The New York Knicks – of all teams – have the Eastern Conference’s longest active winning streak at four games.
Let’s get this out of the way. Their competition in the span:
- at Timberwolves
- vs. Jazz
- at Cavaliers
- vs. 76ers
Not exactly murderers’ row.
But the fact that the win streak has mostly coincided with Mike Woodson’s latest twist to the starting lineup at least offers hope the Knicks have found a combination that works for them. Amar’e Stoudemire and J.R. Smith moved into the starting unit with Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton.
Chandler missed Monday’s win over the 76ers due to personal reasons, but beating Philadelphia – by far, the worst team in the NBA right now – might just skew the sample anyway.
In the previous four games, including the Detroit loss, New York’s starting lineup had a net rating of +16.1 – producing like the equivalent of the NBA’s second-best offense (scoring 109.4 points per 100 possessions) and best defense (allowing 93.2 points per possession).
But that was in just 65 minutes, and though we’re relying on an even smaller sample here (29 minutes), that same unit was -20.6 (98.8/119.4) prior. Going from incredibly awful to incredibly great certainly lends support to the idea the quality of opposition has been the biggest change.
However, even if the results are skewed toward favorable by the recent schedule, that lineup rates well over the full season (106.3/101.2/+5.1 in 95 minutes). In 102 minutes last season, the grouping was 112.0/111.8/+0.2 – nothing special for that 54-win team, but pretty excellent for this year’s dismal squad.
If Felton-Smith-Anthony-Stoudemire-Chandler can sustain even average production, the lineup would be great progress for this season’s Knicks. The way the Hawks are free falling, losing 14 of 15 before beating the Jazz on Monday, that could even be enough for New York to make the playoffs.
The Knicks have 17 games remaining and trail Atlanta by 3.5 games, so the odds are still slim. But New York has at least a puncher’s chance with a competent lineup.
The schedule remains soft for another week – at Celtics, vs. Bucks up next – so the Knicks have an opportunity to develop confidence in this new starting lineup. For a team that has played so uninspired most of the season, that could be a big deal.
Have the Knicks really turned a corner? I doubt it. But if they can trick themselves into believing they have – and keep cleaning up against the dredges of the league – they could possibly make this playoff race interesting down the stretch.