Last year’s New York Knicks wildly exceeded expectations and finished the year with the second-best record in the Eastern Conference. While they were never exactly on the level of the Miami Heat, they had established themselves as one of the East’s elite teams throughout the regular season, riding their third-ranked offense to their most successful season in more than a decade.
But the playoffs painted a different picture. The Knicks’ vaunted offense became bogged down against two elite defensive units (the Boston Celtics and Indiana Pacers) and they were bounced out of the playoffs in the second round. With many of the East’s best teams adding new pieces to their rosters, the Eastern Conference landscape has been reshaped. Have the Knicks fallen out of that elite group?
The Knicks have added some useful depth in Beno Udrih, Andrea Bargnani and Tim Hardaway Jr. but it is unlikely that any of those players will move the needle much for New York. Meanwhile, Indiana has cemented its place as the East’s second best (they hit a whole new level in the playoffs simply by giving Roy Hibbert and their dominant starting lineup more minutes) by complementing their stifling defense – the league’s best – with some sorely-needed bench scoring in the form of Luis Scola and Chris Copeland.
The Chicago Bulls, who hammered the Knicks in their four meetings last year, holding them to just 39 percent shooting, will benefit from the return of former NBA MVP Derrick Rose. Tom Thibodeau has a reputation for giving his best players long minutes in the regular season to rack up wins, and there’s no reason to expect he won’t do that this year as well. The Bulls and Pacers are the most likely teams to pass up the Knicks in the standings.
The Knicks will also face stiff competition from their crosstown rivals, the Brooklyn Nets. While I have already outlined why I think the Knicks are poised for a better regular season finish than Jason Kidd’s new buddies, the Nets have the star power and roster versatility to potentially be a lethal postseason team.
The Knicks could realistically end up anywhere between the second and fifth seed in the conference next year, depending on the length of the Nets and Bulls’ early adjustment periods and any injuries that might pop up in the conference during the regular season. New York should still be considered one of the best teams in the East, but the road to the top will be much tougher this year.
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