When most teams go on three-game win-streaks in Basketball, generally the fan base is happy but it’s nothing overtly celebratory. Maybe it’s due to the pain of the past decade and the thrill of beginning the new year and decade on a positive note. Something felt different on the first game in the new year. Now while unlikely, here’s the case for the postseason.
From the Top
At the start of the year and decade and in the midst of a small win streak, there’s a lot of optimism to be had for the New York Knicks. The scrutiny and the joy had in its application is both infuriating but also powerful. While it is all too similar and carry an implicit bias, there’s a silver lining we’re going to explore.
To borrow Trey Young’s words, “YOUR APOLOGY NEEDS TO BE AS LOUD AS THE DISRESPECT WAS…” While both the postseason seems unlikely as things stand on January 2, 2020, come April seeing both things could be a reality. Starting from the top is understanding the East Landscape and the three tiers of teams within the conference.
|Eastern Conference Teams
|Milwaukee Bucks (1)
|Boston Celtics (2)
|Miami Heat (3)
|Toronto Raptors (4)
|Indiana Pacers (5)
|Philadelphia 76ers (6)
|Brooklyn Nets (7)
|Orlando Magic (8)
|Chicago Bulls (9)
|Charlotte Hornets (10)
|Detroit Pistons (11)
|Washington Wizards (12)
|Cleveland Cavaliers (12)
|New York Knicks (14)
|Atlanta Hawks (15)
With all teams playing 30+ games, there are trends appearing and the landscape has begun to take shape. In the first tier, it’s only Milwaukee as far as the regular season goes. Having a seven-game lead ahead of Miami (3) and an eight-game lead from Boston (2), they’re firmly within their own tier as far as making the playoffs.
In the following tier, there are five teams before addressing the last tier. Indiana (5) being six games ahead of Brooklyn and Philadelphia (6) and Toronto (4) having seven wins over the Nets, it’s fair to say there’s been a clear line that can be drawn from results thus far. Only two games separate the second seed to the sixth and so this group is incredibly competitive and searching for degrees of separation from either within or in the trade market. Anytime two teams meet from this tier throughout the rest of the season can be really telling for playoff hopes and the desperation for future additions.
*Some teams are preparing for the postseason and the loss to PHI on Christmas leave space for subtle concerns. Even still this is about seeding and making it to the playoffs, not about playoff success.
**Rankings based off win-percentage don’t change the point.
Now to Address the Bottom
Currently sitting at seven and eight as far as playoffs right now are the compromised Nets and Orlando Magic atop the bottom of the East. Even the Hawks just beat the Magic themselves as the year and decade came to a close. That doesn’t change the position of either team but it does solidify nothing significant to putting Brooklyn or Orlando above the other bottom East teams. Assess that reality at your own risk as moving forward requires nuance, patience, and create the narrative for your own team because no one else will.
Taking a quick snapshot of each team via Rotoworld; both Brooklyn and Orlando have an injury bug to squash but if healthy would be closer to the second tier instead of the bottom. Chicago has been having fit issues, coaching issues, and a worse case for injuries than the teams above them. Charlotte came out the gate scorching hot and resting on the improved play of Devonte’ Graham have come back to Earth lately. They’re a fun team that will give any tired team a run for their money. Defenses adjustments to Graham breakout play and how adapts to that will be the driving line of success in Charlotte. Skipping to Cleveland because it’s unique in the group, Kevin Love’s frustration and if he gets moved and the return of that will define their season. It’s a hard call but like Charlotte, their success is more within their own hands (assuming Love is moved). Washington, Detroit, and skipping to the Hawks much like a lot of teams in the bottom of the East can’t quite get healthy. Each team’s implications and potential outcomes differ but for the remaining season, they’re all needing a bit of luck or roaster changes to change the current perception.
Mike Miller’s Competition
Now at .500 (6-6) after his first twelve games can a proper evaluation of the team can occur. Even before the game against Portland, there was enough to make the case of Fizdale’s inability to get this team to buy-in. Mix that in with the situations with the teams around them and while this isn’t gospel, there’s no way to ignore the case the Knicks have. Speaking on the bottom tier teams, there can be a bit more meat on this bone if you take a look. This is results based and if we take away the stigma of the past and just try to see what’s going on for what it is, the case strengthens.
Atlanta Hawks (per Team Rankings on 1/02/2020): 30, (1-9)
These Southern birds are absolutely reeling. Just breaking the 10 game losing streak against the Magic (or lack thereof), they get a much-needed win that could help right the ship or be an outlier to their play most of the season. Trey has missed some games and Collins 25 game suspension did not help their early campaign. Their draft picks have more or less disappointed, but they’re very young and are still growing into their bodies. Alarms shouldn’t be blaring, but due to the anointed “dark horse” candidacy trust upon them, they may have been a year or two early.
Detroit Pistons: 29, (2-8)
Things are not alright in Detroit. Unless they can move Reggie Jackson, Blake Griffin, or Andre Drummond and get back a quality return, their chances are falling as injuries mount. Trade rumors are swirling around and not in the good way. Hopes were high for the Pistons this year and the goal was to be competitive so where they’re at now is disappointing. Perhaps a decent swap can be what settles the ship and brings them back, but will it be too late?
Played 1/02/20: Loss against the Clippers 126-112
Washington Wizards: 28, (3-7)
Such a hard team to evaluate because if nothing else, this team is fun to watch. They with good pace and let the ball fly but it’s much more out of necessity instead of optimization. They’re not great defensively and throughout this season they’ve been atop the injury reports. With John Wall not playing until 2020-21 season as reported, is the idea to risk injury to Bradley Beal and have him hurt when Wall returns? Because Beal brings them to wins and without him the season will have a much more development heavy approach if they intend to capitalize on the tandem of Beal and Wall.
Charlotte Hornets: 27, (3-7)
Fun & unexpected, Charlotte has benefited from a lack of hype the Hawks wish they could have. They’ve got some of the most criticized contracts but most are coming off the books in the next year or two. They’ve got a decent group of young players most notably candidate for MIP, Graham. No pressure, no expectations. They just play the game of Basketball and establish relationships to build a team the “right” way.
Played 1/02/20: Win against Cleveland 109-106
Cleveland Cavaliers: 21, (5-5)
John Beilein, disgruntled Love, and the interest of Tristan Thompson around the league make it hard to believe the roaster is going to stay as it is constructed. There’s a clear message Cleveland wants to move Love, but most are inquiring about Thompson. The longer Love stays, the harder it’s going to be for John Beilein to win over the locker room. He’s capable and establishes plays and order for attack. Against the Knicks, he made sure to constantly run plays to put Kevin Knox in motion. It was deliberate and worked. The issue is if can start developing the game he wants them to play before Love sours the team on him.
Played 1/02/20: Loss to Charlotte 109-106
Brooklyn Nets: 20, (4-6)
While there’s been highs and lows to this .500 team, questions of Kyrie’s injury persist, replicated team success without him, and injuries piling up things are looking bleak in Brooklyn. All of that could change if Kyrie returns and that makes the Nets look great. Their real issue is their size and defense when even at full health is subject to being bullied. There’s a path to success for this team but the margin of error is small and could be a bit of disappointment this season, but again with Durant coming next year, all will be forgotten quickly.
Played 1/02/20: Loss to Dallas 123-111
All defense and no offense. It was the motto last year and this year was thought to be the same. Turns out they upped their offense (slightly) AND defense with Issac continuing to grow. He’s not a primary option on offense, but his ability to guard reliably well all five positions poised him as a potential DPOY if not now than sooner than later. Offensively he shown positive growth and is not showing the same timid nature he had the last post season. It could mean he’s motivated to be reliable in those moments or much more tragically, suffers in them. The play indicates the former, but the latter has the argument until we see him again in the post season. His injury may have his team come together or falter… January games will likely tell the story.
Chicago Bulls* (only bottom tier team higher than the Knicks per last 10): 11, (5-5)
Despite the injuries they’ve suffered they continue to not just win, but compete well against decent and healthier competition. There’s been a bit of a fit issue talked about, as well as removing the one-two-punch of Wendell Carter Jr. and Lauri Markkanen spacing and playing off each other. No matter the confusion they continue to come together when it matters and rattle off a few unexpected wins. A (quieter) dark horse candidate, they seem to be rising despite the adversity they’re facing. Perhaps it’s addition by subtraction, but it could easily be a team growing some real cohesion and be a tough team each and every night.
Played 1/02/20: Loss to Utah 102-98
All this is unpacking is to give a full picture of the landscape before making the case of a Knicks postseason. Due to the fan base and the scrutiny the organization and the fans face from the outside, this has to be clear, reasonable, and frankly longer than necessary to show this isn’t fandom for fandom’s sake. Without further delay, the potential playoff-bound Knicks.
The Knicks, Miller’s Way
New York Knicks: 13, (6-4)
There’s a lot of truth to not paying any mind to the opinion of the uninformed. By just ignoring it and not addressing it gives it some validity. The situation has changed and to be perfectly clear, it isn’t just about being 4-18 under Fizdale and 6-6 under Miller. They missed on their primary targets and while the front office says had a plan, what was put on the court did not show that. Why did Fizdale say he saw Frank play and FIBA and wanted to steal a couple plays from the French team’s playbook? Remember FIBA Frank or looking to see how both Bobby Portis and Randle learned to stretch the floor and how perfect that would be next to Robinson? Even though some things we thought or believed didn’t fit, some of it did.
Not all things are coming together and DSJ disappointed and is being actively shopped, but on the flip side, Frank and Knox have improved. They’re not All-Stars of course but they’re improving in parts of their game they struggled with. Frank has shot more and with a touch more efficiency while showing to be great at avoiding turnovers. Knox is developing a bit defensively, showing he can work within a scheme so he can at least keep the offense honest. It hasn’t been as reliable as of late, but his three-pointer looks really good. Despite the drop in efficiency after the first couple of weeks, he’s improving his overall game with rebounding and drawing fouls. Him doing that while being able to work in a scheme with players like Frank, Bullock, and Robinson can make the Knicks really hard to deal with.
Last, but not forgotten is our latest lottery pick RJ Barrett (see trade talk here). The critique on his efficiencies is fair but understandable considering the initial situation. The fully actualized version of this team may come after the trade deadline with the additional spacing and pacing. The team is healthy and has capable rookies in the G-league filling in the bench along with hungry youth who have appeared to hit their stride under Miller. Introducing Bullocks spacing can create another threat to space the floor, giving RJ more room to move and more reliable outlet passes for improved shooting around him.
Going forward the evaluation of this season is going to matter based on how the third/bottom tier of the Eastern Conference teams does. As it stands now and as highlighted above, there’s at a bare minimum, a solid case based on continued situations of the other bottom teams and the Knicks since Mike Miller took over. A full healthy roaster on the rise against a lot of teams with a mix of injuries and the most disappointing situation at least give them a better chance than most of the eight teams in their tier.
At a bare minimum, especially with Orlando’s recent loss of Johnathan Issac, the Knicks should be a top-three team to take either the 7th or 8th spots come April. It’s not about being right but as we live and breathe, the case for the Knicks postseason remains.