The New York Knicks have defied all expectations set for them this season, going from a team that was anticipated to finish in the bottom Eastern Conference to a team that is now flirting with home court advantage in the first round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs.
How many people would have told you the Knicks would own the same record as the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers with only four games remaining in the season?
Ahead of a highly anticipated playoff push, our NBA.com Staff plays a game of "Fact or Fiction" to answer four burning questions surrounding the legitimacy of the Knicks.
Julius Randle is an All-NBA forward this season
Kyle Irving (@KyleIrv_): Fact. We already discussed this one in a separate article last week, but I truly believe Randle is closer to All-NBA Second Team than he is missing an All-NBA team altogether. After Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard, I don't think there's another forward that deserves it more than Randle.
LeBron James and Kevin Durant are the first two that come to mind, but they've both missed significant time while Randle has played in all but one game this season, leading the entire league in minutes played and minutes per game. He's averaging career-highs across the board, he's this season's Most Improved Player and his leadership has the Knicks defying all odds, looking like a certified playoff team.
If that's not an All-NBA-calibre season, I don't know what is.
Kane Pitman (@KanePitman): Fact. As always, there will be some questionable positional designations that may impact where Randle fits in the All-NBA picture but he simply has to be there.
There are two players in the entire NBA averaging 20 points, 10 rebounds and five assists while shooting over 40 percent from three in 2020-21. One of them is the likely MVP in Nikola Jokic. The other is Randle.
Benyam Kidane (@BenyamKidane): Fact. Randle's individual numbers speak for themself putting him among the league's elite forwards, but the fact his play is resulting in wins for the Knicks makes the case for me. Let's not forget their pre-season projected win total was 21.5 games, per Basketball Reference.
Yash Matange (@yashmatange2694): Fact. I think Kyle mentions the most important point on Randle's case which is averaging career-highs across the board while playing all but one game of the season so far whereas multiple other perennial All-NBA players like Anthony Davis or the duo of James and KD, although talented, have missed too many games to be considered ahead of Randle.
Availability is the best ability and Randle has been the focal point of the Knicks' turnaround this season. With Randle, it's more about which All-NBA team he gets voted to rather than whether or not he gets the selection.
The Knicks will win a playoff series
Irving: This is a tough one to answer without their first-round opponent set in stone, but I'm going to go fiction.
The Knicks are one of the best defensive teams in the NBA and I truly believe they'll scrap any playoff series they take part in to at least six games. With that being said, if Randle or RJ Barrett don't have it going on a given night, who will they rely on to go get a bucket in a big game? The first name that comes to mind is Derrick Rose, who is more than capable of stepping up, but in lining up some of their potential first-round matchups, the Atlanta Hawks, Miami Heat or Boston Celtics all have more firepower than New York.
I think the Knicks are more likely to defeat Atlanta than Miami or Boston, but even the Hawks have a number of weapons at their disposal which may have New York struggling to keep up.
Pitman: If it's Atlanta it's fact. If it's Miami it's fiction.
I'm not sure that type of hedge is legal in this game but I'm sticking with it. The Heat and Hawks are tied in the standings at the time of filing this with each having four games to play in the regular season.
Kidane: The Knicks winning a playoff series in the year 2021? Big facts. I'm basing a lot of this on their defensive ability and the coaching of Tom Thibodeau. That matters in the postseason when you have time to scout and game plan for the same opponent in the pursuit of four wins.
As Kyle and Kane said, matchups will be the key here and as it stands, they're likely to play the Hawks in the first round, who they went 3-0 against this season. Miami presents a different set of problems if they sneak into the fifth seed, but I'm all aboard the Knicks bandwagon.
Matange: Fiction. Despite their success, they are fairly inexperienced when it comes to the postseason. Unless they match up against the Hawks, I don't have the Knicks winning a series.
However, that shouldn't be considered be a failure. Making the postseason is in itself a step forward since it would be their first appearance since 2013, ending the third-longest active drought in the NBA after the Phoenix Suns (who also snapped in 2021) and Sacramento Kings.
The Knicks can win multiple playoff series
Irving: Fiction. Even if they get past their first-round opponent, it's looking like the Knicks will be faced with the Philadelphia 76ers in the second round. Defending Joel Embiid is a tall task for any of New York's bigs, Ben Simmons is a matchup problem and Tobias Harris is that third option that the Knicks don't have offensively.
I think regardless of how their first round pans out, the Knicks' season comes to a close in the second round at the latest.
Pitman: Fiction. We're getting a little ahead of ourselves here but funnily enough, as Kyle mentions above, the Knicks would likely face the Sixers in this scenario who would actually be the best matchup of the East's big three to give them an outside chance of an upset.
On one hand, the Sixers have beaten the Knicks a staggering 15 times in a row, but on the other hand, the average combined point total in the three meetings between the two teams this season has been 196. The matchup pits two top-five defences and two genuine middle-of-the-pack offences against each other. You figure Joel Embiid overwhelms New York over seven games but this would have the potential of being a pretty dour battle.
Kidane: The Knicks bandwagon realistically only has the legs to make it to the second round, so I've gotta go fiction here.
With Philly on the horizon, that doesn't bode well for New York. Ben Simmons is a perfect 14-0 against the Knicks in his career.
I don't think he'll want to start in the post-season. Sure, they could bring that record to an end and steal a game, but beating the 76ers four times just isn't something I can see.
Matange: Fiction. Something has to give for the Knicks to win not one but multiple series like a key player's absence for their opponents but I don't see that happening two series in a row.
The Knicks' success is here to stay
Irving: Fact. And I couldn't be more confident in saying that.
This Knicks team isn't just lightning in a bottle. They have an identity and young talent, and I believe they've once again become a legitimate destination for players in free agency or via trade. Head coach Tom Thibodeau has made his impact on the franchise, turning New York into a defensive juggernaut. Between Randle and Barrett, it has two promising pieces in place to build around and it will be interesting to see if they can recruit a third player to take this team to the next level.
The Knicks are back.
Pitman: Fiction. The emergence of Randle seemingly changes everything. With a potential perennial All-Star already on the roster, major cap space and a head coach that has got buy-in from the young players on the roster, the Knicks appear set for a lengthy stay in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
The Knicks success should be here to stay, but it's also the Knicks and I've yet to see this franchise capitalise on a situation like this in my lifetime. As a pure basketball fan, there is nothing better than listening to Mike Breen call a New York game in front of an electric Madison Square Garden crowd. I actually want this one to be fact, but this has been such a weird regular season, I just want to see a little more evidence on the table before I follow Kyle's lead and say the Knicks are back.
Kidane: The Knicks are back! Fact.
Not only do they have some solid building blocks in Julius Randle and RJ Barrett, intriguing young talent in Immanuel Quickley, Mitchell Robinson and Obi Toppin, the Knicks have positioned themselves for long-term success with some savvy moves from the front office.
They own the rights to seven first-round draft picks over the next five years, 11 second-round picks over the next six years and a clean cap sheet with $60 million available this upcoming off-season. With that kind of draft capital and the free agency lure of New York, they're in a strong position to bolster the roster with elite talent and continue their rise in the Eastern Conference.
Matange: Fact. The reason for the optimism surrounding the Knicks is not just their present success, but also how they are stacked moving forward.
They've got Randle locked up on a contract year at $19.8 million, a bargain, given his level of performance this season. Including him, they just have about $52 million in guaranteed money, which gives them nearly $50 million in cap space. Not to mention their draft capital going forward, which stands at a maximum of 12 picks over the next three Draft including possibly six in the first round.
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