As with many teams in the (very) bizarre 2020-21 NBA season, the New York Knicks have had their ups and downs through 35 games. After all, the Knicks did endure a five-game losing streak in mid-January, with a couple of additional mini-hiccups along the way. Even so, New York is one of the better stories in the league in the first half, with the team posting an 18-17 record and generating real excitement in a fan base that has been starved for some sustained positivity for a long time.
The latest uptick for the Knicks is a 7-2 spurt since Feb. 12 and, during that nine-game run, New York sports the best defense in the league in allowing only 105.6 points per 100 possessions. Keyed by Tom Thibodeau’s approach and general activity and toughness, the Knicks are a top-three defense for the season, yielding just 107.4 points per 100 possessions. While the Knicks’ personnel is at least slightly better than a year ago, the results are jarring, as a similar group finished 23rd in defense in 2019-20 under different leadership.
Thibodeau’s reputation proceeds him in many ways, but he does have an earned pedigree for defensive basketball. Yes, the Knicks are likely to regress in that opponents are shooting a league-worst 32.5 percent on three-point attempts against them, but New York’s principles are solid and Thibodeau has even the lead pieces buying in defensively.
The most notable of those lead pieces is Julius Randle, who is enjoying in All-Star season. Randle boasts career-best marks in scoring (23.4 points per game), rebounding (10.9 per game), assists (5.5 per game), three-point shooting (41.9 percent) and free throw shooting (80.8 percent) while operating as New York’s lead option. It might be fair to suggest that he could cool off from long range, but Randle’s development as a playmaker is notable and impressive. Randle also ranks as a top 10 player in the league in FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR metric, and he is providing two-way value that he should be lauded for at this stage.
From there, RJ Barrett is producing 16.5 points and 6.1 rebounds per game, showing flashes (including improved assist and turnover rates and an uptick in three-point shooting efficiency) that made him the No. 3 pick not that long ago. As a team, the Knicks are still underwhelming offensively on a per-possession basis. When combined with their elite defensive marks, though, New York is scoring more points than they allow, placing them in the top 12 of the NBA in net rating.
The Knicks may not truly be better than a few teams behind them in the standings (i.e. Miami, Boston, Toronto, etc.), and that’s fine. It is worth remembering the exceptionally modest expectations for this particular group and simply enjoying the ride with a team that is scratching and clawing its way to respectability in the country’s largest market. It isn’t always pretty, but it’s been effective and brought some joy and optimism to a fan base that hasn’t felt that in years.
Where do the Knicks stack up in this week’s DIME power rankings? Let’s take a peek.
1. Utah Jazz (27-8, Last week — 1st)
Trouble in Salt Lake City!?! Okay, I’m mostly kidding, but the Jazz have lost two of the last three games. Utah’s profile is still (much) better on paper than any team in the league, but they were always going to regress from that absurd level. For now, they stay in the top spot with the best record and the best net rating in the league.
2. Brooklyn Nets (23-13, Last week — 2nd)
Even with Utah’s full-season advantages, I would have put Brooklyn at the top if they had beaten Dallas at home this weekend. Granted, that was a game without both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, so it’s not a knock to lose it, but the bar was quite high to overtake the Jazz. Brooklyn has still won 9 of the last 10, and they’ve done it at less than full strength. It’s wild. P.S.: This James Harden guy might be pretty good.
3. Phoenix Suns (22-11, Last week — 3rd)
The Suns just keep winning. They are 14-3 in the last 17 games, and while I don’t actually believe they are better than the Lakers and Clippers, there is no reason to drop them right now. Speaking of the Lakers… Phoenix visits STAPLES Center on Tuesday in primetime for a matchup between two intriguing contenders.
4. Los Angeles Lakers (24-11, Last week — 5th)
I likely would’ve bet against the Lakers losing four in a row at any point this season, but it happened from Feb. 18-24. To restore order, Los Angeles just beat Portland and Golden State as Dennis Schröder returned to the lineup, and Anthony Davis will return at some point. It seems that the panic is over.
5. Milwaukee Bucks (21-13, Last week — 7th)
Since the beginning of February, Milwaukee’s entire existence has been marked by streaks. They began the month with five straight wins. Then, the Bucks lost five straight games. Now, they’ve won five in a row again, including a home win over the Clippers in a national TV slot on Sunday. Oh, and Jrue Holiday is back, which is not a small thing.
6. L.A. Clippers (24-12, Last week — 4th)
Quietly, the Clippers are 3-4 in the last seven games. It should be noted that three of those losses came to Brooklyn, Utah and Milwaukee, so it’s not as if L.A. is in dire straits. At the same time, they aren’t playing as well as they did earlier this season.
7. Philadelphia 76ers (23-12, Last week — 8th)
Philadelphia is 5-2 in the last seven games after a little bit of a dry spell, and they seem to have stabilized. Joel Embiid was dominant in a breezy win over Indiana on Monday and, even with a net rating that puts them 8th in the NBA, the Sixers maintain the best record in the East.
8. Denver Nuggets (19-15, Last week — 10th)
It was a single-digit road win over Chicago, so Monday’s effort from Nikola Jokic won’t get a ton of attention. He was brilliant, however, in scoring 39 points and completely destroying the Bulls. Obviously, he’s been fantastic all year, but I can’t help but mention that performance. He’s carrying the Nuggets.
9. Miami Heat (17-17, Last week — 13th)
Miami is alive and kicking. The Heat are on a five-game winning streak and they’ve won 10 of the last 13 games. It isn’t a surprise that they are much better when Jimmy Butler is available, but it is truly night and day. Miami did beat Atlanta without Butler on Sunday, though, and that was a nice win to keep their mojo flowing.
10. Dallas Mavericks (17-16, Last week — 14th)
On one hand, the Mavericks are 8-2 in the last 10 games, and that is worth lauding under any circumstances. On the other, Dallas didn’t exactly navigate the world’s most difficult schedule in that period. The best win, over Brooklyn, came without Durant and Irving, and victories over Minnesota, Atlanta, New Orleans, Memphis, Boston and Orlando aren’t going to move the needle a ton. Still, in a very competitive West, you have to pile up wins where you can.
11. Toronto Raptors (17-17, Last week — 6th)
It would be tempting to say we “jinxed” the Raptors last week, since they went 1-2 overall. It might even be true, but Toronto lost a home game to Philadelphia and a road game to Miami before beating Houston and having two games postponed. Pretty much every sentiment from a week ago still applies.
12. New York Knicks (18-17, Last week — 15th)
Depending on which predictive metrics you trust, there is some statistical skepticism about the Knicks. At the very least, they can enjoy the end of the first half and the All-Star break in great position, and New York is in great shape.
13. San Antonio Spurs (17-13, Last week — 9th)
The Spurs have played three games in the last two-plus weeks. Two of them were decided by three points, and the other was decided in overtime after Dejounte Murray made a wild play. Let’s just wait for some more information here.
14. Portland Trail Blazers (19-14, Last week — 12th)
Portland stopped the bleeding of a four-game losing streak with a solid home win over Charlotte on Monday. That avoided a deeper fall in the pecking order, but they were due for some regression after a wild run of wins to reach 18-10 overall.
15. Golden State Warriors (19-16, Last week — 16th)
If you fly too close to the sun, you might focus on the Warriors getting boatraced by the Lakers on national TV over the weekend. I’ll simply point out that the Warriors won the three previous games and, contrary to the product they put on the floor in Los Angeles, Golden State is good on defense.
16. Boston Celtics (17-17, Last week — 19th)
Boston suffered a pretty embarrassing loss to Atlanta mid-week, with the Hawks making a franchise-record 23 three-pointers in the process. To their credit, the Celtics recovered with back-to-back wins, and they have two intriguing games before the break against the Clippers and Raptors.
17. Memphis Grizzlies (15-15, Last week — 21st)
The Grizzlies played three games this week. They won the first by 28. They lost the second by 20. They won the third by 49 (!). I don’t know what to take from that, but Memphis is .500 and that’s a win given their available roster.
18. Indiana Pacers (15-18, Last week — 11th)
It was not a good week for the Pacers with four consecutive losses. None of them were too brutal, with the exception of Monday in Philadelphia, but Indiana is effectively a .500 team by the metrics. That isn’t what anyone wanted, even when acknowledging the absence of TJ Warren and Caris LeVert.
19. Washington Wizards (13-19, Last week — 18th)
Washington is one of the more difficult teams in the league to evaluate right now. They are undeniably playing better after winning seven of the last nine games, and their offense looks great on some nights. On others, the defense is tough to overlook, and their level of play has been… inconsistent. Of course, they are 1.5 games out of the play-in after the terrible start, and that probably feels good in the nation’s capital.
20. Chicago Bulls (15-18, Last week — 17th)
The Bulls are generally on the upswing and that doesn’t change after a 1-2 week that featured losses to Phoenix and Denver. Chicago finishes up the first half in New Orleans on Wednesday, and that will be an interesting stylistic battle.
21. Charlotte Hornets (16-18, Last week — 22nd)
Charlotte has alternated wins and losses in every game since Feb. 8. In the East, that’s pretty much all you need to do, but it’s tough to make sweeping statements other than “LaMelo Ball is good and fun.”
22. New Orleans Pelicans (15-19, Last week — 23rd)
If you catch them on the wrong night, the Pelicans are unwatchable defensively. It’s truly terrible. With that said, Zion Williamson is must-see TV and he’s shooting a comical 61 percent from the floor. New Orleans just beat Utah by bludgeoning the rim the entire game, and they can really put on a show when it’s going well.
23. Oklahoma City Thunder (14-20, Last week — 25th)
Looking at OKC’s peripherals isn’t fun. They aren’t good. Yet, the Thunder just went 2-1 in a week again, beating Atlanta and San Antonio in the process. They also play a fun style and play hard. It’s a good start to the rebuild, even with more losses than wins.
24. Cleveland Cavaliers (14-21, Last week — 30th)
A week ago, things were truly dire in Cleveland after 10 straight losses. Now, the Cavaliers are (somehow) riding a four-game winning streak. They still have the worst net rating (-8.2) in the NBA, and it would be unwise to overreact in a positive direction, but it was a heck of a week for the Cavs. Shouts to Lamar Stevens.
25. Atlanta Hawks (14-20, Last week — 20th)
Atlanta finished February with a 4-11 mark that featured a handful of maddening defeats. On March 1, they fired head coach Lloyd Pierce as a result. It will be interesting to see what the Nate McMillan era looks like for the Hawks, but first, they will need to get their wings healthy again.
26. Orlando Magic (13-22, Last week — 24th)
While the Cavs were flipping the script in a positive direction, the Magic did the opposite. Orlando went 0-4 after a previous winning stretch, and this feels like the landing spot. Nikola Vucevic keeps rolling, but that’s about it.
27. Sacramento Kings (13-21, Last week — 26th)
Sacramento is 1-10 in the last 11 games and allowing almost 125 points per contest, including a mind-numbing collapse to the Hornets on Sunday. The Kings have the worst defensive rating (118.7) in the league and it’s not close. Their prize is a home date with the Lakers on Wednesday. That’s not what you want after a lengthy period of shaky play.
28. Detroit Pistons (9-25, Last week — 28th)
I continue to think the Pistons aren’t as bad as their record. After 34 games, their record still matters, and Detroit has dropped six of the last seven. It wasn’t as if the win was overly impressive, either, as the Pistons split a two-game set with the 26th-ranked Magic.
29. Houston Rockets (11-22, Last week — 27th)
Houston probably “deserves” to be No. 30 this week. The Rockets haven’t won a game since Feb. 4, losing 12 games in a row. They are dead-last in offense during that stretch (by a lot), with no real end in sight. It is almost unthinkable that they were 11-10 before this downturn, but they were.
30. Minnesota Timberwolves (7-28, Last week — 29th)
The Wolves were 29th after firing their coach and flailing last week. From there, Minnesota lost all four games this week, and they have the worst record in the league by 2.5 games. It could certainly be argued the Wolves aren’t in the worst organizational spot, but they are not very good right now.