How Eastern Conference parity has opened a door for the Knicks

The preseason hype has been a lot of hot air. More talk than actual results. Uneven play has reigned.

No, we’re not talking about the Knicks. This is in regards to the Eastern Conference, which was supposed to be a monster, but through more than one quarter of the season has been the picture of mediocrity after the very top.

Nine teams, from fourth place to 12th, are separated by just two games in the loss column. Only three teams — the Celtics, Bucks and Cavaliers — have winning percentages above .538. The Heat, 76ers and Nets have been major disappointments. There is talk that the 12th-place Bulls, at 10-14, are willing to move difference-making veterans DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic. With a loaded draft some analysts believe could end up being historically good, more teams may end up unloading key players, looking to improve their positioning by sliding down the standings.

RJ Barrett #9 of the New York Knicks grabs the rebound during the game against the Cleveland Cavaliers on December 4, 2022 at Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York.
Though by no means dominant, the Knicks have been competent enough in recent weeks to have a foothold on playoff position in the East.
NBAE via Getty Images

That leaves a golden opportunity for the Knicks, who despite their mediocre 12-13 record are just one hot streak from being in strong playoff position. After Wednesday night’s 113-89 win over the Hawks, they are just 1.5 games behind the Nets (14-12) for fourth place in the conference.

At the season’s outset, the belief was that just reaching the play-in round was a realistic goal for the Knicks because of how tough the East was going to be. That didn’t account for injuries and underperformance setting so many teams back. Now, I expect many teams eventually will play to form, for the 76ers, Heat and Nets to win more games than they lose, and the surprising Pacers (13-12) to go in the other direction. Remember, the Celtics were just a .500 team through 50 games last season before taking off and eventually reaching the NBA Finals.

A graphic shows the NBA Eastern Conference standings through play on December 7, 2022.
New York Post

But, it should be noted, the Knicks’ schedule has been difficult thus far. They have already played five back-to-backs. Their remaining strength of schedule is the ninth-easiest in the NBA, per Tankathon.

And over the past few weeks, the Knicks have played much better, dating back to the ugly loss at home to the Thunder in which they allowed a whopping 145 points in a ghastly no-show performance.

True, their 6-6 record (and 1.5 net rating) since then is nothing to be excited about. But in this stretch of 12 games, they faced nine teams with current winning records. Three of the losses — to the Bucks, Grizzlies and Trail Blazers — were by six points or fewer. They went 4-2 on the road. And they welcomed back a healthy Quentin Grimes, who is their best perimeter defender and has cemented himself in the starting lineup.

Milwaukee Bucks guard Jrue Holiday (21) goes up for a shot as New York Knicks guard Quentin Grimes (6) defends during the second quarter when the New York Knicks played the Milwaukee Bucks Wednesday, November 30, 2022 at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan, NY.
The return of Quentin Grimes has given the Knicks someone capable of slowing down some of the league’s most lethal perimeter players.
Robert Sabo

It’s not overly optimistic to say this team has been better of late, and that a December jump in the win-loss record is possible. The schedule is relatively soft through New Year’s Day. Of their next 12 games, six are against teams with losing records. And two of the teams they’ll face who have won more than they have lost — the Kings and Pacers — have had unexpectedly strong starts that still feel a little fluky.

The door is ajar for the Knicks. It certainly is more open than it appeared to be in October. Now they have to forcefully push it open.

Not Brunson or bust

In looking over the box score of the Knicks’ blowout of the Hawks, one player stood out. No, it wasn’t Julius Randle (34 and 17) or Quentin Grimes (a season-high 23 points on 11 shots), who were clearly the Knicks’ two best players on this rare stress-free night. It wasn’t Miles McBride’s six assists and plus-19 rating in 27 minutes.

It was Jalen Brunson.

New York Knicks guard Jalen Brunson (11) gets fouled by Atlanta Hawks guard Aaron Holiday (3)during the third quarter at Madison Square Garden on December 7, 2022.
The Knicks endured Jalen Brunson’s off night in a comfortable win over the Hawks, which is an encouraging sign.

The newcomer had a forgettable night, missing 12 of 14 shots from the floor, committing four turnovers and managing eight points and six assists. Really, it was the first time all season Brunson was off and the Knicks managed to win, which speaks volumes of how dependent they have been on their new point guard.

It also says a lot about the direction the Knicks are heading in, that they can now overcome Brunson not being at his best and still beat a quality team.

In the Knicks’ first 11 wins, Brunson averaged 23.2 points and 7.2 assists. In their 13 losses, those numbers were 19.1 points and 5.3 assists. If anything, the Knicks have asked too much from Brunson this season. As Grimes emerges, maybe that will enable them to ease up on their floor general’s responsibilities.

For one night at least, the Knicks were able to thrive without a strong game from Brunson.

Off the Rose

New York Knicks guard Derrick Rose (4) dribbles the ball against the Memphis Grizzlies during the second half at Madison Square in New York. Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022.
Derrick Rose is in Knicks limbo after averaging 6.4 points in 13.6 minutes, both career lows, in his first 21 games of the season.
Noah K. Murray

It really shouldn’t be a surprise to see Derrick Rose taken out of the rotation, not if you had been paying close attention to his role prior to his not logging a minute in Sunday’s win over the Cavaliers.

Rose was averaging just 13.6 minutes per game and shooting 40 percent from the field. In a shaky month of November, Rose hit just 30 percent of his shots from 3-point range and averaged just 5.7 points per game. He wasn’t making an impact in the time he was getting. Immanuel Quickley has been the reserve guard seeing far more action.

At the age of 34, it’s fair to question how much Rose has left. It’s also understandable to wonder whether he’s still working on getting his legs underneath him after appearing in just 26 games last season due to multiple ankle surgeries.

New York Knicks guard Miles McBride (2) watches his three point shot during the fourth quarter when the New York Knicks played the Atlanta Hawks Wednesday, December 7, 2022.
Second-year guard Miles McBride has made a positive influence on the Knicks since entering the rotation.
Robert Sabo

The other part of the equation is McBride, the Knicks’ second-round draft pick in 2021 who has been impressive in the past two games. He came in with a reputation for being a tenacious defender, but didn’t get much of an opportunity to prove himself as a rookie.

Thibodeau has high praise for McBride, raving about the former West Virginia star’s readiness and work habits. He talks about McBride the same way he talks about Grimes, and Thibodeau has not let his fondness of Grimes be any sort of secret.

McBride’s strong defense, along with eight assists and two turnovers in the past two games, won’t hurt his quest to keep his rotation spot. Neither will the Knicks outscoring opponents by 27 points in McBride’s combined 43 minutes in those contests.