With Mitchell Robinson back and Josh Hart in the mix, there’s no doubt the Knicks are better. What’s a realistic seed for the orange and blue?
At 36-27, the Knicks have been absolutely humming as of late and the aura and buzz surrounding this team are like nothing we’ve seen in the last decade-plus. Locally, the passion and attention to the ‘Bockers are always cranked up, regardless of their record, but now we are seeing the Knicks get some love on the national stage, as they continue to string together victories and learn how to win. Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle have been garnering the majority of headlines, but beyond that, this team is stacked with young talent and has been well-coached throughout the year.
Recently, the Knicks got their star big man back in Mitchell Robinson and also did some wheeling and dealing at the deadline, acquiring Josh Hart from the Portland Trail Blazers. We all know what Mitch brings to the table and it is evident that Hart has been a huge positive, as the Knicks have yet to lose with the former Villanova Wildcat on the roster. Robinson and Hart aren’t number one, two, or even three options on this team, but have been (re)integrated seamlessly into the roster and have and will continue to provide a huge boost to a Knicks team already headed in the right direction before they returned/arrived.
Toughness is often overstated in today’s NBA which leans more on finesse and skill rather than brute force, but Robinson and Hart do bring an edge, especially defensively, that can’t help but remind you of older Knicks teams who were uber-successful. The element of grit that these two bring perfectly complements Brunson, IQ, etc. who bring more talent to the table compared to raw toughness. Just how far can these new-look Knicks go?
Mitch Down the Stretch
Late last week, the Knicks got starting center Mitchell Robinson back from a thumb injury that sidelined him for over a month. Since returning, the 24-year-old has made a noticeable positive impact, logging a double-double in all four games since he’s returned on a whopping 21 of 22 from the field, per ESPN Stats. Aside from the box score, Mitch brings a whole different dimension to the Knicks, one that was sorely missed while he was sidelined. His ability to alter shots and make life difficult for opponents in the paint on both ends of the floor is something that is often overlooked in today’s run-and-gun NBA, but when watching the Knicks play night in and night out, you understand how important Robinson is to the team’s success.
Robinson’s return to the lineup feels like a prime trade deadline acquisition for the stretch run, based on the timing of it. The one concern that’s always in the back of Knicks fans’ heads about Robinson is his availability. The oft-injured center has struggled in his career to stay healthy and you can’t help but worry about his body holding up for the remainder of the season. Looking ahead, Robinson’s presence, specifically on the defensive end, is enormous against other Eastern Conference bigs who the Knicks could potentially face in the playoffs.
Whether it’s Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bam Adebayo or Clint Capela, there are plenty of formidable frontcourt powerhouses in the East that the Knicks will likely have to go through in order to advance in the postseason. Having Mitch healthy and on the court is an underrated but huge factor in if New York can make some noise going forward. In only four games since his return, we’ve already seen Mitch match up well against Williams on Monday and Pelicans center Jonas Valanciunas prior to that. We’ve also seen him absolutely deny Jayson Tatum at the rim in one of the more impressive rejections we’ve seen this season.
Now onto the Knicks’ actual trade deadline acquisition, Josh Hart. Hart, since his arrival in the Big Apple, has been outstanding in seven games, scoring 12.4 points on an insane 60% from behind the arc, per ESPN Stats. Hart, who has always been a decent shooter and offensive player, has exploded, especially in the clutch for the Knicks, becoming a huge factor towards the end of games. The 6’4″ guard just feels like belongs in New York and his impact cannot be understated. Having a veteran three-and-D guy on the roster during the playoff chase and into the playoffs, assuming the Knicks get there, is very important. We often see young guys shrink in the postseason and veterans thrive. Not to say that guys like Immanuel Quickley, Quentin Grimes, etc. would falter in the playoffs, but having a versatile veteran presence who has winning DNA can be the difference in a win or a loss in a tight game against a quality opponent.
“YOU’RE OUTTA HERE!!” pic.twitter.com/Xlk4tzB5Z4— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) February 28, 2023
Hart is also an emotional leader who does not have it in him to back down from a pressure situation. He’s one of those guys you trust will make the right play, despite not being one of the stars of the team. Like Robinson, Hart’s presence has been felt early and I fully expect that to continue in the remaining 19 games, although, sadly I don’t think over 60% from the field is sustainable.
With the Knicks in sole possession of the fifth seed and the Brooklyn Nets and Miami Heat in the rearview mirror, all eyes are now on jumping the Cavs to get into the fourth spot. It’s fair to say that the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks are the unquestioned classes of the East and likely won’t be caught by anyone including the Knicks for the top two spots. The Philadelphia 76ers aren’t elite and are within striking distance of the Knicks, but a 4.5-game gap will be tough to close with the number of games remaining.
Right now, I think it is realistic that the Knicks find themselves right in the middle of the playoff seeds and don’t slide too far up or down from where they currently are. The Nets are no longer what they used to be after a total tear-down, so the threat of them overtaking the Knicks in the standings is slim to none. Miami, who the Knicks play twice down the stretch, is an extremely well-run organization with talent in Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro and is probably a top two-three coached team in the NBA. If the Knicks come down to earth and the Heat begins to get healthy, I think the sixth seed is a possibility.
In conclusion, I believe the Knicks avoid the play-in tournament and finish at five, also (luckily) avoiding a Boston or Milwaukee first-round showdown.