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Kram Session: The Knicks’ New Ceiling, a Fake Thunder Trade, and More

Plus, we examine the league’s conference imbalance, a pair of intriguing rotation questions at the top of the East, and other buzz as the trade deadline approaches

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Each Thursday of the NBA season, we’re analyzing a grab bag of topics from around the league. This week, we’re diving deep into the surging New York Knicks, devising a fake star trade for the Oklahoma City Thunder, analyzing upcoming rotation decisions for the Cleveland Cavaliers and Milwaukee Bucks, and more. This is the Kram Session.

Under Review: The Best Knicks Team in 30 Years?

What is the best New York Knicks team since the one that lost Game 7 of the 1994 Finals? Maybe you think it’s one of Patrick Ewing’s other mid-’90s squads that was eliminated from the playoffs in heartbreaking fashion. Following 1993-94, the Knicks lost in the East’s second round four years in a row.

Maybe your mind turns to the 1999 Knicks, who reached the Finals as a no. 8 seed—though they finished just 27-23 in a shortened regular season.

Or maybe, more recently, you recall the 2012-13 squad that so delighted Madison Square Garden en route to winning 54 games and the East’s no. 2 seed. Carmelo Anthony won the scoring title and finished third in MVP voting, the Knicks led the league in 3-pointers, and the franchise won a playoff series for the first time since 1999-00. But the East was incredibly weak that season behind the 66-win Heat, and the Knicks themselves were too imbalanced to reach the Finals, ranking only 15th in defensive rating, according to Cleaning the Glass.

The answer is actually none of the above. It’s the 2023-24 Knicks, who just tore through the league in January, who hold an eight-game win streak, who now rank fourth in net rating and seventh on both offense and defense, according to CtG. Basketball Reference tracks a stat called simple rating system (SRS), which adjusts a team’s point differential for strength of schedule. The current Knicks squad ranks as the best in 30 years by SRS, and fifth overall in the franchise’s long history; the four Knicks teams that ranked higher all reached the conference finals at minimum.

Best Knicks Teams Ever, by Simple Rating System

Season SRS Result
Season SRS Result
1969-70 8.42 Won championship
1993-94 6.48 Lost Finals
1972-73 6.07 Won championship
1992-93 5.87 Lost conference finals
2023-24 5.57 ???
1968-69 5.48 Lost conference finals
1970-71 5.05 Lost conference finals
1952-53 4.39 Lost Finals
1983-84 3.79 Lost second round
2012-13 3.73 Lost second round

The 2023-24 Knicks aren’t at that point yet, but they’ve given themselves a legitimate chance to experience such playoff success. When they traded Immanuel Quickley, RJ Barrett, and a draft pick for OG Anunoby, Precious Achiuwa, and Malachi Flynn at the end of December, the Knicks were in eighth place in the East. Now they’re in third, and even if they might not equal the 2012-13 team’s 54 wins in a more competitive conference, they might match its spot in the standings.

As of Wednesday, the projection systems at both Basketball-Reference and Dunks & Threes project the 2023-24 Knicks to finish with the East’s no. 2 seed. However, they foresee a very tight race behind Boston, with the Knicks, Bucks, 76ers, and Cavaliers all bunched between 51 and 53 projected wins, and the Knicks could be hard-pressed to maintain their pace given recent injuries, most notably Julius Randle’s dislocated shoulder.

If they can get healthy, though, they have considerably more potential with Anunoby in the frontcourt than they did before adding the 3-and-D wing. Since Anunoby played his first game as a Knick on January 1, New York ranks first in record (14-2), first in net rating (plus-15.8), and first in defensive rating (104.4), with only a sixth-place offensive mark (120.2) preventing a clean sweep. The month went so well that even curmudgeonly Tom Thibodeau is full of laughs and smiles.

The Knicks didn’t amass those numbers by feasting on the dregs of the league, either. They recently beat the Heat and crushed the Nuggets by 38 points. They outlasted the Timberwolves and blew out the healthy 76ers by 36 in Philadelphia. And Jalen Brunson didn’t play in one of their two losses in January.

New York’s roster is deep, physical, and suffused with a most Thibodeaun identity. Although Randle bounced back from a terrible start to the season and Brunson has continued to improve, notably by boosting his 3-point volume, this is still only an average first-chance offensive team. The Knicks rank 15th in points per half-court play, according to CtG, and they’re merely middling in transition.

But they compensate by mauling opponents on the glass and scoring the second-most second-chance points in the league. This wasn’t just a one-man Mitchell Robinson show, although he was the most prolific rebounder in the league before his ankle injury. The springy center played his last game on December 8, and the Knicks still rank first in offensive rebounding rate since then, per CtG. They’re also second in defensive rebounding rate this season and have collected a whopping 103 more offensive boards than their opponents.

Isaiah Hartenstein has stepped in ably for the injured Robinson. A longtime favorite of advanced stats, the former Clippers backup has blossomed with greater playing time in New York. Estimated plus-minus ranks him as a top-30 player overall this season; box plus-minus places him in the top 50.

And Anunoby has filled the remaining gaps in New York’s starting lineup, serving as both a versatile defensive linchpin and a reliable shooter on the other end. Single-game plus-minus isn’t a very representative stat—but it does seem notable that Anunoby has a positive plus-minus in every game with his new team thus far.

However, Anunoby has missed the past two games with an elbow injury, and the Knicks face other health concerns as well. Robinson might be out for the rest of the season, and Randle is out for a few weeks at least. It would be a shame—and, tragically, all too fitting for the franchise—if the best Knicks team in 30 years were derailed by injuries.

Another bigger-picture concern for New York is the drastic split between its performance by opponent quality. The Knicks are 22-1 against teams with losing records, versus just 9-16 against teams that are .500 or better. The gap between those two winning percentages is 59.7 percentage points, which—if the season ended today—would be the largest for any team dating back to at least 1983-84 (the start of 16-team playoffs).

Teams that have dominated inferior competition but struggled against better opponents don’t tend to advance far in the playoffs. Out of the 100 teams since 1983-84 with the largest differential between their records against good and bad teams, only two reached the conference finals.

Playoff Results for 100 Teams With Largest Differentials by Opponent Record

Result Number of Teams
Result Number of Teams
Missed playoffs 44
Lost first round 40
Lost second round 14
Lost conference finals 1
Lost Finals 1
Won championship 0
Since 1983-84. Differentials are calculated by subtracting winning percentage against opponents with .500 record or better, from winning percentage against opponents with losing records.

The team in that sample that made the longest playoff run was, incidentally, the 1993-94 Knicks, who went 30-2 against bad teams and 27-23 against good teams. More broadly, only two teams since 1983-84 have won the title despite a losing regular-season mark against opponents with winning records: the 1994-95 Rockets (41 percent win rate against good teams) and 2005-06 Heat (48 percent).

But at least since the Anunoby acquisition, the Knicks don’t seem like the stereotypical “good bad” team. It’s hard to watch them blow out opponents like the Nuggets and 76ers and not believe in their ability to win multiple playoff series.

Further activity before the trade deadline could help the Knicks take that next step. They still have the assets for a major swing—they held on to all their future first-round picks in the Anunoby deal—but it’s unlikely a player worth that haul is available over the next week.

Yet at the very least, the Knicks could use another creator, especially with Randle out. Since Quickley departed, the offense has struggled with Deuce McBride running the show as Brunson’s new backup (a 109.7 offensive rating with McBride at point guard, per CtG). Playmakers like Malcolm Brogdon, Tyus Jones, or Bruce Brown would provide an upgrade.

Compared to the usual problems that have plagued New York over the past three decades, though, a shaky bench spot is such a minor concern. These Knicks have a star point guard, a fleet of productive role players, and an optimistic future. This isn’t a flukish hot streak; the Knicks are a force with staying power, and a reason for newfound MSG exuberance.

Zacht of the Week: The Worst Loss of the Season

While most of the sports-viewing public watched the AFC championship game on Sunday, the most surprising game of the NBA season unfolded in Detroit. A healthy Thunder squad with the best record in the West visited a Cade Cunningham–less Pistons team with the worst record in the East. And behind a 22-point, 21-rebound effort from Jalen Duren, the Pistons won! By 16 points! They held their biggest fourth-quarter lead of the entire season, and secured their first victory over an opponent with a winning record!

The Pistons aren’t the league’s only terrible team this season; they’re one of five, actually, along with the Wizards, Spurs, Hornets, and Trail Blazers. Against the other 25 teams, that quintet is a combined 32-168—which converts to a 13-69 record over 82 games—with a minus-11.1 point differential.

But even those scant 32 wins had to claim some victims, like the Thunder on Sunday. Here are the loss totals against this frightful fivesome for the league’s other 25 teams:

0 losses: Knicks, Mavericks, Heat, Warriors, Clippers, Magic, Pelicans, Nuggets

1 loss: 76ers, Bucks, Bulls, Jazz, Thunder, Cavaliers, Lakers, Celtics

2 losses: Hawks, Timberwolves, Kings, Rockets, Grizzlies

3 losses: Suns, Raptors

4 losses: Pacers, Nets

These missed opportunities to rack up wins could cost championship hopefuls this spring. Every game counts in the crowded middle of the standings, especially as the play-in format places more cutoff points in the standings.

The Suns, for instance, have three losses against this quintet: one against the Trail Blazers and two in consecutive home games against the Spurs. Right now, the Suns are only one game clear of the play-in portion of the Western standings, but they’d be four away if they hadn’t dropped those gimmes. In the East, the Pacers—who might be more vulnerable against bad teams because of their generous defense—could face the same problem if they fall into the play-in round because they were swept in their season series by the Blazers.

These bad losses could matter to teams at the top of the standings, too. Before the Thunder thudded in Detroit, the Timberwolves lost to both Charlotte (in Karl-Anthony Towns’s 62-point game) and San Antonio last week. Imagine if Oklahoma City or Minnesota finishes behind the Nuggets or Clippers, and therefore loses home-court advantage in the postseason, because of those defeats; Denver and L.A. are a combined 13-0 against the dregs thus far.

Fake Trade of the Week: The Thunder Shoot for the Stars

I’ve tried to be measured and reasonable with the trades I propose in this section. Last week, I sent Malcolm Brogdon to New York to shore up the Knicks backcourt; a week earlier, I bolstered the 76ers’ wing depth with Gordon Hayward.

But with the deadline now just a week away, and with the biggest names either already traded (OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam) or largely uninspiring and discussed ad nauseam (Dejounte Murray, Zach LaVine), I’ve decided to propose a blockbuster this week. This trade probably won’t happen—but it should, and it would shake up the title race if it did.

To Thunder: Mikal Bridges

To Nets: Davis Bertans, Ousmane Dieng, five future first-round picks

The Nets reportedly want to keep and build around Bridges, so it would take a considerable overpay for a contender to pry him free. Luckily for the Thunder, all of Sam Presti’s dealing has left them capable of making such an offer—they could trade five firsts for Bridges and still have a surplus in the coming years. (This hypothetical also includes Bertans as a salary match and an intriguing young player in Dieng, who fills the role that Ochai Agbaji and Walker Kessler played in the Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert deals, respectively.)

The Thunder hold 15 first-round picks between now and 2030, including 11 over the next four drafts: their own, plus picks from the Rockets, Jazz, Clippers, Heat, 76ers, and Nuggets. They can’t possibly use them all, because of both roster size limits and their need for players who are ready to help a contender right away. So the question Presti must answer is when to trade some of them, and for whom.

Some analysts think the Thunder need another center—a reasonable opinion, given that the team ranks 28th in offensive rebounding rate and 29th in defensive boards, per CtG. But moving Chet Holmgren to power forward would dilute some of the two-way advantages and flexibility he gives Oklahoma City, while a deal for a backup center isn’t the needle-mover we’re searching for, so I’d prefer Presti to chase another big wing instead.

In that vein, Bridges would be a perfect supplementary player for this roster. He’s signed to an incredibly team-friendly contract ($21.7 million this season, with two more years for $48.2 million after) given his skill set, as he’s both a lockdown defender and secondary creator with further room for growth. Imagine a Thunder lineup with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Bridges, Lu Dort, Jalen Williams, and Holmgren—a perfect balance of multilevel scoring and dominant defense. That group could win the West this year.

Also, if this trade actually happened, the Nets would have effectively traded Kevin Durant for nine firsts: four alone (plus a swap and Cam Johnson) in the initial Durant trade, then five more for Bridges.

Take That for Data: The West Is Best—but Not in the Usual Way

The conferences seem imbalanced again—a feeling affirmed by the absurd depth of worthy All-Star candidates in the West, versus the relative paucity outside the top eight or so in the East. Western teams have combined for 31 more wins than Eastern ones this season, a return to form after Eastern teams won more collective games than Western ones in each of the last two seasons, following decades of Western dominance.

But the manner in which the West is better than the East is different than in past seasons—with important ramifications for both the trade deadline and postseason. The Western Conference has typically been better, top to bottom. A decade ago, for instance, the no. 1 team in the West finished with six more wins than the no. 1 team in the East. The West’s no. 2 had five more wins than the East’s no. 2. The West’s no. 3 had nine more wins than the East’s no. 3. And so on, for all 15 spots in the standings.

That’s not the case this season. This chart compares the current conference standings, seed by seed—notice that there’s actually no difference between the combined records of the top six teams in each conference. It’s just that the teams in the play-in spots and below are much worse in the East.

East vs. West, Seed by Seed

Seed East (Record) West (Record) Advantage Cumulative Advantage
Seed East (Record) West (Record) Advantage Cumulative Advantage
1 Celtics (37-11) Timberwolves (34-14) East by 3 East by 3
2 Bucks (32-16) Thunder (33-15) West by 1 East by 2
3 Knicks (31-17) Clippers (31-15) West by 1 East by 1
4 Cavaliers (29-16) Nuggets (33-16) West by 2 West by 1
5 76ers (29-17) Kings (27-19) East by 2 East by 1
6 Pacers (27-21) Suns (28-20) West by 1 Tied
7 Heat (25-23) Pelicans (27-21) West by 2 West by 2
8 Magic (25-23) Mavericks (26-22) West by 1 West by 3
9 Bulls (23-26) Lakers (24-25) West by 1 West by 4
10 Hawks (20-27) Jazz (24-25) West by 3 West by 7
11 Nets (19-28) Rockets (22-25) West by 3 West by 10
12 Raptors (17-30) Warriors (20-24) West by 4.5 West by 14.5
13 Hornets (10-36) Grizzlies (18-29) West by 7.5 West by 22
14 Wizards (9-38) Trail Blazers (15-33) West by 5.5 West by 27.5
15 Pistons (6-41) Spurs (10-38) West by 3.5 West by 31

For teams in the play-in range, this particular skew could influence trade-deadline decisions. The Bulls, for example, might not act as sellers because they’re likely to receive a play-in opportunity, but they would have very little chance to qualify for the postseason if they played in the West. (And hey, the city of Chicago is nearly as far west as Memphis and New Orleans; the Bulls were in the NBA’s Western Division at their founding.)

But the closeness in records at the top of the standings shows that the East has just as many legitimate title contenders as the West. (To be fair, the East’s best teams have also benefited from more games against the subpar and terrible teams lower in the standings.) This interpretation matches other indications of championship readiness, too: As of Wednesday afternoon, an analysis of FanDuel title odds gives all teams in the East a combined 49.8 percent chance to win the title, versus 50.2 percent for all teams in the West.

Fast Breaks

1. What’s next for the Cavaliers’ big-man pairing?

The Knicks aren’t the only mid-tier Eastern team rising in the standings. The Cavaliers are in fourth place with a 29-16 record, including a 16-4 mark over their past 20 games despite injuries to Darius Garland and Evan Mobley. Remaining stars Donovan Mitchell and Jarrett Allen were superb in their stead, and the offense transformed into a 3-point machine with Sam Merrill spacing and only one non-shooting big man on the floor.

Mobley and Garland both returned this week, and it will be fascinating to watch how coach J.B. Bickerstaff balances using his best players with maintaining the system that boosted the team over the past six weeks. Notably, in each of Mobley’s first two games back, he shared the court with Allen for just nine minutes; the two bigs started each half together, but Mobley subbed out by the seven-minute mark of the first and third quarters, and he and Allen staggered their playing time thereafter.

Before Mobley’s injury, the minutes distribution in games when both bigs were available looked like this: They played together for 44 percent of their minutes, compared to 56 percent apart, per an analysis of PBP Stats data. Last season, similarly, they were together for 48 percent of their minutes and apart for 52 percent. But in the two games this week, the distribution was just 20 percent together, compared to 80 percent apart.

That new distribution might not last as Mobley’s minutes increase; he’s played just 43 minutes across the past two games, since he is easing his way back into game shape. But more time with just one big on the floor might be the best path forward for the Cavaliers, even if it separates two of their most talented players.

2. A checkup with Doc

Another rotation worth watching is Milwaukee’s, to see how Doc Rivers doles out playing time in his new job. A coaching change alone won’t fix Milwaukee’s porous defense, which is mostly a result of insufficient perimeter personnel: Neither Damian Lillard nor Malik Beasley is a stopper, Khris Middleton’s injuries and age have sapped some of his defensive prowess, and Pat Connaughton has quietly suffered a steep two-way decline this season.

Beyond that group of veterans, the Bucks could turn to the trade market—though they have very little to deal after sending out basically all their picks for Jrue Holiday and Lillard—or younger internal options. Asked about developing second-year wing MarJon Beauchamp and rookie Andre Jackson Jr., Rivers said, “One of those guys is going to have to help us.”

Yet in the first two games Rivers coached for Milwaukee, both road losses, none of the four youngest Bucks—Beauchamp, Jackson, A.J. Green, and Chris Livingston—played a single second. That might not be a surprise given Rivers’s historical tendency to rely on veterans more than younger players, but it’s a potential trend to monitor as Rivers settles in.

3. To tank, or not to tank

The most interesting tank-related decision over the rest of the season belongs to Toronto now that the Raptors have pivoted toward the future by trading Anunoby and Pascal Siakam. The Raptors owe a top-six-protected pick to the Spurs in this summer’s draft, and they currently hold the NBA’s sixth-worst record.

But that’s a tenuous position. The Raptors probably won’t fall any further; the Trail Blazers are 2.5 games behind Toronto, and the Hornets, Spurs, Wizards, and Pistons are all 6.5 behind or more. And in the other direction, the Raptors are only a single game worse than Memphis, which is a surprising 6-6 since Ja Morant’s last game. It wouldn’t take much for the Grizzlies’ G League brigade to start losing more games, which could pressure Toronto to keep losing to maintain its hold on the no. 6 lottery slot.

Given their recent form, the Raptors might keep losing: They won in Chicago on Tuesday to snap a five-game losing streak but have broadly struggled, with three starters—Immanuel Quickley, RJ Barrett, and Jakob Poeltl—injured. Toronto surely wants to see how its new players fit with Scottie Barnes, but it also has a draft-based incentive not to rush those players back anytime soon.

Of course, even if the Raptors do lose enough to keep the sixth-worst record by the season’s end, they’re far from guaranteed to keep their pick. The no. 6 slot stays in the top six less than half of the time due to the flattened lottery odds.

Odds of Landing a Top-Six Pick Based on Lottery Slot

Lottery Slot Odds of Top-Six Pick
Lottery Slot Odds of Top-Six Pick
1 100%
2 100%
3 93%
4 81%
5 64%
6 46%
7 32%
8 26%
9 20%
10 14%
11 9%
12 7%
13 5%
14 2%

4. In praise of Cam Whitmore, a true rising star

The NBA will announce All-Star reserves on Thursday; prepare your pitchforks to fight over snubs, readers! (Or, you know, wait until a few of them are inevitably selected as injury replacements.)

On Tuesday, to far less turmoil and fanfare, the league announced the participants for this month’s Rising Stars competition. And far be it from me to get worked up about this particular event, which leaves precisely zero imprint on the average NBA season.

But how in the world was Cam Whitmore left off the roster? The summer league MVP has been excellent in increased playing time as of late. He ranks fourth among rotation rookies in PER and first among non-centers, thanks to high-octane scoring and strong efficiency. (Though he also has just nine assists in 377 minutes.) The snubbing of the Thompson twins might be more surprising, as they went fourth and fifth in last summer’s draft, but Whitmore deserved whatever amount of honor the Rising Star selection brings.