The New York Knicks have defied the odds and now sit tied for 3rd in the Eastern Conference. The last time the Knicks finished the season 3rd or higher was in 1913 … err I mean 2013. That New York team lost in the second round to Indiana. For those two young to remember, coach Woodson decided that he would give the Pacers a fair chance to win the series by matching their slow-footed big men with the same. New York could have easily ran the Hoosiers off the court by going small, but then what example would that set for the children about sportsmanship?
While one might be tempted to start parsing the reasons for New York’s awesome start by identifying the players responsible, that puts the cart before the horse. Or as Woodson would say, the cart before three tall plodding mules. We should first ask are the Knicks really this good, or is this a mirage?
The most simple way to determine a team’s true strength is to look at their expected win-loss based on points scored (aka Pythagorean wins). Scientists in a laboratory that resembled their parents’ basement noticed that a team’s Pythagorean wins is the best predictor of team success from season to season. Hence it does a better job of showing a team’s true strength than actual wins. Although expected wins isn’t perfect, it scores much higher than the two other methods tested against it — “this is our year because we’re due” and “that’s what my cousin Lou says and he knows someone on the inside.”
Based on this year’s stats, the Knicks expected win-loss is 10-14, lower than their actual record of 14-10. So how can we explain this discrepancy? The first thing would be to look at a strength of schedule. However New York ranks 16th on that scale, in the middle of the pack. Next would be to look at close games, let’s say 3 points or less. The Knicks have played in 4 of these games, and have won all of them. They beat Detroit and Sacramento by 3, while edging Charlotte and Minnesota by 2. It’s unlikely that the Knicks will repeat their victories in close games at this rate, and is the primary reason Pythagoras is pessimistic on the New York’s current standing.
But to stop there would be incomplete. There is another factor weighing in — Cleveland. The Knicks have played the Cavs twice this year, despite not even being 1/3 the way through their schedule. The reigning champs have beaten New York mercilessly, totaling 243-182. Against non-Cleveland teams, New York’s expected win-loss rebounds to a more healthy 11-11. While this is a cherry-picking-pie-in-the-sky way of looking at things, it does give optimists hope that the Knicks aren’t as bad as their numbers would say.