The Knicks Are For Real

The New York Knicks were widely projected to take at least a modest step forward in 2022-23. After all, New York made a substantial investment to acquire Jalen Brunson while bringing back the core of a 37-win team from the previous season. However, the Knicks still entered the campaign with an over/under projection below the .500 mark, and preseason buzz was dimmed after New York’s well-publicized dalliance with Donovan Mitchell didn’t come to fruition. As the stretch run arrives, though, the Knicks are on a six-game winning streak and in a position that most didn’t forecast.

New York is 36-27 with 21 games remaining, approaching the consensus over/under (38.5 wins) and riding a positive wave. The Knicks are firmly in the top eight of the NBA in offensive rating, scoring 115.9 points per 100 possessions, and that rises to 124.2 points per 100 during this winning streak. Granted, New York’s schedule wasn’t a murderer’s row, but none of the victories came against tanking teams and the streak was punctuated by a headline-grabbing victory over the Boston Celtics on Monday.

The Knicks throttled the Celtics by 15 points on a night when Boston entered the game with the best record in the NBA. New York punched Boston in the mouth, leading by as many as 20 points in the first half, and the Knicks won comfortably despite uncharacteristically poor free throw shooting (23-for-34) and a negative turnover margin in the game. While it would be wise to avoid overreactions to a single game in late February, the Knicks are now No. 7 in the NBA in net rating, trailing only the six teams (Celtics, Bucks, Nuggets, Cavaliers, Grizzlies, 76ers) generally accepted to have the best statistical profiles in the league this season.

There is also room for potential growth for New York, as the Knicks’ win-loss record lands a win or two below what its point differential would forecast. Some of that can be traced to a middling 18-15 home record this season, which is explained by a ghastly -15.0 net rating in what defines as clutch situations at Madison Square Garden. There is almost certainly noise associated with that kind of shortcoming and, with impressive performances from the team’s best players in Brunson and Julius Randle, optimism reigns. Randle is in the top 12 of the NBA with 27.8 points and 11.6 rebounds per game since late December, and Brunson adds 26.6 points and 6.2 assists per game while leading the league in minutes over the same sample.

At this juncture, it would still be difficult for the Knicks to crash the party as a top-four team in the East, in part due to strong performances from the Bucks, Celtics, 76ers, and Cavaliers. Still, New York now has the inside track at the No. 5 seed following Brooklyn’s midseason overhaul, and the Knicks have a manageable (approximately league average) schedule to navigate the rest of the way. Opinions are certainly split on what the ceiling is for this current group, but the Knicks also have the capital to make a splash in the coming months, and the 2022-23 team is pacing well ahead of rational expectation.

1. Milwaukee Bucks (44-17, Last week — 1st)

There was a changing of the guard at the top of the league standings this week. Milwaukee doesn’t have the best advanced statistical profile, but a 15-game winning streak is always nice. The Bucks haven’t lost in well over a month and beat three playoff hopefuls this week.

2. Denver Nuggets (44-19, Last week — 3rd)

Denver’s next matchup comes at home against Memphis on Friday, and that is one to circle. For one, the Grizzlies are the closest team to the Nuggets in the Western Conference standings. For another, the Grizzlies just beat the Nuggets by 18 points in Memphis. Denver still has a 5.5-game cushion, but it’s a good measuring stick.

3. Boston Celtics (44-18, Last week — 2nd)

If you’re looking to see more of the Celtics, Boston’s next three games will be broadcast on ESPN. Aside from the aforementioned hiccup against the Knicks on Monday, things are just fine for the Celtics with a top-tier record and four of the next five at home.

4. Memphis Grizzlies (37-23, Last week — 8th)

It seems as if Memphis has stabilized after a nightmare stretch early in February. The Grizzlies are 5-2 in the last seven games, including wins over Minnesota and Denver. Oh, and Jaren Jackson Jr. turned some heads on Tuesday.

5. Philadelphia 76ers (39-21, Last week — 4th)

It seems silly to be alarmed at all about Philadelphia, but the Sixers did just lose two straight home games. Granted, those losses came by five combined points, but Philadelphia does have a tough three-game road trip on the horizon with trips to Miami, Dallas, and Milwaukee.

6. New York Knicks (36-27, Last week — 9th)

New York projects as a favorite at home against Brooklyn on Wednesday, especially with the Nets coming in on the second night of a back-to-back. From there, the Knicks hit the road to face Miami and Boston in a stretch that could be illustrative of what the team’s ceiling and projection actually resemble.

7. Cleveland Cavaliers (39-25, Last week — 5th)

Wednesday’s game in Boston will be a nice measuring stick for Cleveland. The Cavaliers stumbled out of the All-Star break before a home win over Toronto on Monday. But, as noted above, the Knicks are charging and Cleveland isn’t a total lock to stick in the top four. Notably, though, Cleveland’s schedule is very soft, at least by opponent winning percentage, for the rest of the season. That helps.

8. Sacramento Kings (36-25, Last week — 10th)

Sacramento prevailed in the second-highest scoring game in NBA history this week, and the Kings just swept a three-game road trip. It feels like everyone is collectively waiting for regression, but the Kings are just 1.5 game behind the Grizzlies for the No. 2 spot in the West. What a season.

9. Phoenix Suns (33-29, Last week — 7th)

The Suns are holding up just fine, but the season really begins on Wednesday. Kevin Durant is projected to make his Phoenix debut, and the Suns have a relatively easy matchup in Charlotte. Needless to say, Durant should raise the overall level in Phoenix with his unique skill set, and all eyes are on a potential title contender as it comes together for the first time.

10. Golden State Warriors (32-30, Last week — 11th)

The schedule wasn’t exactly grueling at home, but the Warriors just won three games in a row. Golden State’s fundamentals are strong with key guys healthy and available, and that includes Klay Thompson recapturing his old form on offense.

11. L.A. Clippers (33-31, Last week — 6th)

All three games were close, but the Clippers are 0-3 since the break. That comes at an ugly time given that the upcoming schedule is quite challenging with road games in San Francisco and San Francisco followed by a home game against Memphis this week. On the bright side, Kawhi Leonard averaged 27.5 points per game on elite efficiency in February and seems to be himself at this juncture.

12. Toronto Raptors (31-32, Last week — 19th)

The Raptors got rocked by the Cavs this week but everything else has been gravy. Toronto is 8-2 in the last ten games and taking care of business. The Raptors are now only a half-game behind the Hawks for the No. 8 seed.

13. Minnesota Timberwolves (32-32, Last week — 14th)

It seems appropriate that the Wolves are 32-32. It’s felt like a .500 season in Minneapolis, even as that falls well short of expectations. There is a built-in excuse with the extended absence of Karl-Anthony Towns, but it’s a lot of shuffling in place.

14. Miami Heat (33-29, Last week — 13th)

The Heat bookended the All-Star break with two losses on either side, adding some fuel to the panic fire. Miami did pick up a very nice road win over Philadelphia on Monday, though, and that should quell some of the concern. Given how mediocre Miami has been in the aggregate, the Heat are still in a perfectly fine position atop the Southeast Division and still with a solid chance to avoid the play-in.

15. Dallas Mavericks (32-31, Last week — 16th)

Dallas rising in the rankings isn’t an indication of great times. In short, it’s an indictment of other teams in this range. Jason Kidd buried his team after a bad loss and the next game was a home loss to Indiana. Yikes.

16. Washington Wizards (29-32, Last week — 18th)

Washington is hanging around and gets a bump after a nice win on Tuesday. Bradley Beal carried the Wizards to a close win in Atlanta, and Washington has a couple of home games against Toronto to begin this week. If they can sweep that mini-series, things get pretty interesting.

17. Atlanta Hawks (31-31, Last week — 20th)

The Quin Snyder era began with a close-fought loss to the Wizards on Tuesday. Oddly, that defeat had a familiar feeling in that Atlanta failed to execute late and lost a game in which they controlled things most of the night. Still, Snyder is a clear upgrade on the bench and the vibes seem to be strong at the moment.

18. Brooklyn Nets (34-27, Last week — 12th)

Brooklyn’s remaining talent is probably underrated, but the parts aren’t fitting together just yet. The Nets are 3-8 in the last 11, with road games against the Knicks and Celtics waiting to start this week.

19. Los Angeles Lakers (29-33, Last week — 21st)

LeBron’s injury might be the death blow to the Lakers. It doesn’t have to be but, considering the NBA’s all-time leading scorer might miss multiple weeks, it is suddenly quite difficult to find optimism. That’s a shame for a number of reasons, but one of them is that the Lakers looked mighty good in a road win over Dallas on Sunday.

20. Portland Trail Blazers (29-32, Last week — 23rd)

It’s been a roller coaster for Portland after the All-Star break. First, the Blazers had plane/weather issues, sat key guys, and lost by a lot to the Kings. On Tuesday, Portland lost by 18 in Golden State. In the middle, though, Damian Lillard scored 71 points. Yes, 71 points. That’ll work.

21. Utah Jazz (31-32, Last week — 22nd)

Somebody had to lose to San Antonio eventually, and Utah did that on Tuesday. That was maybe enough to generate a five-spot decline in the standings but, hey, things happen. The Jazz are still hanging around the play-in mix and it’s just one result.

22. New Orleans Pelicans (30-32, Last week — 15th)

The vibes aren’t great in New Orleans right now. The Pelicans have dropped four in a row, including the first three games after the break, and now New Orleans has to go to Portland, San Francisco, and Sacramento over the next three games. As the calendar turned to 2023, it felt unthinkable that the Pelicans could miss the playoffs but, as they battle for play-in positioning with Zion Williamson still trying to recover from a hamstring injury, it’s very possible at this point.

23. Orlando Magic (26-36, Last week — 24th)

Orlando is 21-16 over the last 37 games. Read that again. The Magic are still heavily favored to miss the play-in, much less the playoffs, but Orlando has been a real team for a while. That showed again with a road win in New Orleans on Monday.

24. Chicago Bulls (28-34, Last week — 26th)

It really seems like the Bulls are totally out of the mix until you look at the standings. Chicago is 1.5 games out of the play-in in the East with games against Detroit, Indiana, and Houston in the next ten days.

25. Indiana Pacers (28-35, Last week — 25th)

It was a really good week for Indiana. Beyond the opportunity to read about Bennedict Mathurin in our latest DIME cover, the Pacers went 2-1 and the only loss came in overtime to Boston.

26. Oklahoma City Thunder (28-33, Last week — 17th)

This is way too low for OKC, but the Thunder are 0-4 since the break. Unfortunately, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has also missed the last three games and, at the moment, OKC is back in the No. 12 spot in the West standings.

27. Charlotte Hornets (20-43, Last week — 27th)

When LaMelo Ball exited Monday’s game with a fractured ankle, the assumption was that he would likely miss extended time. Just hours later, word broke that he will miss the rest of the season, and Charlotte will now be playing out the string more than it already was. It’s been a disastrous season for the Hornets, and this was another lump of coal, but perhaps Charlotte can really angle toward ping-pong balls to mitigate the damage. If you want to be positive, though, the Hornets have won five in a row.

28. Detroit Pistons (15-47, Last week — 28th)

Detroit has lost eight of the last nine games and the only win was about as bad as a win can be, needing overtime to beat the hapless Spurs at home. On the bright side, James Wiseman showed some signs on Monday in a loss to Charlotte, but you have to squint to find too much optimism lately.

29. San Antonio Spurs (15-47, Last week — 30th)

The Spurs went six (!) weeks without a victory but finally got one on Tuesday. San Antonio beat Utah on the road behind 25 points from Keldon Johnson, and that was enough to climb a spot in the rankings. The Spurs still have the worst defensive rating (119.6) in NBA history, but they aren’t last!

30. Houston Rockets (13-48, Last week — 29th)

Houston is a disaster. Let’s just be honest about that. The Rockets are on a ten-game losing streak, posting the league’s worst record for the season, and the last five losses came by 109 combined points.

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