Don’t Doubt The Knicks: The Hottest Team in the NBA

by David Arkow

The New York Knicks are the hottest team in the NBA. They have reeled off eight straight wins, en route to their longest winning streak since March 2014, tied for the third longest winning streak by any team this season (Utah Jazz hold both the #1 and #2 spots with eleven and nine game winning streaks). An eight game winning streak is impressive, but it stands out even more because of the team accomplishing it. Before the season began, Vegas expected the Knicks to win a total of 21.5 games – dead-last in the NBA. Similarly, FiveThirtyEight had New York as the third worst team in the league, giving the Knicks only a 5% chance to make the playoffs. While FiveThirtyEight is still low on the Knicks’ prospects, ranking them as only the 20th best team in the NBA, their playoff odds (according to FiveThirtyEight’s Elo) have skyrocketed from 34% to 83% from the start of their winning streak. The Knicks have also risen from eighth in the East to the No. 4 spot after Wednesday’s overtime victory against the Hawks, their highest seed since Carmelo Anthony led them to the No. 2 seed in 2013. The Knicks are getting hot at just the right time before the playoffs.

So how impressive is it that the Knicks have won these eight games in a row? We can look at FiveThirtyEight’s projection for each of the games and calculate an overall probability that the Knicks would have won the last eight games. According to those odds, the probability that the Knicks would win eight straight was 0.15%. I also simulated these eight games 10,000 times using each team’s Elo (at the time of each game to account for injuries and lineup changes). The simulation confirms that the probability of the Knicks winning eight in a row is about 0.1%. Rather than winning eight in a row, the simulation would expect them to have won 3.33 games during this stretch.

The Knicks have maintained this streak in a variety of ways. This eight game run has had its mix of both offense and defense. While the Knicks have been known for their elite defense this year ranking third in the league (108.2 rating), over the past two weeks they have had the second best offense (119.3 rating). They turned in their second and third highest scoring games of the year in wins over the Hawks (137) and Grizzlies (133). On top of these offensive explosions, they held three of their eight opponents below 100 points and have ranked eighth in defense (109.2 rating) in the past two weeks. 

Three Pointers

One of the keys to the Knicks’ recent run that might have some promise going forward is their three point shooting. Many will be surprised to learn that the Knicks are one of the league’s best three point shooting teams, ranking sixth at 38.3%. However, they only take about 29.7 threes per game, ranking 24th in the league in volume. However, during their eight game winning streak, the Knicks have shot 33 threes per game and made them at a clip of 41%. There is likely an equilibrium between volume and percentage of threes, but the Knicks could afford to increase the number of threes they take per game, especially with their recent success. If they want to compete with some of the top offenses in the East like the Brooklyn Nets (second in offensive efficiency, fourth in three point shooting) or the Milwaukee Bucks (fifth in efficiency, second in three point shooting) come playoff time, they’ll have to start taking more threes.

Julius Randle

Another key to the Knicks recent streak and overall success this season has been Julius Randle. Randle has been doing it all for the Knicks during this stretch. In the midst of his highest scoring season ever, he’s improved even more, jumping from 24 points per game to 30 points per game during the streak.  Not only are his points up this year, but he is also averaging 6.1 assists per game (nearly double his highest before this season) and averaging a career high in rebounds with 10.5 per night. No game typifies Randle’s excellence more than the win over Dallas last week. In a hard-fought game against former Knick Kristaps Porzingis, Randle poured in 44 points (one shy of a career high), 10 rebounds, and 7 assists in leading New York to victory.

It’s pretty obvious that coming off his first All-Star Game selection, Randle is the front runner for Most Improved Player of The Year. He’s been asked to do a lot more this year by new coach Tom Thibodeau. Under Thibodeau’s no-rest philosophy, Randle leads the league in playing time at 37.5 minutes per night (including his career high of 47 in their last game). In turn, he’s been handling the ball a lot more, with approximately 50 front court touches a night, the most of any Knick. He’s also adapted to the new NBA, expanding his game beyond the three-point line. After never making more than 35% of his threes before this year, Randle is now attempting over 5 threes per game at a 41% clip – one of the highest rates on the team.  The Knicks have one season left with Randle before he becomes a free agent in 2022. If he can maintain his performance for the rest of the season, he and his Kentucky Wildcat brethren (Kevin Knox, Immanuel Quickley, and Nerlens Noel) could lead the Knicks on a run.

Nevertheless, the Knicks have the sixth-toughest remaining schedule as they try to solidify their spot in the playoffs and also avoid this year’s play-in tournament for the No. 7-10 seeds. After winning six of their last eight at home, they still face a daunting West Coast trip against the Los Angeles Clippers, Phoenix Suns (twice), Denver Nuggets, and Los Angeles Lakers, before the season finale against their rival Boston Celtics. But after winning only one playoff series over the past 20 years of poor roster management, free agency flops, and draft lottery heartbreak, the Knicks are relevant again. The team has ridden an elite defense, sharp shooting, and a dominant and much improved Julius Randle to blow past preseason expectations, and some fans are dreaming of a return to the era of Patrick Ewing. Things may finally be looking up in Madison Square Garden.

If you’d like to learn more, contact darkow@college.harvard.edu or email us harvardsportsanalysis@gmail.com.

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