51 Q: Can the New York Knicks make the playoffs?

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PBT is previewing the 2015-16 NBA season by tackling 51 big questions that we can’t wait to see answered once play tips off. We will answer one a day right up to the start of the season Oct. 27. Today’s question:

Can the New York Knicks make the playoffs?

This past summer, New York Knicks decision maker Phil Jackson tried to walk a fine line.

He attempted to balance rebuilding the franchise to compete for titles long term with improving the roster enough for next season that they could make the playoffs.

In trying to do both, he may have done neither.

On the bright side for Knicks fans, Jackson didn’t mortgage the future for a quick-fix, a New York tradition that put the team in this hole in the first place. That is at least a step in the right direction.

Whether you think he did a good job building for the long-term ultimately depends on what you think of rookie Kristaps Porzingis. If you think he’s another Euro bust, or even is going to develop into a solid NBA rotation player, then you also think Jackson swung and missed going for the home run with the No. 4 pick when better guys were still on the board. If you think Porzingis can develop into a franchise cornerstone player, then you think Jackson has them on the right path. The only thing everyone can agree on with Porzingis is that we are two to three seasons away from knowing who is right about him. He’s got skills, but he’s a project.

Aside KP, what move did Jackson make this summer that speaks to the longer-term? They struck out on Greg Monroe and other top free agents. Jerian Grant looks like a good pick, but he’s going to be a solid rotation point guard not a star (and if the Knicks continue to run the triangle that’s not the most crucial of positions). Maybe they can retain Robin Lopez long term. But the only potential big score is Porzingis.

What about the other side of the line Jackson tried to walk — can the Knicks make the playoffs next season?

Probably not.

They will certainly be better, but the playoffs will remain out of reach.

Last season the Knicks won 17 games. Last season it took 38 wins to be the eighth seed in the East, a number that likely climbs a little next season — let’s say just to 40 wins. That means the Knicks need to be 23-wins better to make the cut. That’s a lot of wins, and teams that make that kind of leap in one season usually have a very good reason for it. To use the other New York team as an example (although they were in Jersey at the time), the Nets got 26 games better the season they traded for peak Jason Kidd.

I like the Knicks’ off-season moves better than many, but adding Lopez, Arron Afflalo, and Kyle O'Quinn is not 23-win jump impressive. It’s some solid singles, not a home run. You can be sure Sasha Vujacic isn’t the answer.

Phil Jackson was brought in to land guys that can improve a team 23-games, such as LaMarcus Aldridge, not tell those players he wants them to play out of position then not even meet with them. For more than a year, Greg Monroe was thought to be a lock for the Knicks and he chose Milwaukee instead — those are the targets the Knicks and their fans expect to land. Or at least be in the mix for.

(What was even more odd with the Knicks’ summer acquisitions was giving Afflalo and Derrick Williams player options for next season — why sacrifice potentially $12.6 million in cap flexibility next summer to retain those two guys?)

If the Knicks are going to make the playoffs, three things need to happen.

1) Carmelo Anthony needs to stay healthy and have a monster season. At age 31 he is coming off knee surgery that kept him out of more than half the Knicks games last season. He’s going to have to prove he’s still an elite scorer who can be efficient. More than that, he’s going to have to fit in with the triangle offense and not be a ball stopper. He’s got to lead by example, at both ends of the court.

2) The Knicks need to play some defense. The Knicks were 28th in the NBA in defensive rating last season (points allowed per possession) and if they are going to make the playoffs that needs to improve to somewhere near the middle of the NBA pack at least. Lopez protecting the rim should help, as will Afflalo on the perimeter. The Knicks need to be stronger on the defensive glass. One other area that needs improvement — defending the three-point line. The Knicks allowed the second highest percentage of made corner threes in the NBA last season, and the highest percentage of made threes above the break. In a league with more and more shooters, the Knicks need to defend the arc far better.

3) Someone needs to step up and be a reliable second scoring option. Here’s a fun question: After Anthony, who were the next three highest points-per-game scorers for the Knicks last season? If you guessed Andrea Bargnani (14.8), Alexey Shved (14.8), and Amar’e Stoudemire (12), well, then you cheated. Because nobody would guess that. But those were the guys, which explains why the Knicks scored the fewest points of any team in the NBA last season. And now all three of those guys are gone. This season players like Afflalo, Langston Galloway and others need to become reliable options on the offensive end.

The reality is that the Knicks likely miss the playoffs next season, but that is not the only thing they are playing for.

They need to be impressive enough that come next summer the big name free agents out there — starting with Kevin Durant, who has people in his camp that want him to consider the Knicks — actually take meetings with and give serious thought to the Knicks. Right now, for top free agents the Knicks are an afterthought. Elite free agents are getting paid and getting endorsement money anywhere they go, what they want to see is a team turning the corner, on its way to winning. Monroe saw that in Milwaukee, not New York. The Knicks need to be good enough to change that perception, to be seen as a team just a player or two away.

Making the playoffs would help that perception, but it’s not a necessity.

However, if they suffer through another ugly season, Jackson and the Knicks front office have some serious and significant changes to consider.

Rozier, Washington, Ball help Hornets rally past Heat 122-117

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Terry Rozier scored 31 points, P.J. Washington had 27 and the Charlotte Hornets stopped Miami’s three-game win streak with a 122-117 victory over the Heat on Sunday.

LaMelo Ball scored 13 of his 19 points in the fourth quarter as Charlotte improved to 7-16 at home. Gordon Hayward was a perfect 7 of 7 from the field for 20 points.

Rozier also had seven assists and six rebounds. He was 11 for 19 from the field, including a 5-for-11 performance from 3-point range. He made two buzzer-beater 3s at the end of quarters.

Jimmy Butler scored 28 points for Miami, and Tyler Herro had 24.

The Hornets, who have been hampered by injuries all season, have won four of six for the team’s best stretch of the season. Washington believes it’s a reflection of the team getting healthier.

Charlotte’s projected starting five to begin the season is finally back on the floor and appears to be starting to mesh.

“Everybody is back and everybody is healthy – and that is a major difference,” Washington said. “At the end of the day we have to keep going the way we are right now.”

Hayward has struggled with shoulder and hamstring issues, limiting the team’s highest-paid player to just 24 games.

Sunday marked his best game in months.

“He’s playing confident and getting easy baskets and just bullying guys down low,” Washington said. “He’s playing great basketball and I expect that of him every night.”

Whether a now healthy Hornets team can make a playoff push remains to be seen, but coach Steve Clifford remains optimistic.

“Getting ‘Melo and Gordon back, obviously you’re a different team,” Clifford said. “If we can get into playing set groups then we’ll have a good chance to hopefully put some good stretches together. (It helps) when they know who they’re playing with and they know where the shots are coming from.”

The Heat led 62-58 after Rozier banked in a 3 from the midcourt logo to close out the first half.

Miami went on a 10-1 run to start the third quarter. Herro knocked down two 3-pointers to help the Heat open a 13-point lead.

But Charlotte came storming back behind Washington and Rozier, who began knocking down shots from deep.

Charlotte pushed the lead to 12 with 5:54 left on a turnaround jumper by Rozier.

Miami rallied with a 10-0 run. Kyle Lowry found Bam Adebayo inside for a layup to cut the lead to 108-106.

But Charlotte had another burst as Mason Plumlee got the ball after Rozier won a jump ball and drove to the basket for a score. Ball canned an open 3-pointer to put Charlotte back up 114-106 with 1:50 left.

Washington’s rebound and score off his own miss kept Charlotte up by seven and Plumlee dunked off a pass from Washington to put the game away in the final minute.

Charlotte shot 54.2% from the field and scored 25 points in transition. The Hornets also outrebounded Miami 47-36.

“They have had a lot of injuries but when they have been fully healthy, this team can score much different than their numbers may suggest for the season,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We did not step up defensively, they got a lot of easy run-ups that quickly changed the momentum of the game.”

Bulls’ Lonzo Ball “nowhere near playing,” could miss entire season

New Orleans Pelicans v Chicago Bulls
Michael Reaves/Getty Images
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“I’m trying to stay positive, keep my hopes up. I would love to play. I would never count that out.”

Lonzo Ball tried to put an optimistic face on his recovery from a second knee surgery, but he was realistic and put no timetable on a return.

Bulls coach Billy Donovan was more realistic, speaking Saturday before the Bulls took on the Magic. Via Julia Poe of the Chicago Tribune.

“He’s made some progress, but I’d be the first one to tell you he’s nowhere near playing,” Donovan said. “He’s just not. Because he’s not running on a consistent basis. When he can get to that place where he can do that consistently and be able to come back the next day and do it again, do it again and do it again — I think you’ll feel a little bit more optimistic.”

Could Ball be out for the entire season? Donovan again, via K.C. Johnson of NBC Sports Chicago:

“My guess would be – there’s not been a specifically set date – my guess would be I think we get through the All-Star Break, I think there would probably be everybody sitting down to talk about length and time of the season, how realistic is it for him to get back, if he could get back what would the minutes look like, is it not worth having him back just because it’s too much?’’ Donovan said. “I think everything, at least in my conversations with medical about him, have always been geared towards helping him get back to playing. Certainly once you get out of the All-Star Break, with the amount of time that’s left, basically you’re at the end of February. You have all of March and not even two weeks in April, so you start to get to that point where I think there will be some conversations of, ‘OK, if he’s still not close to playing, what’s the plan moving forward?’”

Ball has undergone multiple knee surgeries. The first was in January 2022 and the expectation at the time was he would return for the playoffs, but his knee didn’t respond well during rehab. That led to a second knee surgery, and recovery from that is going slowly as well. It leaves the Bulls in a tough spot, they miss his defense and his being a floor general on offense as they have struggled to a 23-26 record this season that sees them sitting as the No. 11 seed in the East.

Pelicans Trey Murphy III reportedly invited to participate in Dunk Contest

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We knew three participants invited to the All-Star Saturday night Dunk Contest: G-League fan favorite Mac McClung, the Portland Trail Blazers Shaedon Sharpe and the Houston Rockets’ KJ Martin.

The fourth slot in that event will go to the Pelicans’ Trey Murphy, reports Andrew Lopez of ESPN.

No doubt Murphy can throw it down with the best of them.

The Dunk Contest will headline All-Star Saturday night, Feb. 18, from the Vivint Arena (soon to be the Delta Center again). The event will be broadcast on TNT.

The Dunk Contest is the Saturday night headline event, but it has fallen flat in recent years. Adding a G-League dunker and young, bouncy athletes such as Murphy, Martin and Sharpe could make this one entertaining. However, what fans really want to see — what made the Dunk Contest must-watch back in the day when Jordan, Kobe, and Vince Carter were doing it — is the stars. There will be no Ja Morant, no Zion Williamson, and no Anthony Edwards in this contest.

LeBron James NBA all-time scoring record tracker

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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has held the NBA all-time scoring record at 38,387 points since he retired in 1989. It is one of the most iconic records in sports and one thought by many that would never be broken, but LeBron James is on the verge of breaking that scoring record and doing it at age 38. How many more points does LeBron need to take over the scoring record? When is it projected to happen? Let’s break down the latest numbers (this will be updated after every Lakers game until the record is set).

How many points does LeBron James need to set the scoring record?
117

Abdul-Jabbar career points: 38,387
LeBron career points: 38,271

Lakers’ upcoming schedule:

Jan. 30 at Nets
Jan. 31 at Knicks
Feb. 2 at Pacers
Feb. 4 at Pelicans
Feb. 7 vs. Thunder
Feb. 9 vs. Bucks

When is LeBron projected to set the all-time scoring record:

LeBron is averaging 30.2 points per game this season, at that pace he would set the record on Feb. 7 at home against the Oklahoma City Thunder (if he does sit out Monday against the Nets, as the team announced).

Since he turned 38 (on Dec. 30), LeBron has averaged 35.2 points per game, which would see the mark broken at home against the Thunder.

News and notes on LeBron’s quest for the record:

• The Lakers have officially listed LeBron (and Anthony Davis) as out for the game Monday night in Brooklyn. That is the first game of a back-to-back for the Lakers, and they have rested LeBron in half of those for most of the season. This will push back the date he breaks the record, making it likely it happens at Crypto.com Arena.

• LeBron scored 41 points — and felt he should have had a couple more — in the Lakers’ overtime loss to the Celtics Saturday on national television.

• Sixers Doc Rivers on what impresses him in LeBron’s run to this record: “LeBron has done it so differently to me [thank Kareem]. Because LeBron is not a natural scorer. LeBron is a playmaker. He got criticized early in his career for making the right decisions. And the fact that he’s now about to break the scoring record, it really points out his greatness.”

• LeBron scored 20 points in the Lakers’ win over the Spurs, a game in which Anthony Davis returned from injury and Rui Hachimura made his debut as a Laker after being traded from the Wizards.

• What has Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said about LeBron passing his record? There has been a bit of frostiness between the two men, but Abdul-Jabbar was gracious in comments to Marc Stein back in 2021 about the possibility of his record falling: “I’m excited to see it happen. I don’t see records as personal accomplishments, but more as human achievements. If one person can do something that’s never been done, that means we all have a shot at doing it. It’s a source of hope and inspiration. Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile back in 1954. Since then, not only have 1,400 runners beaten that time, but the new record is 17 seconds less. We all win when a record is broken and if LeBron breaks mine, I will be right there to cheer him on.”