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The State of the East: Checking in on the rest of the conference early in the year

Putting the Knicks’ start in perspective.

NBA: Playoffs-Cleveland Cavaliers at Atlanta Hawks Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Knicks’ season is still in its infancy. We’re only 7 games into an 82-game slate. For my mathematicians out there, that comes out to 8.54%. It doesn’t matter how you look at it. There’s a lot of ball left.

With that said, the East is already starting to take shape. We’re all familiar with New York’s early-season offensive struggles, but let’s shift our gaze outward. It’s time to check in on the rest of the East.

The Contenders

There are only a few teams that came into the season vying for a top seed in the Eastern Conference. Early returns seem to be promising, as the three teams most likely to secure a finals birth are the top 3 in the East.

The current 1 seed in the East happens to be the Knicks’ opening night opponent - the Boston Celtics. The Celtics look more poised than ever to make a finals run. We saw firsthand what the addition of Kristaps Porzingis brought to the table, and they stormed out to a 5-1 record to start the season. Their top six of Tatum, Brown, Holiday, Porzingis, Horford, and White will cause fits come playoff time, and the starpower at the top of the roster gives this team a serious chance at finals contention.

The 2 seed is another bonafide contender - the Philadelphia 76ers. After an opening night loss to the Bucks, the Sixers have rattled off five straight wins. The Knicks actually don’t see the Sixers until January this year, so no worries if you haven’t been keeping tabs. But Embiid is playing at an MVP level, Tyrese Maxey seems like he could be making yet another jump, and the recent acquisition of Kelly Oubre Jr. already is providing returns beyond expectations. If Maxey can sustain play at this level, this could be the year Philly gets over the hump.

The 3 also has looked impressive, and with the addition of Damian Lillard, the Milwaukee Bucks will be a nightmare matchup down the stretch. Fans saw the effect Lillard had on this team firsthand, as he carried the Bucks to a win over the Knicks in the in-season tournament opener. With the rest of the core intact, and with Giannis Antetokounmpo healthy, the Bucks have positioned themselves yet again as a top competitor in the East.

The Disappointments

Let me be absolutely clear. We are seven games into the season. No one is pressing the panic button yet. But through the first stretch of the year, both the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Miami Heat haven’t looked like the teams we thought they would thus far.

In Cleveland, early injuries have plagued The Land, and despite a healthy Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen, Donovan Mitchell has continued to be Donovan Mitchell. New additions in Max Strus and Georges Niang should add much-needed depth to a team searching for reliable role players, and despite the sub-.500 record, Cleveland should still comfortably secure a top-6 seed at worst in the East.

Things might be a bit more dire for the Miami Heat. After missing out on the Damian Lillard sweepstakes, the team has been searching for answers. Tyler Herro, Jimmy Butler, and Bam Adebayo have been playing at high levels, but there’s a massive dropoff in both talent and production after those three. The Heat are searching for answers.

The Surprises

No team has come out of the gates exceeding expectations more than the Atlanta Hawks. Dejounte Murray is playing his best basketball in a Hawk uniform, Jalen Johnson has seriously impressed, and the rest of the rotation has been complimenting Trae Young well. Similarly, the Indiana Pacers have come out of the gates strong. The Tyrese Haliburton-led offense is currently tops in the league, and Myles Turner continues to be an effective rim protector and stretch big. We love you, Obi.

The Play-In Hopefuls

Meh. There’s a tier of teams that aren’t quite bottom-feeders but are incredibly unlikely to win a playoff series. 7 to 10 seeds are realistic expectations for the teams below, barring anything shocking.

Sans VanVleet, the Toronto Raptors seemed doomed for mediocrity. Scottie Barnes has looked absolutely fantastic, though, and if he continues to play at this level alongside Siakam and Anunoby, a play-in berth should be realistic.

The Brooklyn Nets can’t hide from Cam Thomas any longer. The third-year player is averaging 28.7 PPG through seven games, right behind names like Durant, Tatum, Curry, and Doncic. Despite the impressive numbers, last year’s playoff series showed us that this is a team full of role players, and while Mikal Bridges is an incredible talent, the roster construction is a superstar short of any playoff buzz.

Maybe another year of the DeRozan/LaVine/Vucevic big three will convince the Chicago Bulls that it’s time to move on. The roster looks the same as in past years, and a play-in win is the absolute ceiling this team has.

The Orlando Magic have a great young core, and Franz Wagner has looked great thus far this season. But we’re still probably another year or two out until this team has any potential to create noise in the postseason.

The Bottom Feeders

Sorry, guys. No hard feelings. But come on.

LaMelo Ball and the Charlotte Hornets are worth tuning into because of their announcer, who still delivers at least three sound bytes every night. But the young core hasn’t been translating into wins.

Same thing with the Detroit Pistons. There’s no way Killian Hayes should be a starting NBA guard. There’s just no way. There’s Cade Cunningham, Jalen Duren has looked good, but then what?

The Washington Wizards

I want you to open your calendar right now while you’re reading this. Do it. On November 17th, the New York Knicks play the Washington Wizards at 7 pm. This is appointment television. Other people might tell you that the Celtics are the premiere opponent to watch. Maybe the Lakers when Lebron comes to town. Perhaps Victor Wembanyama puts the Spurs on the map. Don’t listen to them. Don’t listen to any of them. There’s no way the Washington Wizards are a real NBA team. The team. Does. Not. Play. Defense. And then they come down the floor, and Kyle Kuzma or Jordan Poole will do a backflip, or maybe sing a song, and then shoot a three from half-court. Over two defenders. And then they will march back down the floor and do it all again. I’ve never seen such entertaining bad basketball in my life. Forty-eight minutes of heaven. Do yourselves a favor. Watch.

So. Where does that leave us?

Of course. The New York Knicks. How could I forget?

Well, you probably know about the Knicks. Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle and such. Mitchell Robinson and all of that. Realistically? The opening stretch is incredibly difficult this season. After the Celtics, Sixers, and Bucks, the door is wide open. If there was ever a season to push for a top-4 seed, this would be the year. It’s time for us to pounce.