A few weeks ago I started working on a piece about the teams the New York Knicks could face in the playoffs. Pretty soon I had to scrap it. That’s how fast and how far things changed in just a few weeks: Atlanta, Miami, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Boston and Milwaukee were all postseason possibilities at one point. Now it looks likely the Knicks will face the Cleveland Cavaliers. Two years ago New York finished fourth and were outclassed by Atlanta. These Cavs are better than those Hawks. Mightn’t it happen again? No. Mightn’t not. For these reasons three.
Mitchell Robinson missed the Atlanta series after fracturing his right hand a few months prior. If he’s available this time around, the Knicks are an entirely different team. Clint Capela utterly dominated Nerlens Noel and Taj Gibson. In a series that features an All-Star in Jarrett Allen and an All-Future in Evan Mobley, Mitch could end up being the most impactful big of the bunch. Should the Knicks defeat the Cavaliers, they’ll likely face Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez, Robert Williams or Joel Embiid. It’s basketball canon: everybody who’s anybody has a meaningful man in the middle. In Mitch, the Knicks do.
Quick: when was the last time the Knicks went into a playoff series the better team at point guard? Trick question: there’s no answer! Seriously. I checked. The post-championship Knicks have more often than not turned to the likes of Elfrid Payton or Rory Sparrow when faced with a Trae Young or Dennis Johnson. Even when the Knicks have had good point guards, e.g. Stephon Marbury or Micheal Ray Richardson, the opponent boasted Jason Kidd or Reggie Theus, a two-time All-Star with Chicago. As for Walt Frazier, every series he played in he seemed to be running into a fellow future Hall of Famer in Bob Cousy, Hal Greer, Earl Monroe, Jerry West, Pete Maravich. Clyde came out on top more than once, but you’d be hard-pressed to flat-out label him just plain better than them cats.
Nor am I saying Jalen Brunson is definitiv ely superior to Cleveland’s Darius Garland. But for the Knicks to go into a series against a team with a 23-year-old point guard who’s already been an All-Star and not be at a disadvantage says something. Brunson pressures the defense at all three levels while playing the lead ball-handler and creating for others, the conductor and the first violinist all at once. The last time a Knick playoff team prominently featured a player who’d been All-NBA the same year he wasn’t an All-Star, Tyson Chandler was trapped in a recurring nightmare where he was bouncing up and down on Roy Hibbert’s knee, smiling up at Daddy. It’s hard to see that happening to JB.
The third reason these Knicks should fare better than two years ago: the creativity throughout the roster. I’m struck by how many similarities there are between the 2013 series vs. Indiana and 2021 vs. Atlanta. Each featured a Knick team with one player who could create with the ball in his hand and that. Was. It. Besides Iman Shumpert and Chris Copeland, no one besides Carmelo Anthony was even willing to put up shots against the Pacers. Once Julius Randle went dry against the Hawks, the well went empty for all the Knicks, none of whom had the knack. That shouldn’t be an issue this time, and not just because of the addition of Brunson.
Many current Knicks are entirely capable of subsistence-level offense. RJ Barrett as your third option is not a bad start. 71% of Immanuel Quickley’s two-pointers are unassisted, which is actually a career-low but which is also evidence of a self-made man. Josh Hart has a gift for putting his head down and finding a way to the rim. One day Quentin Grimes will attack a closeout and suddenly accept that he doesn’t have to drop off a pass to whoever’s in the paint, but rather can attempt to score all on his own.
These Knicks are more dangerous than the 2021 team. It’s not crazy to project positives in their future. Cleveland best be ready. There will be blood.