks to keep their best player is to continue their ascension as an elite NBA team.

The Knicks have the potential to be good again this season. But with training camp set to start Tuesday, the Knicks have some health issues and a leadership void after the retirements of Jason Kidd and Rasheed Wallace. Strong leadership will be critical for a roster that includes J.R. Smith and Metta World Peace.

Also, after finishing with the second-best record in the Eastern Conference, the Knicks could look up at teams other than Miami. The Nets and Pacers have improved and the Bulls will have former MVP Derrick Rose back.

Undoubtedly, the Knicks, who will introduce new president and general manager Steve Mills on Monday at Media Day, will try to use being overlooked as motivation this season, the way they did jokes about their age last year.

They finished with their most wins since 1996-97, captured their first Atlantic Division crown in 19 years and won a playoff series for the first time since 2000 before Indiana ousted them in the conference semifinals.

The Knicks are younger and deeper than last season. Coach Mike Woodson, who has a team option for next season, has to find the best rotation and get contributions from everyone. Anthony will be the focal point of the offense, but the Knicks were tough to beat when everyone was involved last season.

"I actually see this team being better than last year,'' Anthony said over the summer at the Bloomberg Sports Business Summit. "That's just my opinion, that's the way that we feel. And if we feel that way as a unit, then there's nothing that can come between us.''

The Knicks' top 12 players figure to be Anthony, Raymond Felton, Pablo Prigioni, Tyson Chandler, Iman Shumpert, Smith, Andrea Bargnani, Amar'e Stoudemire, World Peace, Kenyon Martin, Beno Udrih and rookie Tim Hardaway Jr.

The Knicks will be without Smith, the reigning Sixth Man of the Year, for an indefinite stretch at the start of the season and there are questions about the health of Anthony, Stoudemire and Bargnani.

Smith is recovering from two surgeries on his left knee that could sideline him the first two to three weeks of the season. When he's able to return, Smith will serve a five-game suspension for violating the NBA's anti-drug policy.

Anthony suffered a partially torn labrum in his left shoulder last season, and whether it will hold up throughout the 2013-14 season is a concern.

Stoudemire had surgery on both knees and played only 29 games last season. The Knicks already have said they will limit his minutes this season.

Bargnani, who was injury-plagued the past two seasons in Toronto, had pneumonia over the summer and probably won't be at full strength when camp opens.

But the Knicks are counting on the 7-footer to create space and cause mismatches with his shooting. Woodson may consider starting him for those reasons, but there are questions about how Bargnani, who sometimes seemed disinterested in Toronto, will handle the pressure of playing in New York.

The Knicks clearly are playing for now. They currently have no picks in next year's draft and currently have three from 2015 through 2017 -- two firsts and one protected second.

It will be up to Mills, who took over for Glen Grunwald on Thursday, to re-sign Anthony. He'll need to get the Knicks the flexibility they need to make moves next offseason and especially in 2015, when the contracts of Stoudemire, Chandler and Bargnani are up.

But Anthony and the Knicks also think this could be a banner year.


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