Do you want to get weird? Like, the levels of bizarre that only a Chris Duhon 20-assist performance can top? The New York Knicks can lead you there.
But first, let us trek through the mundane.
Cliches offering advice on how to win a title are scattered throughout NBA discourse. Defense wins championships. You need toughness. But you also have to be able to score when the game slows down. Oh, and you’ve got to employ a top-five player, as well. If not, then you need two top-10 ones. Or maybe three top-20 ones.
Put all that advice together, and what do you learn? That the best team in the NBA has to guard well, defend well, and have elite players. Great squads are balanced.
Congrats on the life lessons.
Such groundbreaking information has led to common practice. Want to identify teams that could make a run this spring? Find ones that are good to excellent on both sides of the ball.
Until last season, finishing inside the top 11 in both offensive and defensive efficiency (points scored/allowed per possession) may as well have been a prerequisite for winning a title.
That cutoff sounds gerrymandered (what contrarian thinks in a base-11 system?), but it’s not. There’s something about getting into the top 11 on both sides that vaults a team to contender status. When the 2021-22 Golden State Warriors (whose offense was run-of-the-mill during the regular season) won it all, they snapped a streak of 17 consecutive champs who infiltrated the top 11 of both offensive and defensive efficiency. During that nearly two-decade stretch, four title teams had an offense or defense that finished exactly 11th in the NBA.
But no eventual champ sunk to 12th — lord forbid worse.
The Warriors are the exact type of team to be the exception. Liken it to when the Los Angeles Lakers repeated in 2001, despite a bottom-10 regular-season defense. Golden State already had three rings and a returning Klay Thompson. They knew they had an on-switch.
So, let’s live in the same reality that’s proven true for nearly 20 years: If you want a chance at jewelry, then you must creep into the top 11 on offense and defense.
And now, we get to the kooky part.
Heading into Wednesday’s action, only five teams occupied the top 11 in both offense and defense: the Boston Celtics, who own the best record in the NBA; the Brooklyn Nets, who have the second best; the Cleveland Cavaliers, who match elite scoring guards with physical paint presences; the New Orleans Pelicans, who are one game out of first in the Western Conference; and those pesky Knicks, who are vying for home-court advantage …
… in the Play-In Tournament.
The league’s per-possession data stretches back to the 1996-97 season. Dating back to then, the Knicks have never come close to finishing in the top 11 on both sides of the ball.
So, what is happening here?
Let’s be clear about one thing: this is not a passive attempt to whisper that the Knicks are sneakily in the land of the elite for the first time since Patrick Ewing. It’s not like they’re dominant on either side. They’re 11th in offensive and seventh in defensive efficiency. Forgettable teams have done this before. A few years back, the Oklahoma City Thunder finished inside the top 11 on offense and defense, yet failed to win 50 games or even a playoff series. But at least they won 48. Historically, if a group is this balanced, it doesn’t flicker the way New York does.
The Knicks are doing the most normal thing possible, winning about as many games as they lose, in the strangest way, which means it’s time to ask a different version of the same question we’ve pondered since autumn:
Who the heck are the Knicks? Because even if they remain eighth in the Eastern Conference for the rest of the season, they’re not your regular, middle-of-the-pack squad.
Are they the team that gave up 145 points at home to the Oklahoma City Thunder? Are they the one that followed that home loss with wins in Utah and Denver? Are they the one that blew that heartbreaking game to the Dallas Mavericks (and no, there is no need to specify which one)?
Are they the one that won eight in a row? Or the one that lost five in a row? Or the one that has won two since?
Are they the team that’s treading around .500, as was expected, sitting at 20-18 and inside the Play-In Tournament picture? Or might they be due for a run?
“That’s what you strive for. … You want to be strong on both sides of the ball,” Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau said. “From the start of training camp, if you studied the numbers every day and then looked at the film, you would see that OK, defensively, there’s a lot of good things that are going on. Offensively, it’s always been good. … We’re moving without the ball. We’re screening off the ball. So, I think all those things factor into it.”
But what does this mean for the final 44 games? Or even just the next five weeks? The trade deadline is almost a month away. Whatever the organization makes of this trend will color how it operates come Feb. 9.
This front office has shown it won’t make an impulse trade that compromises the future. It values draft picks and young players, which is exactly why none of them play for the Utah Jazz. But there is an in-between. Could the Knicks convince themselves they’re a marginal upgrade away from, say, ensuring a rise above the Play-In Tournament? And if they do, is that something they’d even want? The East has a strong top five that would be difficult to topple no matter what in-season moves they try.
The next five weeks could go various ways.
The Knicks could continue to win as they have for the past month, over which they’re 10-5. They’ve found their equilibrium: sixth in the NBA in points per possession and second in points allowed per possession over this 15-game stretch. Julius Randle could continue his All-Star-level play. Mitchell Robinson could dominate the paint. The guards could keep pestering on the perimeter. If so, the team will have two months of evidence that it really may be one of the league’s five most-balanced teams.
The Knicks also could collapse in on themselves. We’ve seen it before, like during the five-game losing streak. The young performers who seem like up-and-comers today could fall flat as they play more. Randle’s hot streak could prove to be just that. Even with the recent injuries, they’ve been one of the healthiest teams in the NBA. Maybe they don’t get so lucky in January. If they drop below .500, certainly the front office will know not to make a present-looking trade.
But there’s another, less extreme way the Knicks could go through January.
They could continue to hover around .500, even if we have no idea how they’ll do it.
It feels like they’ve played multiple seasons within this one. There was the season when Evan Fournier was starting. There was the one when Cam Reddish was starting. There was the one when neither could get onto the court under any circumstances. Maybe a fourth season presents itself in a week or two or three.
The Knicks couldn’t corral defensive rebounds in November but grabbed more than anyone in December. They once played fast; now they’re smashmouth. For the first month and a half of the season, they owned a bottom-five defense. For the past month, they’re in the top five.
The flipping and flopping might just be part of their character. Maybe the Knicks continue to be the NBA’s most unpredictable, yet predictable team, navigating the season as if they typed a 41-41 record into a GPS that keeps leading them onto service roads.
And yet, many of the peripherals could continue to say they are better than mediocre. If the Knicks are top 11 in offense and defense 38 games in, why couldn’t they still be there a few weeks from now, especially considering eight of their next 10 games come against teams currently below .500?
How might that affect their deadline philosophy or, if they remain in the top half of the league on both sides of the ball for the rest of the season, their offseason one? Might they believe they’re better than the winning percentage shows?
This team owns the NBA’s eighth-best point differential per 100 possessions — directly ahead of the Mavericks, Denver Nuggets and Milwaukee Bucks. That’s impressive company. The Knicks could convince themselves they’re better than 20-18, that if three plays over 38 games go differently — if Luka Dončić fails to snag one offensive rebound, if one DeMar DeRozan jumper hits the back of the rim, if one Jalen Brunson floater goes in against the Portland Trail Blazers — then they’re 23-15. Or they could move on unperturbed knowing that this is life in the NBA.
Fortunately for them, Leon Rose & Co. don’t have to make any grand decisions today, which means that for now they can act like the rest of us, marveling over just how unpredictable this predictable season has become.
(Photo of Mitchell Robinson and Julius Randle: Nathaniel S. Butler / NBAE via Getty Images)