Currently sitting with a 33-27 record going into the All-Star break, the New York Knicks would be the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. There are still 22 games left to play and a lot to be decided.
Thinking a little ahead, it is not irresponsible to envision this team in the postseason. They have a slight edge over the Miami Heat, who sit seventh, and are two games back of the Brooklyn Nets in fifth. Getting a top-six seed is key, as it would avoid a play-in game against several talented teams behind them. It would also be doing a disservice not to acknowledge that four and a half games separate the Knicks at six and the Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards in the nine and ten-seed slots. A little over 73 percent of the season has been played and with this pause, it’s a good time to evaluate the Knicks.
Three-game win streak and a sense of relief heading into break:
Riding a three-game win streak going into the break, the Knicks have a contagious swagger right now. A lot can be contributed to the acquisition of Josh Hart. Trading away forward Cam Reddish and a protected 2023 first-round pick for Hart, was a great decision. Hart has instantly jumped in and made an impact. Disrupting plays on defense, driving to the basket, and having a sense of calmness, he’s become this versatile Swiss Army Knife the team’s been missing. Through his first three games, he’s only played 25, 27, and 24 minutes. With an impressive +46, expect him to start seeing his minutes tick up post-All-Star break.
Another important aspect for this team could be the sense of relief post-trade deadline. We as fans like to think NBA players and athletes are just that, athletes. They show up, practice, and play in their games to entertain us, and it’s as simple as that. There have been a lot of Knicks players in trade rumors this season. Uncertainty of setting, where one could be heading, and if the front office believes in someone are all things that can eat away at an NBA player.
For example, Isaiah Hartenstein seemed unlikely to remain on the Knicks post-trade deadline. He was underperforming, not looking comfortable, and frankly playing soft. With rumors of him wanting to return to his former Los Angeles Clippers team, some of us (hand up) were wondering what a trade package could look like. The trade deadline passed, Hartenstein remained a Knick, and it couldn’t have been a better decision. Maybe it’s the relief of not getting traded or the belief that his coaches value him and what he’s doing. Of course, winning cures all, but the Knicks’ center looks as if he’s playing with more joy and freedom despite garnering the same minutes’ load and statistics. A defensive cog, he’s averaging ten rebounds and is a +48 in the three games since the trade deadline passed.
Look for Hartenstein and some other Knicks to play more freely on the court with the knowledge that this team is set for this season.
Where could the Knicks finish in the standings?
As stated before, the Knicks sit in the sixth seed, narrowly ahead of the Heat and two games behind the Nets. Catching up to and passing the Nets is a realistic expectation for this team. Finishing as the fifth seed would’ve been a celebration before the season, but now it feels like they’d be taking care of business. Still likely slotted behind the Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, and Cleveland Cavaliers, there is reason to believe the Knicks can compete with anyone. Against the top four East teams this season, they have a 5-7 record. Of the four, the only ones they haven’t beaten are the Milwaukee Bucks, against whom they are 0-2. It’s still an encouraging sign to see them almost at .500 against the best the conference has to offer.
There are some key games coming up with two against the Celtics, two against the Heat, and one each against the Cavaliers and Nets. Assuming teams are at somewhat full strength (not aways a certainty lthese days) it will be the measuring stick for the Knicks as the season winds down. Can they step up and beat the teams they compare themselves to will be the obvious question in the final 20 games. Having two legitimate All-Stars and surrounding them with complementary pieces has elevated this team beyond what most probably thought going into the season.
Two areas of improvement must be defensive rating, where they currently sit 15th, and three-point percentage where they sit 23rd.
This team can make some noise in the playoffs, but let’s revisit that conversation a month from now.
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