Everyone in New York has been happy with the Knicks’ terrific start to the season. They may only be 6-6, but that’s still beyond expectations and the team has responded to a number of challenges early on in the season. They may not be beating the top teams in the NBA or even the best of the Eastern Conference, but so far through a small sample size of 12 games, they’ve been competitive in most games and have generally taken care of business against the teams they should.
This is important as the team puts the rebuilding mode at an accelerated pace. The most important thing a good team can do is take the easy wins. So far the Knicks have only faced two opponents that I’d consider as “dreadful” at this point in the season. They beat the 2-9 Lakers by four points and edged the 1-11 Pelicans by eight points, both at home. The great teams should be expected to wash those squads away in blowout fashion, but for the Knicks, just getting wins is a great early sign.
If they can keep that up throughout the season against those teams — the Lakers and Pelicans plus the 76ers, Nets, Trail Blazers and the George Karl-coached Kings — then that should offset the losses they’ll inevitably take against the league’s best. As optimistic as this start has been, Knicks fans would have to be crazy to expect anything more than one or two stolen wins against the Cavaliers, Spurs and Warriors over the course of the season. Even beating that next tier of teams will be a tough ask, so banking wins against the ones vying for ping-pong balls will go a long way.
For the record, beating these teams is increasingly important not only because the Knicks look like they could be good (relative to expectations), but also because without a first-round pick there’s absolutely no incentive to be bad. The difference between a few extra ping-pong balls or none at all will have nearly zero impact on them, other than a slightly worse pick in Round 2 and how high the Nuggets get to pick in their place. It would’ve been a little worse if the Raptors got the better of the two picks as a competitor in the East, but even then it wouldn’t be a huge factor in the season unless they had a real chance at a top three pick. Obviously the Knicks would rather own the rights to their pick, but this will eliminate the outrage that could come with what otherwise might have been meaningless wins down the stretch, as happened last year.
Beating up on the bad teams is fun, but there are only a few truly horrendous NBA teams and only a handful of wins to take from them. What the Knicks have done against those middle-of-the-pack teams is what’s going to be the difference from sustaining success and falling back into the pre-Melo Knicks from the 2000s. Against those middle-of-the-pack teams — which I’d arbitrarily describe as the teams that when you write are contending, it’s understood you mean for a playoff spot because contending for a championship would sound ridiculous — the Knicks are 4-2.
Those four wins include victories against the Wizards and Raptors. Those teams represented the fourth and fifth seeds in the Eastern Conference last season, and both were presumed to be in the running along with the Bulls and Hawks to be LeBron chow in the Eastern Conference Finals this season. The Wizards even had a little extra buzz entering the season with an ascending backcourt and the emergence of Otto Porter. Both teams are still above .500 now, by the skin of their necks, and look like quality wins.
The other four games of that six-game sample come in pairs, against the Hornets and Bucks. The Knicks have split with both, with two nice wins and two close losses. The loss to the Hornets was particularly disappointing, as they were tied before Cody Zeller snuck in a layup with less than a second left in the game. Kristaps Porzingis, in all his glory, nailed a long catch-and-shoot three for the win as time expired, but the referees ruled that the ball was still on his fingertips as the backboard lit up. It could’ve been a really nice 5-1 record if they’d kept that game, but 4-2 will get it done.
The Hornets may be overachieving early on even without Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, but they haven’t been awful to start the season, and could challenge for a playoff spot. The Bucks have actually been a little disappointing so far as they adjust to adding new pieces to what was a playoff roster last year. Splitting these kinds of teams would give the Knicks a chance to stay in the playoff race throughout the season, and continuing to go two out of three against middle-of-the-pack teams would put them in a position to secure a playoff berth and avoid LeBron in the first round, something very few fans and pundits in New York predicted before the season.
The third phase of the rebuild is still in the distant future, which would be beating those elite teams and ultimately challenging for a championship. They’re 0-4 this season against teams that are two games or more above .500. That includes two losses to the Eastern Conference favorite Cavaliers, and a loss to the Spurs who are as close to a favorite as possible in a conference that’s home to the utterly ridiculous Golden State Warriors. The Cavs and Spurs are a combined 18-5, and the Knicks just aren’t close to being ready for those games yet.
Additionally, the Knicks fell to the Hawks in the second game of the season. Although some are down on Atlanta, they did win 60 games a year ago and made the Eastern Conference Finals. They probably won’t get to 60 this year, but if they aren’t a title contender, then we might as well admit that the Cavs are the only team in the East that is.
What New York can hold its head high about is the fact that it was competitive in some of these tough games. The Cavaliers actually needed a pair of dominant fourth quarters to put those games away. No moral victories and all that coach speak, but after last season it’s nice to see the Knicks making teams work for their wins. Not to mention, going back to what I wrote earlier, great teams blow out bad teams. The fact that the Knicks haven’t gotten embarrassed further makes me feel like this 12-game sample has at least proven they aren’t one of those dreadful teams that the really good teams can beat just by showing up.
The small sample skews everything, and it’s going to be hard to be optimistic for a full 82-game season with a team that realistically isn’t going anywhere special anytime soon. That being said, the Knicks are doing the right thing during a rebuild that’s far ahead of where it should be based on the state of the team just a few months ago. They’re beating the bad teams, playing really well against the average teams and making the good teams work to beat them. Right now, nobody in New York can really ask for anything more.