Last night was many things: exhilarating, exciting, transcendant, illuminating…and also, the Knicks won! The shellacking the Knicks gave the Magic can only be described as a beat down. The fact that the Magic are a very good team, widely discussed as being one of the teams most capable of defeating the Bulls or the Heat in a playoff series, made the win that much sweeter. That the Knicks could beat them so thoroughly despite missing two starters (and the primary backup to one of those starters) is impressive, and a little shocking. But the numbers are beginning to suggest that may be the only reason last night’s win was surprising. (Admittedly, my scientific method in approaching whether last night’s win was surprising is a little inexact, since the following numbers contain data from last night. Yet the evidence is worth considering.)
The Knicks win record is now above .500 for the first time since Friday, January 13th. At 26-25, the Knicks winning percentage sits at a robust .510, a number any Knicks fan would have been happy with when the record was, oh, 18-24 for example. However, by ESPN’s Pythagorean Expectation Model (where Hollinger uses 16.5 for the exponent, for all you Pythagorean nerds) the Knicks have substantially underperformed. With a scoring differential of +2.71, the Knicks have outscored their opponents so thoroughly that their estimated Win/Loss is 31-20, or five full games better than where they actually stand. With a 31-20 record, the Knicks would currently be sitting at 4th place in the Eastern Conference, just behind the Magic for 3rd, and winning the Atlantic Division with a .614 winning percentage. Given that context, wins against teams like the Bulls, Heat, or Magic would be much less surprising.
Next is another helpful Hollinger tool: his NBA Power Rankings, which weights performances in recent games more heavily than those from the start of the season. After last night’s game, the Knicks sit, incredibly, in 6th place, behind only the Bulls, Heat, Thunder, Spurs, and 76ers, and ahead of teams such as the Lakers, Magic, Pacers, Clippers, Hawks, and Mavericks. Helping the Knicks in this area: while their SOS on the season is quite low, with opponents winning only .477 of their games, their recent games have been against teams averaging a winning percentage of .535, and the Knicks have done quite well during that stretch.
With fifteen games remaining, the Knicks face contests against the Celtics, Heat, Bulls (x2), and the Magic once again. Yet if the Knicks win one or more of these games, don’t be too surprised. Furthermore, if others raise questions about the Knicks ability to beat elite teams (both in in the playoffs and in the regular season) point to the Knicks defense, ranked 5th in the league in efficiency, as cause for belief. While the numbers so far put the Knicks below teams like the Bulls and the Heat, they also demonstrate that the gap isn’t as large as the team’s record suggests.