How the worst team in the east became relevant again

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After being in the bottom four of the eastern conference for the last six years, the New York Knicks are now in playoff contention, currently 8th in the east with a 21-21 record at the current time of writing. To many, the team’s performance was a shock, as the team did not have the big news signees or trades in the offseason such as the Phoenix Suns when they traded for point guard Chris Paul from the Thunder. 

So, this begs the question: How did arguably the worst team in previous seasons all of a sudden become a playoff contender? The answer consists of two parts: the efficiency of the Knicks’ defense and the strength of their schedule.
For starters, the Knicks are actually playing some great defense so far. Despite being in the bottom five teams for offensive efficiency, only scoring an average of 105.1 points per game through their first 41 games, the Knicks are 5th in defensive efficiency, only allowing their opponents to score a league best 105.1 points per game. When mixed with stats like defensive rebounds per game (35.7, 6th), 2nd chance points given (11.5, 4th) and points in the paint given (42.8, 3rd), it’s no surprise that the team had such a surprising first half of the season.

However, these statistics can be downplayed by the fact that the Knicks have had an easy schedule up until this week. The “strength of schedule’ statistic rates how hard or easy a team’s schedule is. This can be tracked through multiple time periods, including full seasons, 1st/2nd halves of the season and even by the week. For the first half of the season, the Knicks’ had the second easiest schedule, with the Portland Trail Blazers being the only team with an easier first half schedule.
The problem with this is that having an easy first half most likely means that the second half will be harder than the first, and this is the case for the Knicks. The team has the fifth hardest remaining schedule in the league. Just this week, the Knicks have had to face the Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers and the Orlando Magic. And while they all were good games, the Knicks only won against the Magic, and still have to face the 76ers again this Sunday. 

In order for the Knicks to continue to shock the world, they need to do two key things. The first is to ramp up their offense more. The only player on the team averaging more than 20 points is the 25 year old power forward Julius Randle, who is averaging 22.9 points per game. To put it into perspective, across the state in Brooklyn, there are three players (Kyrie Irving, James Harden and Kevin Durant) who are averaging 25+ points per game.

To some, the addition of point guard Derrick Rose through a trade with the Detroit Pistons meant the team would be able to garner more offense, but that hasn’t been the case. And, even though he was not hyped up like his college teammate Zion Williamson, point guard R.J Barrett has been, to most, underperforming for someone who was a top five pick. The Knicks need to get at least one of their guards more points, otherwise they will be consistently on the bubble.

However, this does not mean they need to sacrifice defense in order to do so. Holding teams like the Nets and the 76ers to eight points and 16 points under their average PPG is an amazing feat. Losing this would spell ruin for the team, and just make them sink back to their old positions in previous years. In a season where the seven through10 seeds will compete in a play-in tournament to clinch a playoff spot, keeping the same dominant defense while fine tuning their offense is the key to the Knicks surviving the second half of the season and making the postseason for the first time since 2013.