For the New York Knicks, the road back to the NBA Playoffs will not be an easy one.

The Knicks' 2014-15 schedule was released recently, and right off the bat, the former Atlantic Division champions -- aching to wash the stain of their 37-45, playoff-less season of last year away -- are going to be tested. On Oct. 29, Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks open their season in front of their home crowd at Madison Square Garden, where they will be facing a returning Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, the newly-acquired Pau Gasol and the veteran Chicago Bulls, a team which is expected to contend for the Eastern Conference title, and possibly beyond that.

Then, one night later on Oct. 30, the Knicks head to Cleveland, where they will meet what is expected to be the ultimate test of the Eastern Conference as they face four-time NBA MVP LeBron James, All-Star Kyrie Irving -- possibly Kevin Love, as well -- and the rejuvenated NBA Finals contenders the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Forget the frying pan; the Knicks are jumping straight into the fire.

It's an interesting study regarding the Knicks and these two expected Eastern Conference foes. Cleveland and Chicago each have had an eventful offseason, bringing in big name free agents and reshaping their rosters into legitimate NBA title contenders. Both squads have much to look forward to. Cleveland literally went from the outhouse to the penthouse in the span of a month after LeBron decided he was "coming home." And for Chicago, their former league MVP is returning from season-ending knee surgery to join the versatile Noah and Gasol, a champion who still packs a punch on offense to go with a defense-minded, gritty Bulls squad that has been through wars.

By contrast, the Knicks, who saw their offense sputter, their defense collapse and their roster depleted thanks to retirements and injuries over the course of last season, didn't do much in the way of dramatically altering the course of their franchise aside from the much-needed signing of free agent Anthony. Sure, they shed some hefty contracts by shipping out Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton and they added a nice upgrade at point guard in assist-oriented Jose Calderon, but beyond that, the Knicks don't have much else. They still don't have a solid No.2 scoring option after Anthony, and the bloated contracts of the often-injured Amar'e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani are still on the books until they expire after this season. The latter is great news, but that does nothing to aid the Knicks this year aside from offering them some hope that Stat and Bargnani will produce big in their contract years in hopes of getting teams interested in them after next summer.

That being said, little is known about how good this Knicks team is. They didn't look all that impressive on paper in 2012-13, yet they ended up being one of the biggest surprises of the NBA en route to a 54-28 record and the Atlantic Division crown. Yet, they also didn't look all that great on paper last season, and they missed the playoffs. There's no real telling which Knicks team is going to show up this time around. They have a gaping hole at center where Chandler, a former Defensive Player of the Year, used to be and since they didn't add any good long range shooters, they may struggle to get the offense going in the onset of the season. Plus, nobody knows what NBA rookie head coach Derek Fisher is going to be able to get out of the Knicks, nor what kind of offensive style or defensive philosophy he will stick to as the season rolls on.

Still, there is a kernel of hope. In the past, the Knicks have set the tone for the season with a strong, emphatic opening of the season. In the 2012-13 NBA season, they blew out the world champion Miami Heat at the Garden and proceeded to rattle off six straight victories. Confidence grew, they built momentum on offense and they spearheaded that into an impressive season that included their first postseason series win in 12 years. Last year, they stumbled to a dismal 3-12 record and they finished even worse. 

This time around, it may seem like a doomsday sentence to test them right out of the gate against two title contenders. However, it might be the push the Knicks need. They'll have no choice but to bring their "A" game to start the season off. Anything less, and they'll be devoured whole. Nothing motivates competitors like the rush of competing against legitimate contenders, and Anthony will surely bring his best against his friend/rival James and company. Maybe the fire of competition may light a fuse in Stoudemire and give his balky knees the jolt he needs. Maybe the Knicks will bring that energy into their defense and battle the Cavs and Bulls tooth and nail. Who knows? Competition makes for some amazing things.

But this will be a quick barometer that allows the Knicks to see if they are ready to push on into the playoffs. If they make the seventh or eighth seed, one of these two teams may likely be New York's opponents in the first round. Higher than that, and the Knicks may see them in the second round. And right now, the Cavs and Bulls are the cream of the crop in the East. How well they play against them in the season openers could give us a glimpse as to how good these Knicks really are.

One thing is for certain: a lot of eyes will be watching the Knicks when the season starts in late October. What happens from there is up to them.

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